Three Weeks in the Fastest Growing City in the US

When you visit a place for a couple days, you see everything that is unique and wonderful and eye-catching about it. When you stay in a community for a few weeks, you start to see some of the challenges residents face.

Many writers have extolled the virtues of Austin, Texas – myself included. Austin is a fabulously vibrant center of music, food, art, and youthful enthusiasm. There are new ideas incubating in every field from technology to printmaking to beer brewing. Austin’s neighborhoods have personality and charm, the weather is generally quite pleasant, and the city has embraced a lot of progressive values. So what’s not to love?

According to Forbes Magazine, Austin is the fastest growing city in the country. It’s been growing consistently at a rate of 3% per year, and in the decade between 2000 and 2010 the overall population increased 37%. Local business-oriented media sources proudly brag that 110 new people move to Austin every day.

I felt this, everywhere, all the time – and not in a good way.

This morning I ran on the great clay paths surrounding Lady Bird Lake, the body of water that runs through the heart of Austin. I started off thinking I would count people on the trail, just for data collection’s sake.  After all, I had never in my life run amidst as many people as I have for the last few weeks here.  In fifteen minutes I counted over 150 people. Yes it was Sunday, but it was only 8 in the morning. I stopped counting.  Of course, it is heartening to see this many people outside, and this many people exercising.  At the same time, I was dodging bodies and getting a little clausterphobic.

In my time in Austin, I have gotten used to lines. There are lines at the popular ice cream stores, lines at the supermarket, and lines outside of all decent restaurants. Franklin Barbeque, the lunch spot made famous by a recent Obama visit, takes the prize for the most dramatic line.  When I biked past there last week, there were at least 100 people queued up outside the door. I asked a man toward the front of the line what time he’d arrived to earn his place. “I got here at 9am,” he replied. It was 11:45.  I waited in line for a lane at the swimming pool the other day, waited in line at a food truck to get a couple tacos, and it never even crossed my mind to go out for bunch on a weekend.

There’s always a line of cars waiting to get into the downtown flagship Whole Foods store. I learned early on that riding my bike here was the smart choice. Sometimes, however, you need a vehicle to bring home bottles of seltzer water and cartons of coconut milk. Or maybe you don’t…I parked two levels down in Whole Foods’ own basement parking garage (the outside parking lot and first level of the garage were full) where I found an Austin city cop directing traffic.

Needless to say, traffic is simply a reality of life in Austin. I woke up on my first morning here to see I-35 (the major north-south artery in Austin) at a standstill. The next day at 11am it was bumper-to-bumper, and the following day at 9pm traffic was moving 10mph at best. I quickly committed to only biking here, and eliminated any plans I had to explore the city’s suburbs and outlying areas. Some articles have said that if serious steps are not taken to deal with the traffic congestion in Austin it may take 40 minutes to travel 2 miles within the next year or so. I’d say they’re pretty close to that already.

The majority of this growth is taking place in the downtown area. Real estate statistics show the highest population increase is in the zip code right in the middle of it all. Evidence for that can be found in the number of cranes on the Austin skyline. During my time here there have been no fewer than six cranes hauling girders high overhead to finish new skyscrapers. The woman from whom I rented my space this month has lived in Austin for thirty years; she told me that when she moved here there was one tall building downtown, and it was all of thirty stories.

Inventory is at an all-time low in the housing market, and home prices are up 8% over last year’s. Home sales are soaring, and the evidence of gentrifying neighborhoods is everywhere.

Unemployment is lower here than in most of the rest of the country, so from a jobs perspective, Austin can afford its growth. From a quality of life perspective though, I wonder.

Population growth is a reality nearly everywhere in the world; it’s just a little more visible in Austin where the city is so rapidly busting the seams of its infrastructure. The pathway system I ran on this morning is the kind of amenity people have moved here for; and yet, its attraction is being lost by overuse.

It seems that this is the downside of being “cool,” and of being a place that everyone knows is cool.

“Keep Austin Weird” is one of Austin’s favorite slogans, and it’s a good one. After a few weeks here, I must say that it feels to me more like a plea and less like a celebration. Can the weirdness withstand the pressure of sheer numbers?

I love so much of the culture of this city. I love cruising around watching people, looking for – and always finding – colorful public art, and hearing music pouring out of clubs and storefronts.  I love the edge here, the youthfulness, and the feeling that something new is happening all the time.  So, I’ll keep coming back to see how the weirdness is holding up.

But I won’t be person #111 tomorrow.

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