An Open Letter to New Austinites

Congratulations on your recent move to Austin!

Moving is hard enough, but to do it during a pandemic has to be next-level headache-inducing and a huge stress test, so kudos to you.

In case no one else has said it, let me officially welcome you to Austin. When you think of Austin, you probably don’t think your welcoming committee will be led by a Black man, but here I am to welcome you wholeheartedly because I’ve volunteered for the honor.

Truth be told, if I didn’t welcome you, it’s possible no one would. Not unless you’re Elon Musk and Governor Abbott has a smile as wide as the Texas Panhandle or you’re Joe Rogan and every tech bro in Austin is so pumped to point to your move (and Tim Ferriss’s move) here as some kind of stamp of approval that they never needed Silicon Valley. Austin has gone through a great number of years of growth and many of the people who’ve lived here for years–correction: many of the people who’ve paid property taxes or voted against rail bonds in Austin for years, have not been the friendliest to newcomers.

“Don’t California My Texas,” “Don’t Dallas My Austin,” “Thanks for coming to SXSW. Don’t move here,” and all kinds of signs have been spotted around town for some time. Yet, here you are, one of the 100 to 150 new people who moved to Austin today, one of the roughly 35,000 to 50,000 people who moved to Austin this year, and one of the people who some longtime homeowner is griping about increasing their property taxes. I’m sorry in advance for the nimby crowd. They don’t have any manners.

In all honesty, Austin does a better job of welcoming big businesses like Oracle to the city than it does of welcoming working class people and small-business owners who’ve lived here all their lives. The city won’t really cater to you unless you fit into the narrative of a tech billionaire, life-hacking genius, White man and friend of McConaughey, million-dollar-homeowner, or some other big personality moving to Austin. In that case, the red carpet will be unfurled.

But that’s beyond my point. My point in welcoming you is to both invite you to help us longtime Austinites (anyone who was here before you, as you’ll soon learn) in the ever-present, oft-undiscussed process of deciding what kind of city we want and need Austin to be to make sure it isn’t just good for newcomers but also for those of us intending to stay, and also to strongly encourage you to get involved in doing the work of city shaping.

Since at least 2007, Austin has been the fastest-growing metro area in America. This growth has fueled Austin’s economic maturation and increasingly enviable national profile, but it has also fueled widespread gentrification, a decline in local business retention, income disparity, and real estate zoning challenges that are as noticeable as burnt orange hats and T-shirts.

Austin, in many ways, shows the promise and the problem in America. I’ll return to this shortly.

Austin, as a city, has been one of the fastest-growing cities for years because of the University of Texas, a reputable live music and food scene including the Grammy-nominated Black Pumas to the James Beard-nominated Tyson Cole, and a thriving tech and consumer product goods companies that count Indeed, Bumble, Tito’s, and Whole Foods among its winners. Even still, it’s the outerlying areas such as Buda, Georgetown, and Round Rock that have experienced most rapid growth. As more people are forced out of the urban core because of the national attack on the middle class that has manifested here locally through antizoning, antihousing policies, we are giving more and more control over our city to people who want a suburban lifestyle in neighborhoods within a few miles of downtown like Tarrytown, Hyde Park, Bouldin Creek, and Rollingwood.

The tug-of-war between Austin catering to a suburban lifestyle rooted in spacious single-family homes that prevent the kind of zoning changes, housing stock, and transit investments that would ensure long-term affordability and equity versus an urban lifestyle that would ensure adequate emphasis on density and more inclusive housing policies while understanding some policies would have the city confront the State of Texas and its penchant for conservatism on issues ranging from police funding and homelessness to transit and school funding.

In moving to Austin, you didn’t just change your address to a city (and state) with a lower income tax burden, a city (and state) that loves to support business and entrepreneurs, a city (and state) that loves BBQ, music, and sports (despite the lackluster state you find the Longhorns football team, the Cowboys, and the NBA’s Rockets and Spurs in). No, in moving to Austin, you also welcomed yourself to a city that defies some of the beliefs this state pushes upon its residents through gerrymander-protected politics that for years allowed (or forced) Austin to metaphorically hover between adolescence and adulthood, between a college town and a state capitol, between a breakfast taco and sushi, between Red River and Red Bud; a city now firmly beyond its teenaged naiveté and yet not quite into the wisdom of middle age.

People moving to Austin isn’t at all new. People of the Tonkawa Tribe called this area home long before names like (Stephen F.) Austin, (Edwin) Waller, (Mirabeau) Lamar, and (Andrew) Zilker were etched into this city’s civic history. Black people freed from the bondages of slavery called Austin home decades before Dell Computers or Outdoor Voices ever existed, though you wouldn’t think of Austin as a city that once had a 20 or 30 percent Black population. And, in 2002, when Richard Florida published Rise of the Creative Class, Austin was a city that outperformed similar size cities in large part because of droves of creative professionals wanting to live here.

In many ways, Austin of 2020 isn’t all that dissimilar from the Austin of the 1970s that brought creative people like Willie Nelson here or the Austin of the late 1990s that got national attention for software companies like Trilogy. Austin is still a great place to see attractive people gallivanting near a watering hole or trail, still a great place to catch a live music show (once we get through this pandemic), still a place to avoid some of the suburban sprawl of Dallas or Houston, still a place to make fast friends, and still very much a place to enjoy life.

But something has in fact fundamentally changed about Austin over the decades, and new Austinites should be as familiar with these changes as longtime residents. Austin has shed some of the innocence of its youth as a city circa 1970 through 2000 and replaced it with socioeconomic stratification and segregation of its growth, post-2000. I know this as someone who has sampled and dove deeply into lots of versions of life in Austin. From college at UT during the peak Longhorns athletic years (the TJ Ford / Vince Young years) to owning a small business downtown to producing part of SXSW Festival to launching a tech startup to being appointed to the Austin Music Commission to sitting on the boards of various nonprofit boards like Austin PBS and ZACH Theatre, I can wholeheartedly say I’ve seen the many sides of Austin. I’m living in my seventh ZIP code here already and I’ve lived in Austin while working at Domino’s Pizza making $7 an hour and while working for a tech startup making nearly $200,000 a year. I’ve had police pull me over just because and I’ve hosted events raising tens of thousands for charity.

Because of these changes and their impact on what Austin actually is versus what it’s marketed as, I know without a doubt that Austin needs newcomers. Yes, the tech industry is mostly white and male and Austin doesn’t necessarily need more of that, but I’ve also seen a Black VC move here from one of the most prominent firms in Silicon Valley, a Black female entrepreneur who is among the only Black women to raise several million for a startup move here, and a Black film producer who co-produces an award-winning show on HBO move here since March. No one will convince me someone on Scenic Drive’s property taxes going up is more important than these types of people moving here.

Because as a city with one of the largest aging populations per capita and one of the largest under-18 populations per capita, we need people in their 20s and 30s and 40s helping this city figure out how to optimize for everyone and not just blindly creating this awfully segregated and misaligned version of a “cool” city without thinking intersectionally about what Austin can do to create a shared, multigenerational, economically blended, industry agnostic reality that benefits everyone. Selfishly, to me, this means we need more progressive voters coming from Manhattan and Brooklyn and San Francisco and Los Angeles and other cities that will lose some of their grip on jobs and buzz and quality of life for creatives after Covid. I’d also love Austin to be on the international radar.

We need young professionals who don’t just want to fit the mold, but to create the mold as well. We need entrepreneurs with more passion for helping communities than creating monopolies. We need women who want to start and own their own businesses and Black and Hispanic/Latinx creatives who can force deeper integration and inclusion on Austin’s predominately White institutions and gatekeepers across live music, art, nonprofit, and educator sectors. We need White people who know the value of living in a city that isn’t full of only White people. We need wealthy people who value not just the work but the lives and opinions of working-class people. We need newcomers who voted in every election where they used to live to register here and vote routinely here too. We need nonprofit board members and volunteers from other cities to commit to the work here too. We need more ethnic food options and more music venues for Black and Latin music and more people living in duplexes and four-plexes and more ways to go out without driving and more nonalcohol entertainment options and more people leading the fight against climate change locally and more young people on nonprofit boards and more people supporting the theater and symphony and library and arts beyond what Spotify, LiveNation, and Instagram are selling.

Austin needed people like Michael Dell and Austin City Limits producer Terry Lickona to move here when they did in the ’80s and ’70s instead of Palo Alto or San Francisco, and we needed people like Kendra Scott and Whitney Wolfe Herd to move here and to build their empires here instead of in Dallas or New York, and there are tens of thousands of nonprofit leaders, educators, designers, musicians, restauranteurs, yoga instructors, artists, and small-business owners without whom this city couldn’t be what it is today.

The values of Austin are not unanimous or commonly publicized but I’ve found there are three that have kept Austin alive and thriving (and fending off competition from cities more rooted in industry and sprawl), and I implore you to make haste and adopt these as your own if you are to give to Austin as much as you take:

1. Local first. Buy local first, support local first, do local first. That goes for your grocery shopping and your nonprofit donations all the way to what restaurants you eat at and where you buy your clothes. Keeping your money in Austin is a great way to keep your connection to Austin and not chase some other city’s ideals while living here. 

2. Live here, give here. I’ve touched on it already, but this seriously can’t be understated. Nonprofits, local music venues and musicians, the trails, they all benefit from your realizing this city isn’t what it is without all these people, places, and priorities that make Austin unique.

3. You can flake, but don’t be fake. You wanna know why Austin is so special? The people. We aren’t uptight. We show up. We are quick to smile and quicker to invite, we don’t want to know what you do for a living before we know your name; we may even ask what music you like or what restaurant you like before we know what you do. We haven’t lost our easy going nature yet. I hope we never do. I’ll find you.

These values kept Austin protected from the Great Recession every bit as much as the job and population growth, and they’ll get us out of the pandemic dip quicker than other cities too.

In the earlier part of this millennium, we honestly thought we could afford to lose some of our connection to these values while we mostly embraced all this growth as exciting and rewarding for us residents because it presented itself as music festivals, upscale dining, direct flights to more cities, better-paying jobs for college graduates, and better tips for those in the service industry. More recently, however, we’ve seen the other side of the coin that paid for all that growth, which has become a disconnection from the working-class Austin musician who is passed over for a festival slot by a buzzy band from Silverlake, affordable restaurants that used to be everywhere and now are outside the city or in food trucks, mind-numbing traffic congestion (wait until after the pandemic, you’ll see it), racial segregation exacerbated by rapid development in East Austin, and an over-reliance on the real estate development industry to pass key zoning changes, and a growing dependence on the tech industry — and not the startup kind but the Facebook/Google/Apple/big tech kind — which clearly suffers from a myth of meritocracy and has fewer women and people of color in positions of leadership than sectors like automotive, government, and manufacturing.

As a result, Austin has become a city of far fewer Black residents, a city with a growing penchant for overpriced restaurants and bars replacing working-class establishments owned by Latino and Black business people, and a city in which homelessness is becoming as big an issue downtown as it is in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. I’ll save the city’s Master Plan of 1928 for some other time and spare you the clear evidence of racial bias and profiling by our police department, and just let you know that Austin’s reputation and allure isn’t the same for us all.

You came here for a job, I bet. Or maybe just because you want more space. I’m here to tell you that co-creating the future Austin is now one of your new jobs and all that space should give you plenty of room to make a positive impact.

With love and excitement to meet you,

Austinite since ’01, Texan since ’83

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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