Ten Things I Like About Austin | #175
March 26th, 2022: Greetings from Austin, which is also the topic of my essay today.
Today’s issue is sponsored by my book. Mari says “it will feel like you are chatting with a good friend.” That’s a pretty good deal for less than $20!
#1 Ten Things I Like About Austin
Angie and I have fallen in love with Austin. I didn’t know what to expect when moving here but it has surprised us in the best ways.
Living nomadically, I learned a lot about what made me happy. The biggest things were sunlight, warm weather, and being part of small but energizing communities of people. I didn’t think I could find this combo in the US but I was wrong.
In the first couple of months living here, I’ve realized a few more things that make me happy. Luckily, they happen to be things Austin has to offer.
Many people claim to have moved here because of the lack of state taxes. I think people are lying. If that was the case they would have moved to Dallas. This may be a bold claim but I think there is something unique and compelling happening in Austin right now and I think people would consider moving here even if the tax rate were higher than NYC.
Here are ten of those reasons:
#1 It’s sunny (and warm)
According to the internet, Austin has about 230 sunny days per year which feels low. While people who have lived here a bit longer consider anything under 60 “winter” I was more than happy to be bike riding around in the 50-degree sun in the middle of January and even got a minor sunburn playing tennis with a friend in February.
We got lucky with our apartment, renting it sight unseen, but ending up with a floor-to-ceiling window (door?) that faces east. Each morning I wake up and have coffee while basking in the beautiful sun of Austin.
#2 Central Austin is an ideal sized micro-community and people are down to hangout
Central Austin contains an estimated 134k people. Some of my favorite locations I’ve lived have between 40k and 150k people:
Canggu, Bali: ~40k
Ubud, Bali: ~80k
Las Palmas, Gran Canaria: ~120k (main areas near beach and centro)
Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca: ~45k
There’s something magical about being big enough to have “big city” amenities (bike shares, public transport, bars, food music, etc..) while being small enough that there are not too many options for people to choose between.
This lack of options results in almost no one using the word “busy” to describe their life and also means that people are down to hang if you propose something. I was a bit shocked when I hosted an event last month and the show rate was near 100% (I actually had a few more people show up than RSVP).
Another cool thing has been running into people in the street or around town. It really feels like a small intimate community in the middle of something bigger.
#3“Let’s go for a walk” is a normal proposal for a 1-on-1 hangout
Whereas the default hangout in many places is going to a bar or coffee shop, the default in Austin seems to be “let’s go walk around the river.” While I’ve definitely done this in other cities, the weather and geography of the city make it easier.
On Sunday I randomly texted a friend to see what he was up to. He happened to be on a nearby trail, so we took an impromptu walk and then got tacos.
I didn’t know this was my preference until it was the norm.
#4 The default hangout is outdoors at a picnic table
There is an endless supply of places that look like the above. Vast open spaces with tons of seating and self-service food truck options. The vibe is unhurried, casual, and inclusive. It’s normal to see young children and pets running around groups of all ages. It feels right.
It’s also made me realize that defaulting to traditional restaurants for meetups means that you are unintentionally excluding people because of a fixed number of seats at a table. Sometimes this is great but I love how it’s just as easy to have dinner with a friend as it is to expand the invite to a few other people without worrying about where people might sit.
#5 It’s a solid place for non-drinkers
Austin is a fantastic place to get trashed. I dabbled when visiting in my twenties and can vouch for the quality of Rainey street and beer gardens. Austin is also a fantastic place to not drink or be a non-drinker in a drinking crowd. While many of the people I’ve been hanging out with are fellow retired drinkers or drink rarely, I don’t think about being a non-drinker nearly as much as I do in other cities in the US.
Maybe some credit goes to the godfather of seltzers, Topo Chico, which seems to have become a go-to Austin drink and inspired several other new seltzers to be offered at almost every bar and restaurant. It may sound silly but ordering a Topo Chico or bottles seltzer feels like you are part of a party and no don’t ask me to expand on this because I can’t really explain it.
Edit: In an earlier edition I sort of implied that Topo Chico was an Austin drink. It isn’t. Here is what my friend Jose said about Topo Chico:
Paul! Topo Chico is not from Austin, it’s from my hometown in Mexico actually!! Monterrey - named after one of the mountains that surround the city. Topo Chico (the drink) has been around since I have memory and it was a staple of my elementary school little co-op, I think it’s from like the 1800s but then Coca Cola made a push recently to use the brand for a wider range of products when LaCroix/White Claw became a thing... testing it first in Texas, of course. Fun fact, Topo Chico (the actual place) now hosts a big prison and it’s sketchy AF. People refer to it as “El Topo” and by no means do you wanna go there 😅
#6 There’s a growing digital creator and podcaster scene
This scene has likely reached a tipping point and I’ve talked to multiple people in the past few weeks that have decided to move here in the next couple of months.
There’s an exciting mix of people involved in what I might describe as doing stuff on the internet. Podcasters, online courses, online learning, YouTubers, and so on. There’s a lot happening right now. It still feels early too.
Reading a bit about Austin, it seems like this could be a natural progression of the city. Nick Patoski who wrote Austin to ATX shared this idea in an interview1:
“The alternative outside culture is what built modern Austin,” he tells me, “starting with hippies in the ’60s, the musicians who moved here in the ’70s, the film people and South by Southwest and Whole Foods that followed in the ’80s, and tech in the ’90s. Each element flourished because of what preceded it. Music couldn’t have happened without the hippies. Film couldn’t have happened without the music. Tech couldn’t be the economic engine that took over Austin without hippies, music, and film providing the foundation … Pretty much everything that’s happened since is tied into those basic building blocks.”
It seems that Austin is at its best when it’s changing.
#7 Politics are not a priority conversation
In New York, especially when I was living there in 2015-2017, people were obsessed with politics and media narratives. While some people were also spending their time working on these things, most people weren’t and were just defaulting to what others were talking about.
I think Dave Perell (fellow Austinite) nails it on why this happens. He argues that “when two people have nothing to talk about, they’ll debate sports or politics. Thus, the majority of people in my social circle spend much more time talking about sports or politics than they’d like to.”
It seems many people move to Austin because they are excited about something else. Whether it’s crypto, creative work, art, writing, fitness, or entrepreneurship, people want to talk about the things that are personal to them.
I think this is a good thing. I find this energizing and it motivates me to work harder and not be afraid to be earnestly excited about everything I’m doing.
#8 It has been steadily growing for more than 100 years and more than 3-4x the growth of cities like NYC and SF in the last 30 years
If you look back in historical statistics, you find that Austin only shrunk in one single year (1990, it shrunk 0.2%2) since 1960, and on average it’s grown about 2.4% per year since 1990. This may not sound like a big deal but it’s 3-4x of other cities I’ve lived in like Boston and New York and places like SF.
While there is a lot of migration and change beneath the surface in places like SF, Boston, and New York, there is something different about a city that is also growing.
While 2.4% population growth annually isn’t all that impressive, it definitely feels different than Boston or New York. Right outside of my window, they are building multiple new apartment buildings, and around the corner are breaking ground on what will be the biggest building in Texas. There’s plenty of space here close to downtown so if they can figure out how to avoid the NIMBY traps of other cities, this will be a very interesting place in 30-40 years.
#9 There is a history of creativity and weirdness
The phrase “keep Austin weird” appeared after a random caller to a radio show gave it as a reason why he wanted to make a donation. The phrase caught on because it resonated with how people felt about Austin.
If you dig into the history of the city you find a thriving 1970s music scene, people rallying together to hold a vigil for a tree, someone trying to overthrow the government of the Gambia, and all sorts of weird houses like the above.
While living in digital nomad cities, I met many people operating on the edge or outside of what you might consider default reality. While many of the paths people were on were not great for building a meaningful life, many people are able to sample and remix the ideas of those communities in a way that leads to interesting new ideas. In Austin, there is a wide range of people and
#10 There are many “underemployed” people
By underemployed, I mean there are remote workers, entrepreneurs, creators, artists, fitness people, and others that have more control over their time than they might if they were commuting to an office job. Part of why I left the US in 2018 was that I had a hard time finding people that had much time to do anything outside of working or commuting.
Living abroad in many nomad communities I hung out with many people who were not centering their lives around work. I worried that moving back to the US meant that I wouldn’t be able to find a similar community. Luckily, in Austin, there are all sorts of people on different schedules than the default work week which means there are opportunities to do things like Tai Chi on a Monday afternoon or grab tea with a friend in the middle of the day like I did last week.
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I really liked Michael Newton’s reflections on SXSW and being inspired by the passion of the performers throughout the week. Definitely had the same feeling and he put it to words better than I could.
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How The 1970s Defined Austin - Austin Monthly Magazine