The West Coast Goes to the Southwest
Over the past year or so, as rents and home prices have risen, and Austin traffic has grown more crowded and snarled, many of us have asked: Who are all these new people driving our roads and keeping the housing vacancy rate low, and where did they come from? The answer in many cases is: They're former Californians. As the greater Austin area population grows at a rate of four percent per year and jobs have increased at six percent in the last year according to Chamber of Commerce figures, both the local fear and mythology are that the new folks are moving here from the Golden State in droves. Although reliable numbers are hard to come by, the perception does seem to be true. Chamber Vice President of Communication Crispin Ruiz says that for the last year and a half, some 40-50% of the requests for residential and business "relocation kits" have come from California. "The number goes up any time they have a natural disaster," she adds.
Ellen Long of Welcome to Austin sees a similar pattern. "We are seeing the most consistent influx of people from the California area." And with all the California-based high-tech firms opening branches here or relocating to the Austin area, it's obvious that the Lone Star State is drawing a significant number of California residents and companies to this city.
While the high-pitched battle over growth and development rages on here in Austin, this isn't a notion that sits easy with some locals. After all, the idea behind intelligent, managed growth is to avoid overdeveloping our naturally abundant Central Texas region in the same way that parts of California (like Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay area, Orange County and the San Jose/Silicon Valley region) went from slices of paradise on Earth to crime-ridden, overcrowded, overpriced urban and suburban landscapes. With the increase of local problems like traffic and gang activity, and such issues of land and water rights coming to the fore, our verdant hills of Central Texas are now echoing with the same crises much of California faced in the last three decades - battles that the state appears to have lost. So it's no wonder that Austinites - including those, like this writer, who moved here from elsewhere - are worried that Austin is not just going to become another Dallas or Houston, but in fact become Californicated.
So the obvious questions about the current migration of Californians to Austin are: Who are these people? Why did they move here? Is their arrival only going to exacerbate the California-style problems our city is already facing? And finally, are those of us who live here as xenophobic of Californians as local legend might imply?
In order to get some idea of who is moving here from the West Coast, the Chronicle ran an ad for a number of weeks on our Back Page soliciting Californians who had moved here in the last year or so to contact us and tell us their stories. Admittedly, this is somewhat of a self-selected sample, and naturally we attracted Chronicle readers. But we also were contacted by a broad range of personalities, from a coffee shop manager and a musician to a relocated high-tech worker. From the 30 or so ex-Californians we talked to via the ad and other referrals, one can draw some conclusions about those who are moving here.
In many ways, they're a lot like those of us who are already here. They may work in such local growth industries like high-tech, or the film and the music business, or they may be waitresses, bookkeepers, or teachers. Yet almost all of them cite very similar reasons for coming to Austin, factors that have attracted or kept many of us others here: the natural beauty, the climate and environment, the music, the liberalism and sophistication of our community, and the general friendliness and good vibes that make Austin a fine place to live.
Of course, not everyone moving here fits that mold. "I think there are a whole lot of people living in the suburbs who could care less about what makes Austin special, and just want to get theirs," says one local realtor who has worked with migrating Californians. "I have had people tell me I'm naïve for thinking that I can prevent overdevelopment, and some of them are from California. Then again, I've also had people from Austin tell me the same thing.
"I've felt there [are] some mercenaries coming here who would move anywhere for a buck. I have heard stories of people having a lot of money from selling their homes in California and coming here and throwing their weight around. But there are others who genuinely felt the degradation of California, and don't want it to happen here."
Meanwhile, many Californians moving to Austin face the double-edged sword: In coming here, will they play a part in spoiling what they've found and help turn Austin into exactly what they wanted to escape?
The California ExodusWhy are folks leaving California in droves? For Los Angelenos who have relocated here, there's almost a shared mantra of basic, obvious reasons they cite. "Riots, fires and earthquakes," says Donald Lindley, who plays in Lucinda Williams' band the Snakehandlers and backed up acts like Rosie Flores and Jim Lauderdale in L.A. "Plus the gang thing got a lot worse. It was still kind of a land of milk and honey when I got there [in 1981]. I saw it go through a lot of changes for the worse."
"The riots were a major trauma. They had a cumulative mental effect on everyone who experienced them," notes Fiona Charbak, 28, a former film production coordinator who spent five years working at Disney and now has her own music promotion company here in Austin. "Plus, I reached a point where I said to myself, `My values are different now.' I got married and had a child, and found I couldn't give him what I had because I couldn't afford it."
Cost of living in California, even outside the main urban areas, is cited as one of the main reasons for relocating by many of the other recent newcomers, including Mark Anderson, a TV director at KTBC who lived between Los Angeles and San Francisco. "I always thought I wanted to jump from market to market," says Anderson. "Now I don't want to leave. And I'm finally able to buy a house."
California culture (or lack thereof) finally grew tiring, especially the social scene in Los Angeles, for Julia Ervin, a third generation Californian who grew up in Hollywood and now works at Wylie's. "Everyone wanted to be the next Madonna or Sandra Bullock. Everyone thinks they're a director, actor, model or the next big rock & roll band. I managed a restaurant, but people would always say, `You must be an actress or a model.' No, I work here. When you meet someone, it's: Who are you? What can I get from you? Who can I meet through you? What kind of car do you drive? People are so self-obsessed there.
"It was real easy to get caught up in the nightclub scene. But I finally looked at my life and said, this sucks. I stopped going out seven nights a week and maxing out my MasterCard because there's some new club opening and you need the latest outfit. I found myself turning into one of those L.A. girls I despised so much when I was growing up." Plus, "Enough people said, `You're not in the entertainment business, you don't need to be here,' like I didn't deserve to live there. Excuse me! I grew up here."
Although the San Francisco area may seem less plagued than Los Angeles, it nonetheless has its share of problems. "I could feel a lot of people wanted to leave," says Dawn Stott, 31, who grew up in the Bay Area and came here to manage the Insomnia coffeehouse. "The last earthquake affected a lot of people psychologically."
There were professional reasons why some of these immigrants left California as well. "I was disillusioned with how Hollywood is and how my stuff turned out," says screenwriter George F. Saunders, who is now in pre-production for an Austin-based "garage-band movie." Shashana Kaplan, a make-up artist for films who is starting her own professional film make-up supply store here in town, offers similar feelings. "People will scratch your eyes out for a production assistant job."
And for Nick Thorne, who came to the Austin area from Southern California three months ago after finishing college, there are things he can do here that he couldn't do there. "You can't fish in L.A. There's nowhere to mountain bike," he says. Plus, it's prohibitively expensive to live there, and the L.A. scene is really jaded."
"I'm sick of California hype," says Fian MacBriar, who moved here from Sacramento. "I turn off the TV whenever California hype comes on."
"There's something spiritually broken there, especially on the coast," observes Taran Johnston, who rode her bike here from California.
"I knew if I was going to have a life, it would have to be out of L.A.," concludes Ervin.
Why Austin?What has attracted these Californians to Austin? "I wanted my son to grow up at least with some elbow room," says Lindley, whose wife is from Del Rio and lived in Austin in the Seventies. "He can run out and play with his friends and we don't worry. There we were worried about him going out the front door."
Likewise, preschool teacher Cary McCarthy migrated from the Bay Area because "I didn't want baby to grow up in a cesspool of bad attitude. If you want to go to a city out there, you have to go to something that's so polluted."
Now that they're here, many of these Californians seem to be transforming into fervent local boosters. "I was amazed when I got to Texas: you can see the bottom of rivers and see the fish," relates McCarthy. "I don't like the developing going on way far north and south. I wish I'd come here a long time ago, when it was really small."
Another newcomer says he wanted to "find a town that was gay-friendly," echoing the comments of many who chose Austin for its liberal attitude. Similarly, the natural beauty of the Central Texas area made a distinct impression on many who were considering the move. "It was a lot greener than I expected," observes Chris Brown, who has been here for four months working as a research assistant for Applied Materials.
Likewise, Donald Truchon "fell in love with Lake Travis" on a visit. Recalls Deanna Williams-Tuggle, who grew up in San Diego and married a Texan, "When I first landed here, it was like, "Look at all the water and the trees!"
"It's not too big, not too small," notes Anderson of our city. Plus, he and at least half of the others cited how "the music scene here is just incredible."
"Most of my recent record collection is people from Austin," explains John Aspatore, who hails from San Francisco and lived in Los Angeles before coming here to open the Black Market Guitars shop. "You can see Junior Brown every Sunday."
"When I first came here to visit," says special education teacher Leslie Scantlin, "I was really impressed by Whole Foods and all the earth-conscious people I met."
Stott arrived in Austin sight unseen. "I love this place now," she enthuses. "I'm marvelling that I continually meet wonderful people. People here are noble and kind."
"You can talk to strangers," says Dan Kuttner, 47, who lived in Austin from 1965-70, and just returned from San Diego. Being a committed Libertarian (who hosts The Free Mind on Austin Access), he explains how "one thing that attracted me to Texas was no income tax."
He adds, "I can walk to Zilker Park, and there's so many places for bicycling, and a lot of Internet activities."
Aspatore delights at how "You can go 10 minutes in any direction and be away from it all."
"It's a big city with a small town atmosphere," notes Cory Kruse, a recruiter for Applied Materials, who used to play in punk bands "I can go see a band and nobody's fighting and breaking beer bottles over each other's head. Texas is a pretty user-friendly state."
Of course, Austin is also drawing people here for certain professional opportunities, especially in the high-tech field. "I moved out here to find a job in research," admits Chris Brown. "This is the solid-state materials mecca - the place to be.
"I run into a lot of college-
educated California expatriates," he adds "I think many of them come here for jobs."
And some even landed here via chance encounters, such as those that Tricia Thode experienced during her summers in San Francisco, where she originally wanted to move when she finished college in Kansas. "Last summer in San Francisco, all the homeless people I talked to said they were moving to Austin," she reports. "Also, I met Adam Grossman of Skrew out there, and I asked him where the next Seattle was. He said Austin... It's beautiful. People are incredible, my first day here I met someone who let me stay on their couch," says Thode, who was planning on camping out. "There are a lot of guardian angels in this town. It's like a smaller version of San Francisco."
And for a few, Austin had some indefinable siren's call. "The more I visited, the more I felt like I already lived here," notes Charbak. Similarly, Michelle Pierce, 41, a writing student at Southwest Texas State University who grew up in Redondo Beach says, "I'm not so sure I picked Texas as it picked me."
Filmmaker Saunders finds "a very different attitude here, very generous," in his business. "People seem more interested in the quality of the film. There's a real spirit of independent filmmaking here and trying to do things that are different."
"I've only been here three-and-a-half weeks, yet I've met people I think I'll know the rest of my life," relates Ervin. "There's such a positive, warm, friendly vibe here. I love it here! I talked to my mother yesterday and she said I never sounded better. I got my joie de vivre back, even though I'm broke and just broke off my engagement. I honestly think I'm gonna die here."
Austin's Trade-offsFor all the love Austin has prompted from these newcomers, they are nonetheless highly aware of what they traded or gave up to come here. "The pay sucks," says teacher Brian Parsons from Los Angeles. "My salary dropped $12,000 in coming here. But for peace of mind, that's the price you pay." Similarly, banker Michelle White "took an $8,000 a year base pay cut."
"I thought the rent was cheaper," agrees Ryan Tobin from San Diego. "It's an easygoing town, although the traffic sucks and the drivers suck."
"When I moved from California I thought my rent would go down, silly me," seconds Clemens. "But I have the typical California response on moving to Austin: `Thank God!'"
"In day-to-day life I don't encounter many people over 40," says Brown. "Plus, all my friends are in California. If they were here, it would be perfect."
In a same vein, Lyn Boddy, who is 63, notes how it seems that "nobody is my age. Everybody's young. And I haven't found a proper job yet." Cary McCarthy also wishes "I could meet more mothers with children."
The Way They WereAustin's natural beauty and small town lifestyle reminds many of those interviewed of the way communities in California used to be. And if Austin is attracting Californians who feel it resembles the state they left behind, many of us who are already here are afraid that Austin could end up like California - damaged by overpopulation and overdevelopment. But a surprising number of newcomers seemed ready to join the local fight against ruinous growth.
"One thing I appreciate is the greater sense of activism and awareness here, like SOS and recycling," observes Charbak. "People in Los Angeles and other parts of California, they're desensitized to the environment. They've given up. But there are opportunities here for participating in ways to ensure it stays ecologically sound. I grew up in a beautiful environment, and I want to offer that to my child. There are things Austin and Texas can learn from California."
"Actually, I'm kind of worried," ponders Brown. "It's growing so fast, and it's unmanaged growth. It doesn't seem like the civic leaders get it. They don't have a strategy; builders come in and build, build, build. They're going to regret it."
"They could take a trip to San Diego and learn what may happen to Austin," insists Kuttner.
Yet Michael Petitta, who moved here in January and works for Pinnacle
Manufacturing, a software-duplication company,
observes how "citizens take more pride" here. "They're willing to stand up against Freeport-McMoRan."
As Charbak asserts, many of these newcomers from the Left Coast came here looking for the kind of community Austin is. "There are people who want to be a part of what you have here."
Part of the CommunityNonetheless, Austinites are worried about becoming Californicated. Yet for all the local talk about the California invasion - "Every time I see a Mercedes or BMW, it has California plates," said one friend of mine the other day - most everyone I talked to felt little, if any, animosity on arriving here.
"People here think people who come from California are indifferent," says Charbak. "That's not so. Very different types of people come from California. The ones here who seem the most resentful to me are the long-term immigrants. They feel like their little paradise has been discovered and invaded. The most help and assistance I've gotten has come from native Texans. And I'm very committed to becoming a part of the community as a person and a family, and also professionally.
"L.A. was a great place to live and got overpopulated," she adds. "I hope people here realize what they have and appreciate it. It's hard to find a livable city. And there seems to be a real eye on Austin and what's coming out of here.
"You have to look at the people who are moving out of those cities," insists Saunders. "They want a better lifestyle and have a decent value system."
"Being a Californian in Austin, I'll be right there next to you: Don't ruin the Greenbelt, keep Lake Travis clean," says Ervin. "I want peace of mind. But I think you should be flattered that you've got such a great city and people want to move here. If there were someplace like Lake Travis or the Greenbelt in California, within a year it would be ruined or polluted or somebody would build a trendy nightclub there."
"I wouldn't want this to be another L.A.," asserts Kaplan. "I do want people to move here, but I don't want it to be ruined."
"If the trends continue, I don't see this as a pleasant place to live in 10 years, which is sad," ponders Johnston.
"Anyone who moves here is part of the growth," insists Kuttner, who also thinks Austin has maybe 10 years left before the axe of overdevelopment falls. "When it does, I'll leave. But for the next 10 years, Austin could be a good place to live."
Ultimately, like any number of the rest of us, some of these Californians will also want to shut the door behind them once they've arrived in our little paradise. As Petitta relates, "My friends back in California say, `You won't shut up about Austin.' I say, come visit, but don't live here."
But as they come here and try to stake out and maybe even protect their little bit of paradise rediscovered, most of the Californians the Chronicle spoke to share the experience Lindley has had: "Austin has been everything I wanted it to be." Hopefully, we can all work together to keep it that way. n