Austin @ Large: How Weird Is That?
Austin's recipe for economic vitality collides with the quality-of-life agenda
I've never been too thrilled with the popular bumper sticker, but when it was just a bumper sticker, what the hell. Now, however, "Keep Austin Weird" is an accouterment of official city policy, and I must protest. To my tastes, Austin is not weird enough, and (other than the lack of a nearby ocean) this is its greatest handicap. May I suggest we make Austin weird -- before it's too late?
Bear with me here. This is not simply a rant. This cuts to the heart of last week's insights (see "Naked City") from the Mayor's Task Force on the Economy, chaired by council members Will Wynn and Betty Dunkerley and heavily influenced by Carnegie-Mellon professor Richard Florida, who has anointed Austin a mecca of the "creative class." We rank No. 2 on Florida's little list. San Francisco is No. 1. We have a long, long way to go if we want to be as weird as San Francisco.
Actually, it's pretty weird for Richard Florida to be holding Austin's lamp here; his project is really to help cities like his hometown of Pittsburgh be more like Austin, not to help cities like Austin be more like themselves. My impression has been that Florida thinks we already have some civic weirdness strategy in place that Rust Belt burgs can emulate. We, of course, know better.
But Florida's main point is a sound one: Smart cities no longer try to use incentives to recruit companies or industries or investments. They use their cultural amenities and personalities to attract citizens, and economic vitality thus follows. Austin's biggest competitive asset in the global economy is not UT, or Dell, or Barton Springs, or cheap power from Austin Energy. It is Austinites.
And so I ask: Is Austin weird enough?
I suppose if you came to Austin from, say, Beaumont, our weirdness is self-evident. But Austin will not long thrive in the new economy if it's only attractively weird when compared to Beaumont. Feel free to use yourself as an example here; I'll use myself.
Compared to Beaumont --
I was born in a town outside of Indianapolis, which was weird in not such a good way, but from toddlerhood until 1988, when I came here, I lived in places -- Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco -- that I would say are weirder than Austin in the way to which we now aspire. When I've flirted with leaving Austin, it has been from a craving for a milieu that's weirder than this. When I've decided against leaving Austin, it has been out of appreciation for Austin's greater degree of normalcy -- as a place where you can afford a house, raise a family, send your kid to public school, not spend hours a day stuck in traffic, walk in a central-city neighborhood alone at midnight.
Growth has obviously challenged those latter hallmarks of stability. But when compared to places that have the kind of creative energy that we are told is all that matters in the new economy, Austin has still got it pretty good on such measures of "quality of life" as mobility and affordability. Up until now, I think my experience has been typical -- the knowledge workers who've made Austin a boomtown have been attracted here not by Austin's weirdness, but by its normalcy: weirder than Beaumont but not as weird as San Francisco. Weird enough for the software engineers and business consultants and lawyers who form the bulk of what's now dubbed our "creative" sector. I submit that this is not weird enough to attract the truly creative people who are now being asked to re-energize our economy.
Over the years, I've heard it suggested by brave or foolish souls that Austin's reigning quality-of-life measures are basically small-town and suburban and are not relevant to a major American city -- that on some level inner-city density and traffic jams and smog and other signs of "growth" may be inseparable from creative energy and economic vitality, or at least aren't hindrances to it. Much of our civic effort of the last five years has been devoted to disproving that thesis and arguing we can have it all -- we can be a cultural capital and knowledge mecca, and all be fat and happy and rich, and still enjoy the quality of life Austin offered when it was a little town in the hills.
In practice, we, as a body politic, have wanted to keep Austin weird, but not too weird. Weird enough for Leslie Cochran to run for mayor, but not to actually win. (Or, more to the point, for an outsider with an actual civic philosophy, unlike Leslie, to win.) Weird enough for City Hall to espouse New Urbanism and environmentalism, but not to actually reject the Stratus deal or the Villas on Guadalupe. Weird enough to crow about our live music scene, but not to actually let the bands play as loud as they want. (And while on that subject, ask our local jazz players or knob twiddlers or R&B song stylists if they think Austin is the Live Music Capital of the World.) Weird enough to vaunt our funky urban neighborhoods, but not to let people park on their lawns.
Weird But Not Too
The political partisans who've defined this weird-but-not-too-weird agenda may not care about "economic vitality" as explored by the mayor's task force. But the truly creative class may not really care about quality of life. And though Wynn and Dunkerley and the task force talk about breaking down civic barriers to creative energy and weirdness, it looks from my vantage point like quality-of-life partisans -- with their highway plans and noise ordinances and smoking rules and whatnot -- still have a pretty firm grip of the levers of local power. This itself may be a barrier to weirdness that we can't afford.