One of the first things you learn about living in Austin is that while it’s the greatest place on earth, it isn’t what it used to be. If you’re unlucky, you might be told that not only isn’t Austin what it used to be but that you are the reason for this, particularly if your interlocutor has concluded you are from California, work in IT and are planning on buying the last shack in 78704 or thereabouts under $400,000.
It has always been this way. Austin was a bucolic playground without a care before you moved here. Right up until the week before you arrived you could rent a five-bedroom house for fifty dollars a week, the best chicken fried steak in creation could be had for a dime and Willie Nelson was usually sitting at the next table BUT IT’S ALL CONDOS AND STARBUCKS NOW AND IT’S YOUR FAULT, MISTER!!!!
The earliest reference to Austin not being what it was that I can find is an article by the novelist Budd Shrake in the Texas Observer from 1974 called “The Screwing Up of Austin.” Shrake wrote:
“Listen, let me tell you, it used to be hip to be in Austin, but it’s not anymore. Austin is engaged in a death-grope with real estate developers, and nothing is less hip than that.”
“Pick up any outlander newspaper or magazine these days, and you are liable to read about the peculiar appeal of Austin. They’re catching on to it out there, partly because of these honkytonk heroes and motion picture gypsies who are slipping in, and partly because a number of greedheads discovered they could make a living out of Austin by chopping it down.”
Shrake ends with what’s become pretty much the city’s unofficial motto:
“I admit to being selfish about this, and as usual incapable of moderation. But listen to me, dear readers out there: stay home or go to Indiana. If you move here, Austin won’t happen.”
This was, I repeat 1974. Back when the population was about a quarter of what it is now; before Dell and Whole Foods, before SXSW and Austin City Limits, before a good deal of what people think of as symbolizing Austin even existed. You know you couldn’t get good tonkotsu back then or artisan goats’ cheese and thyme ice cream?