As a non-Texan living in Austin I've become acutely aware of local folks comments regarding the growth of the city. After all, I'm often the subject of their chatter. The plus-one.
I've lived in a number of cities, and had post-office boxes and rent payments on three continents, four countries, and countless states and provinces. Most of those places though, have been mentally temporary – I've only really ever considered three places 'home'. Ann Arbor, Michigan, San Francisco, California, and Austin, Texas – where I'm currently parking my truck.
I was born and raised in Ann Arbor, MI. A picturesque college town with a revolving population of roving students, an overly educated set of baristas, and a nostalgia for its involvement in shaping the political and cultural landscape of the 60's. The leaves turn incredible shades of orange and red every fall, and the relentless grey of winter is not for the weak of mind or body. It raises you with thick blood, love of spring, and the inability to remain indoors on a sunny day.
But beware the elephant; the ominous weight of living 30 miles down the road from the greatest existing example of the death of the American Dream – Detroit. The rusted gut, of of a post WWII Ford commercial. Your Mad Men are dead and gone, displaced by the reality that we don't all need new Kenmore refrigerators every 6 months.
I left at 18.
After years of 6 month leases, and owning no more than a carload of possessions, I landed in San Francisco. The second place I would call home. San Francisco is not a big city. It's more of a large town. The skyscrapers aren't that tall, and rarely overwhelm. Walking up a hill provides economically unrestricted vantage points from which to take in views that most New Yorkers only read about in real estate magazines. The Mission, where I lived in an old Victorian for five years, is low slung; bringing in a parisian light relegated to places with rent control and building restrictions. I love San Francisco.
I felt welcome there in a way that makes me wonder if I ever truly interacted with the people my kind must displace. And by my kind I mean, young, employed, single folk, with a few bucks in their pocket, and a penchant for good bourbon, rare steak, and bars that don't close early on a Tuesday. Gentrification. Such a dirty word among my peers. I wanted to live in the city of my heroes, the city by the Bay. A city that had jobs.
75 years ago, you went to school, got a job, and worked for 40 years in the same city. Sure you could travel, you could move, but many people stayed close to home. Job security was achieved by staying put, getting promoted, and getting a pension. Today it's exactly the opposite. Mobility is security. The ability to hop not only from physical place to place, but from job title to job title. To be able to learn and adapt. To move.
Similarly, our social status used to be tied to our neighborhood, now it's in the cloud – accessible in any city, at any time. I don't need to be back in my childhood home to know that my oldest friends like my jokes, or approve of the beer I'm drinking. They don't need to be in the same country to call me on my shit, or provoke a meandering thread of a political debate. That changes the literal act of moving – leaving far less behind than you used to. What are we loosing because of that?
What is gentrification if moving towards opportunity is required to survive, and thrive? And what is moving, if you bring more along, and leave less behind? What opportunities are gained and what are lost?
I arrived in Austin on Aug 25th. It's relatively warm around here then, which isn't really that bad except I had to sleep in my truck for the first few nights, with the windows down, melting into the cheap fabric seats. It took me three days to find Barton Springs, and I like to think that was the day I actually arrived.
I've been here three and a half years now, and there's a gold rush on, in case you haven't heard. A gold rush and apparently a shortage of construction cranes. What Austin lacks in cranes, however, they make up for in jobs. Employed young folks mob across the bridges nightly to partake in trading cash for drink in every crevice of town. People run, bike, swim, and stay fit and tan year-round. They're happy. Ha, a town full of happy, employed people.
When I hear locals complain about how many new people are moving here, I ask them if they've lived anywhere where the opposite is happening. They might be angry now because their old local haunt is overrun with new folk – but have they ever lived anywhere where it closes because no one has any money to spend anymore? Have they seen what happens to the general demeanor of folks when there are no jobs, no prospects, and the big companies leave town? A downtown full of transplants is very different from a downtown shuttered, vacant, and rotting. I don't see many folks lining up to move to Detroit, or Cleveland, or Flint, or.... any of the thousands of little towns you see while taking backroads across America.
Everything is in a constant state of change. Permanence is a myth and if you doubt that, you simply aren't looking at a long enough timeline. That's true for our cities, our countries, our oceans, and our forests, as much as it goes for our bodies, our friends, and our mental state. As we re-learn to move, we must also re-learn what that means to the structure of our cities, our towns, and our general attitude towards space, and the things that inhabit it.
Austin is my home, and like any place that I've called home I try to embrace it fully, to appreciate what it has been, and what it will be – and along the way I try to make it a happier, better, more interesting place to be. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail, but I'm here none the less. I may not quite think of myself as local, but the construction workers outside of my house seem to. Perhaps this is how it actually happens. Perhaps you need someone else to tell you when you've made it.