A Letter from Austin #15: A Gen Z City in a George Strait State
We’re All Going to Need A Little Suerte
In my day the choices were easier. When you went out for Tex-Mex in Austin, you could have the chicken enchiladas or the beef enchiladas. You could have a Budweiser or a margarita. And you could have chips or you could not have chips. (In theory, at least. No one has ever NOT had chips.)
Fast-forward forty years. Austin today is a little different. When my wife and I had dinner with friends last week at Suerte (Spanish for “luck”), a Tex-Mex eatery on East Sixth Street, I ended up choosing the pine nut-almond tamal (NOT “tamale,” please — that word has entered the registry of politically incorrect culinary terms) with mole blanco, goat queso fresco, hoja santo, and pine nut gremolata, accompanied by a ritzier relative of the margarita fashioned with reposado tequila, tamarindo, and sarsaparilla. And yes, we had chips, though in this case they came in the form of sheets of sturdy tostada-like material, taupe and blue, that we were instructed to snap and parcel out to ourselves.
Suerte prides itself on its devotion to masa, the corn meal Mexican mothers have been grinding, baking, and surviving on for centuries. Never mind that most Mexican mothers I know would either have laughed or cried at the prices we paid at Suerte: the food was tasty, the service mustachioed and briskly competent, and the drinks…well, I don’t remember anything after the second one, so I think they were probably pretty good.
And then Austin! We drove home through a city as big as, well, a city — skyscrapers shaped like ziggurats and space sails in the sky, blue and green and red lights draped from the heights as if the night itself was a Christmas tree. We made weird detours through crowded streets. We passed pedestrians, pedicabs, and real estate royalty. The shaggier, destitute Austin I moved here to join right out of high school, like the eager recruit of a rebel army, has long since disappeared. The Capitol, once the three-hundred pound pink gorilla of the skyline, is barely visible these days. And all those dens of grimy Telecaster ecstasy — the Armadillo, Liberty Lunch, the Black Cat — we used to frequent are now no more than rumors, the lonely beat of retreating drums.
Austin is now the state’s most expensive city, crowded and congested and relentlessly impressed with itself. It’s home to a million people, and counts itself the 11th largest metropolis in the country. It’s the headquarters of Tesla, the world’s leading electric car company, which plans to start rolling vehicles out of its new manufacturing facility here any day now. Facebook (now “Meta”) announced this week that it will be leasing thirty-three floors of downtown Austin’s newest skyscraper, which hasn’t even been finished yet, but which will be located at the corner of Guadalupe and Sixth Street.
Austin is increasingly a 21st Century economic success eyed suspiciously by a 20th Century legislature. It’s the Emerald City in the middle of Green Acres. The state’s GOP is adopting regressive policy stances even as our population centers become increasingly metropolitan, “liberal,” and similar to the populations of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. It’s a curious dynamic, as if lawmakers are aghast at the very growth they claim to promote. Our Legislature essentially outlawed abortion in 2021. It legalized “permit-less carry” of firearms and authorized lawsuits against social media providers that “censor” — not really the right word — right wing wackos. Governor Greg Abbott has issued orders prohibiting employers from requiring masks and school districts from requiring vaccinations.
Meanwhile, just as in previous sessions, Texas legislators recently declined to expand Medicaid for poor Texans. We continue to be a low-tax, low-services state, among the nation’s laggards in education, health insurance coverage, and infant mortality rates. And Austin is a regular target for conservative legislators who criticize the city’s liberal municipal government and voters even as they celebrate the jobs growth Austin is spearheading.
I’m always ready for a good policy argument, and it’s probably no secret that my sympathies lie with the liberals. But that’s not really what I’m interested in here. My thoughts aren’t political, but personal. Austin is no longer what it was. It’s not the counter-culture oasis that drew glass blowers, poster artists, bass players and assorted proto-hippies from Beaumont and Belton, Oatmeal and Odessa. The city is more exciting these days, but less pleasant. The pay is better, but the rents will kill you. It’s not as friendly, but it’s better dressed. I’m okay with it all, at least for now. Barton Springs is still cold. The Ultimate Frisbee pick-up game in Zilker Park is still going strong after thirty years. The restaurants are better, the craft beer choices are dizzying, the skyline dazzles every time I see it.
And yet sometimes I understand the conservative antipathy to the growth — the longing, however unrealistic, for what used to be. Every once in a while, I find myself wanting to wake up in a George Strait song. I want to let my eyes follow the trail of an empty highway as it snakes over the hills into the sunset. My wife and I are planning to get out of Austin at some point. We know we’re not the sort of residents the city wants anymore. The city wants young people, beautiful people, people chasing a buck and big dreams. We remember being those folks, or thinking we were, but we’re not anymore. And sooner or later we’re going to move out in search of a place where real estate prices stand still for a month or two at a time, and there aren’t so many traffic lights, and the choices a man has to make are still simple.
And on that day, the day when everything becomes simple again, you know what? I’m pretty sure I’m going to have the beef enchiladas.
With a side of pine nut gremolata, if you don’t mind.
For old times’ sake.