Austin, Texas: The Myth Lives On

18 min readAug 7, 2023

“As always, the myth has its charms; but the truth is far more beautiful.” — J. Robert Oppenheimer

No American city has enjoyed the kind of glow-up of population, economic and cultural relevance Austin has experienced since the Model T Ford turned Detroit into the most important economic metro in America. Demographers and city historians may go further back to the turn of the 20th Century when Midwest gems St. Louis and Chicago each held their world’s fairs in 1904 and 1893, respectively.

Austin is America’s 11th most populous city (update: 10th), but only the fourth largest metro in Texas. By comparison, the fourth largest metro in California is Riverside-San Bernardino and the similarly-ranked area in the Tri-State region hovers around Newark, New Jersey.

Austin is the political seat of Texas and home to one of the most prestigious public research universities in the world. The city is a hotbed of commercial and creative energy, intrigue and (more recently) envy. Austin is also a place where water sports like kayaking and wake surfing on the lake, swimming at public pools and outdoor activities like cycling and running still manage to engulf locals in the landlocked city amidst the unrelenting 100-degree days of a Texas summer.

But none of these attributes are particularly new to the city. The recent fanfare over Austin didn’t create these characteristics nor has it materially changed them; Austin is still a city with state government, a large university, loads of entrepreneurs and creative professionals from chefs to musicians, and plenty of sun to go around for the outdoor enthusiasts.

Still, as a local of nearly two decades dating back to my time as a student at The University of Texas, I’ve noticed quite a few changes in Austin that have me joining a growing chorus of locals who’ve fallen out of love with the city we’ve long professed our hearts for. It’s not so much that the city’s offerings have changed dramatically, but that the values have, and now that professing is being replaced by something of a prophecy of Austin’s self-manifested demise should it stay on current course. To many longtime and former locals, the downfall already occurred and what newcomers and visitors now experience today is a city still coasting on the largesse of decades of organic creativity and, more recently, self promotion. That’s for you to decide, as have I.

Myth Busting

Earlier this year, Lawrence Wright wrote a piece for The New Yorker dubbed “The Astonishing Transformation of Austin.” The piece, intended for a Manhattan reader rather than a local, touched on some of the elements influencing the tenor of Texas’ capital. However, the narrow lens (and demographics) of perspective Wright sought was perhaps reflective of his limited understanding of what less privileged Austinites are actually experiencing today, which is a city struggling through something that can best be described as a self-inflicted identity crisis.

“My town, once celebrated for its laid-back weirdness, is now a turbocharged tech megalopolis being shaped by exiles from places like Silicon Valley,” Wright’s piece notes.

This is the all-too-common dig at Californians as “the other” for moving to Austin and making the city less cool and more expensive. And it’s the biggest myths Austinites have told ourselves since the turn of the 21st century.

Myths are a big part of identities; not just humans but also countries and politics. Columbus “discovered” America, remember. “Make America Great Again” imagines a former greatness that has eluded the majority of Americans for generations.

From survival of the fittest to the Bronze Age to Manifest Destiny to “Separate, But Equal” to the conservative Supreme Court’s recent and deliberate attack on the civic and political advances of the 20th Century, “the other” myth is what allowed Europe to wield patriarchy as a weapon through religious wars, America to leverage whiteness as a shield through plunder, and what allows Texans to blame Californians for our quality of life problems.

Having a villain to point to as the other allows us to be unapologetically self-referential as the hero.

This is how you get a Texas state government loudly and proudly attacking trans teens, Black lives, women’s reproductive rights, affirmative action and history while fighting tirelessly to protect guns amidst a record year of mass shootings. The founders worked hard to protect those guns, remember, try to “come and take it.” But actual human beings and their lives and civil rights, take it or (preferably) leave it.

And that’s pretty much how Austinites have been told to behave with regard to newcomers from California. El Arroyo, a local Tex-Mex restaurant best known for its funny signs with phrases like “Step Aside Coffee, This Is a Job for Alcohol,” currently has a sign that reads, “Live. Laugh. Leave.” Pretty soon, your neighbors may start lamenting the newcomers from Ohio or Oregon, too.

It used to be that one of Austin’s best qualities was its welcoming nature. I used to tell friends in DC, New York or SF that they’d get invited to someone’s birthday party the night of their first day here. To an extent that remains possible, but the odds of going a full week in Austin without hearing angry car horns behind you the very second the traffic light turns green or walking Downtown without seeing someone scoff at an unhoused person as if they had just been asked for a kidney transplant are long gone. There’s a lot of aggro energy here these days.

A city once beloved for its friendly tendencies now tells, if not implores, South by Southwest attendees to leave the day their work (or fun) here is done. Never mind the economic stimulus your local bartender or music venue depends on.

Austin has become a city that trains even its newcomers to seek assimilation and faux belonging as quickly as possible, not in an effort to support that local nonprofit with a corporate donation or to volunteer at a food bank, but to make the person who moved into the neighborhood the day/year/decade after you unwelcome. Especially if that family came here from California, you know, that state offering safe abortions for Austinites whose home state no longer allows them here without committing a felony.

Sadly, whether or not Austin is as welcoming as it once was is the least of the city’s issues. Austin is a city with recent, ongoing and well-documented issues with racist policing, segregationist school funding and resourcing policies and gentrification-inspired real estate development, but the main challenges facing Austin today are two-fold:

One, the city got everything it asked for, and now it seems to be failing miserably at soul searching.

Second, the primary problems Austin must solve are not a result of newcomers from California, but from decades of naïveté and willful neglect by locals.

Soul Searching

Every great brand has a tag line (“Just Do It”) and every great destination city has a moniker or motto. New York, the city that never sleeps, is the Big Apple. Los Angeles is the City of Angels or City of Dreams. Las Vegas is Sin City, with plenty more unkept secrets in the age of social media, while Paris is the City of Lights with a sparkling Eiffel Tower to match.

Austin has, for the three decades coinciding with the city’s explosion from laid-back college town to tech-enabled metropolis (with the logo-equipped skyline to match), marketed its self-appointed identity as the “Live Music Capital of the World” while also making sure both residents and visitors alike, “Keep Austin Weird.”

There are certainly other live music havens around the world; London, New York, Seattle and Nashville (another American Boomtown) to name a few, but the weirdness of Austin makes it extra special. So we’ve told ourselves while othering cities with deeper histories breaking musical icons like Led Zeppelin, Jay Z, Nirvana and Dolly Parton to name a few. It’s not just about radio-friendly hip-hop or punk or grunge or country here, we’re different.

We’ve long told ourselves that it is not only the Nobel-prize winning research at The University of Texas fueling the idea that “what starts here changes the world,” but the city’s alternative vibe against the backdrop of a rebellious state.

Austin’s live music credibility is bonafide, no doubt, going back to the early days of legendary venues like Threadgill’s, where Janis Joplin’s career transformed, and Antone’s, where greats like B.B. King and Muddy Waters played and the lore of guitar licks by Stevie Ray Vaughn was forged. Austin City Limits, the storied PBS television program, will celebrate its 50th season next year, and it’s broadened far beyond what would commonly be viewed as “Austin music” to include artists as diverse as hip-hop great Kendrick Lamar and Spanish pop sensation Rosalía. The show later inspired a music festival of the same name, which has quickly become the musical calling card for the city amongst both newcomers and touring musicians. The two-weekend festival just celebrated its 20th year, and its peer and predecessor of national renown, South by Southwest Music Festival, recently hit its 35th year.

In the last decade, Austin’s own Gary Clark, Jr., and Black Pumas have proven Austin is still producing its fare share of acclaimed musicians, almost exclusively through the power of crowd-pleasing live shows. (Side note: Black Pumas frontman Eric Burton moved here from California not long before connecting with Austin great Adrian Quesada.) The last song by an Austin artist to reach even the top third of songs listed the Billboard Hot 100 chart was 2004’s “Heaven” by Los Lonely Boys. Cities like LA, New York and Nashville have top 10 songs weekly.

Chart topping has never really been Austin’s bag, musically, which would be fine for a city with such a rich reputation for live music. There’s only one problem: the Austin musicians aren’t being paid.

Both SXSW and the City of Austin itself have been under scrutiny for years, dating back to my time as vice chair of the city’s Music Commission (the same body that in 1991 pushed for the City Council’s official designation as the “Live Music Capital of the World”) for paying musicians wages that haven’t kept pace with inflation much less the fast-rising cost of living in America’s boomtown.

When SXSW announced it would increase artist pay from $100 to $150 after a wave of negative press in recent weeks, musicians attended a Music Commission meeting to lament the latent and seemingly reluctant increase from the festival.

“This is very disparate as far as how much money they’re making versus what they’re paying to the musicians. And musicians really can barely afford to do it anymore,” said Aaron Lack, president of the Austin Federation of Musicians.

During the pandemic, amidst protests following George Floyd’s death, musician Jonathan “Chaka” Mahone was perhaps the most vocal amongst a bevy of Black musicians who called the City out for decades of seemingly intentional neglect with regard to appreciating, honoring and regarding Black artists.

“You can literally look at, in 1991, when the moniker was given, the Live Music Capital, (the) Black population was at 12%. Now we’re at 7.4%. Literally from that time, when you decided we’re going to brand ourselves and market ourselves as this great destination city, we’re going to bring people in, and those people — guess what, they’re going to like it, and then they’re going to stay here — there is a direct correlation to the decrease in the Black community and the Black population,” Mahone told the Austin American-Statesman in an early 2021 profile.

The decline of Austin’s Black population is perhaps the clearest sign that the city’s lived vs. marketed reality as the globe’s premier live music destination is also declining. While nonprofits like HAAM, which provides health insurance to musicians and music industry professionals, and SIMS Foundation, which provides mental health and substance abuse resources, have been founded in the last two decades, the rate of musicians becoming victims to the city’s lack of affordable housing coupled with low performing wages have made it near impossible for professional musicians to attain anything close to middle class existence without moving further from Austin venues, their places of work, to smaller outskirts towns like Bastrop and Lockhart. Some musicians have even found the rising rents in Austin to be a sign that they must abandon ship and take their talents onto Los Angeles or Nashville where industry infrastructure, record labels and streaming companies have stronger presences.

Bastrop and Lockhart are lovely towns, but Austin they are not. And should the trend of local musicians moving further out and away from the city center continue in the coming years, even as Downtown Austin becomes more and more dense with people and commercial activity, it’s unlikely Austin will have the kind of artistic connectivity and density a thriving live music city needs to develop and foster talent to rise above the fray of cover bands on Sixth Street. Vibrant music scenes like the one on Red River Street, where some of the city’s best local artists and bands cut their teeth on stages, don’t survive without bands like Black Pumas selling out shows and motivating other local bands to reach for that next level despite the constant uphill battle that is finding a manager, booking agent and/or label in a city with fewer of those than musicians with songs on the radio and even fewer small capacity venues willing to book (and pay) local emerging acts that don’t have the audience draw of touring acts who pay the bills.

Attempts to rally behind musician-friendly causes and campaigns that attempt to address the root causes, like the one Chaka speaks to, have largely fallen on deaf ears at the Chamber of Commerce, corporate philanthropy or City Council levels. This seldom spoken reality has relegated musicians to the whims of one Band-Aid Music Commission effort after another while the skyline grows taller with offices for companies whose employees prefer remote work, as the rents grow higher with affordable housing efforts being hindered on either financial or political grounds, and as the odds of surviving as a working musician in “the Live Music Capital of the World” grow slimmer.

The soul searching Austin needs to address this issue for musicians and the live music identity, a sort of gateway drug for Austin’s culture-to-commerce growth engine that has attracted companies like Apple and Tesla and yielded some of America’s fastest metropolitan growth since the early 1900s, seems to disappear at precisely the two moments when the city most needs it. Once, in March, during SXSW, when local musicians aren’t paid enough, and again in October during the ACL Festival weekends when those under-appreciated local musicians take a backseat to well-known, well-paid touring acts.

The issue of lacking resources for musicians is mirrored closely by nonprofits in Austin which have long lamented the lack of corporate philanthropy in the city. At Austin galas, it’s not uncommon to see big tech and corporate players write $25,000 and $50,000 checks which pale in comparison to the multi-million-dollar gifts for similar causes in cities like Atlanta, Chicago and Houston. HAAM Day, an annual fundraising event for the aforementioned nonprofit, raised $800,000 — less than a 2-bedroom home in many West Austin neighborhoods — during its 2022 event while Amplify Austin, an event that centers around the tag line “I live here, I give here,” raised just under $10 million despite its proceeds benefiting more than 700 nonprofit organizations in the city.

A recently released report by wealth firm Henley and Partner unveiled Austin as the fastest growing city for millionaires in America with 102% growth over the last decade. The only city in the world with faster wealth growth over that span is Hangzhou, a commercial hub in China with 12 million residents. Austin now has more than 30,000 millionaires, with nearly 100 north of $100 million and at least nine billionaires locally.

It’s Getting Weird, Y’all

Some problems are just too big for Southern charm and hospitality. Just take a look at Austin’s housing crisis. The Texas Tribune reported that Austin’s median sale price for a single-family home increased from $330,000 in March 2020 to nearly $475,000 in October 2022 which runs about even with the typical two-bedroom apartment rents which rose from $1,351 to $1,805. For those wondering, wages in Austin have not grown more than 30% since 2020.

In late 2021, The New York Times — one of many publications routinely covering and fueling Austin’s international buzz as evidenced by a long story on Barton Springs Pool just weeks ago — published a widely-shared piece aptly titled, “How Austin Became One of America’s Least Affordable Cities.”

Earlier this year, Bloomberg published a story pondering, “Why Doesn’t Austin Have More Affordable Housing?

The how and why of Austin’s housing issues are neither unique nor unknown. They’re quite common: racism and NIMBYism.

The truly odd thing about a city branding itself on weirdness is just how completely typical Austin has been in its decades-long complicity and complacency in addressing these glarity city-wide issues. This is especially weird when anecdotally, conversationally and electorally, Austin is a city full of liberals who chastise similar othering, racists and segregationists tendencies from state officials. In 2020, nearly 75% of Austin voters supported Joe Biden in the 2020 Presidential election, an uptick of nearly five percent from Hilary Clinton’s 2016 totals.

For decades, Austin has participated in a version of chest beating and cheerleading for its biggest accomplishments as a city from winning the Microelectronics and Computer Consortium facility during the Reagan Administration and moving and expanding the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in the 1990s after an Air Force base was decommissioned to securing and hosting what was then the U.S.’s only Formula One Grand Prix beginning in 2012 to formation of the Dell Medical School that same year.

In each of these instances, the naïveté of Austin liberals is clear. When your city wins a national bid process for a federal government-sponsored research facility, people will likely move here. When your city expands an airport and hosts large events like SXSW and Formula One, it attracts more visitors; some of them fall in love. And when you open a medical school (or use tax incentives to recruit large tech companies), more students and young professionals will choose to start their careers and families here. Housing is needed.

But accompanying this naïveté, if one can call it that even after decades of living in a city that has been quite successful at engineering job growth, has been a brand of willful neglect that has Austin looking the part of Texas. This willful neglect, often taking the form of longtime Austin residents in affluent, white neighborhoods like Hyde Park and Zilker obstructing any and all attempts to build multi family housing in or around the urban core of the city, has made present day Austin every bit as responsible for the hundreds of unhoused residents on the streets here as Texas and its gun-toting policies are in what happened at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde last May. The only difference in neglect may be that in Uvalde 21 innocent people lost their lives in a single tragedy whereas in Austin the lives lost on Austin streets and creeks each year represent an ongoing tragedy that discounts the suicide, addiction and other financial hardship-related deaths. Of note, while 246 Texans lost their lives during the record winter storm that ravaged the state’s electrical grid in 2021, some 251 deaths were reported that same year in Austin alone in connection with homelessness. The homeless death toll in Austin grew to 296 in 2022.

Hyperbole is something Austin has grown accustomed to relying on for years…the best city for young professionals, best city for small business, best city for this, best city for that. But what if all the self promotion has resulted in a city getting every thing it wanted: jobs, special events, tourism, national and global attention, population growth, real estate and venture capital investment, and federal grants.

What if Austin, and the very people who were attracted to, contributed to and incubated the city’s weird identity, are responsible for the very problems it now says incoming Californians or Texas statewide elected officials are to blame for creating?

After all, Austin is and always has been a city whose rapid population growth has been predictable dating back to the 1880s. Austin is and always has been a cultural magnet whose knack for entrepreneurship and creativity breeds both jobs for locals and joy for visitors dating back to the 1960s. Austin is and always has been a self-aggrandizing metro that has only since the late 90s started coming to terms with the Christopher Nolan-sized reality of similar growing pains to other wealthy, educated, gentrifying and tech-enabled cities like San Francisco and Seattle.

Keep Austin Weird is a great motto, just like “the Live Music Capital of the World” is a great moniker, but it seems out of tune that many longtime Austinites blame newcomers and state politicians for problems that were originated by locals within city limits and festered in this city for years — dating back to the racially-motivated 1928 City Plan, which forced Black and Hispanic residents out of the neighborhoods and areas that are now amongst the city’s safest, whitest and wealthiest.

There’s no amount of y’all’s that can deny the present day reality of Austin being a city that seems disinterested in both musicians and the affordable housing they and thousands of other Austinites need.

Me & The Myth

While I was disappointed to see Lawrence Wright, one of Austin’s most accomplished writers, limit the scope of his story’s perspective to several affluent white men like Silicon Valley expat and venture capitalist Joe Lonsdale, his story wasn’t completely misguided in speaking to the tenor of Austin today. The Elon Musk, Joe Rogan and Lonsdale types now in our city have changed things. Restaurants, along with houses, are more expensive. Political dealings between the city and state have grown more tense, as Governor Abbott works to credit himself and the Great State of Texas for Austin’s economic success. To use Texas Tribune founder Evan Smith’s words, there is now a clear and ever-present upper class in Austin today where there wasn’t as visibly before.

That said, there remains so much about Austin that tugs at my heartstrings and I’m not talking about breakfast tacos and barbecue. People don’t think of Austin as a spiritual or religious place yet I’ve found community in faith here. Comedor Run Club, a running group started four years ago by chef Philip Speer to encourage healthier lifestyles for hospitality professionals, is perhaps the most purpose-driven fitness group in the city. Origin Studio House is a Black women-owned coffee shop in East Austin set to open in the coming weeks, and they’ve already made an impact in the sense of belonging young Black professionals feel in this city. Barton Springs Pool remains the best “Welcome to Austin” safe haven for longtime and newly-acclimated Austinites. Austin, with its bevy of helpful serial entrepreneurs, remains one of the best cities in the world to start a new business be it tech startup or consumer product goods company. I’ve personally benefited from this environment of angel investment. Recent hires and funding for The Contemporary and Blanton Museum have leveled up Austin’s art profile in a few short years. Plus, the city’s penchant for extroversion still makes Austin an ideal city for adults of all ages to pursue new beginnings and new friendships be they college freshman or parents of young children.

The other day, I was in an Uber headed home from the airport and my driver, a young Black man, said he was new to the city. He asked me how I liked it here after I’d explained how I grew up just an hour north of Austin (Killeen) then spent most of my adult life here.

“You know, I’ve loved every version of Austin before the pandemic, but I only like this version,” I replied. The rest of the ride was silent as I, and likely he, thought about the meaning of my words.

The most true statement in Wright’s piece is one that hits especially close to home for me as I’ve only recently come to terms with my having fallen out of love with Austin some time ago, now accepting my failed run for public office as something like a last-ditch effort to save my union with this city.

“I once knew the place so well, but every day it grows more unknowable and unlimited, and I feel more like a resident than a citizen. But it remains part of my psyche. It’s home,” Wright concluded.

This city, this beloved yet troubled city, is perhaps the greatest love of my life up to this point. From the moment I first dropped my bags in Austin and started calling it home, I did everything possible to pour myself into this relationship. I went to countless Texas Longhorns games and concerts at now-closed venues like La Zona Rosa, Holy Mountain and Austin Music Hall. I ate at eateries like Las Manitas, Freddie’s Place and Trudy’s and danced with friends into the wee hours at bars like Creekside, TC’s Lounge and Red Fez. I served on nonprofit boards and City commissions and raised or donated tens of thousands of dollars for worthy causes and campaigns. I started businesses and hosted events. I even had the audacity to live in Clarksville, the very neighborhood that was most targeted in the aforementioned 1928 City Plan.

I once knew this city so well, too. I knew and tirelessly supported this city as “the Live Music Capital of the World.” I knew and lived the very essence of Keep Austin Weird as someone who went from being the first person in his family to graduate from college to opening a sneaker boutique in Downtown Austin to creating the first-ever fashion segment of South by Southwest to being among the first Black founders in Texas to raise millions for a tech startup shaking hands with Apple CEO Tim Cook when he visited Austin. I’ve known deep in my heart what it means to be Texan, but to truly be an Austinite. “I live here, I give here” isn’t a tag line to me, but a description of nearly 20 years of my adult and professional life.

Austin remains a part of my psyche too, only it’s not the Austin I grew to love as a college student or a young professional being nominated for Austin Under 40 Awards in multiple years or an accomplished entrepreneur or a once-aspiring public official. That Austin has left me just as those musicians have left city limits and middle class families have moved to more affordable cities in Texas and across America.

Like people, cities change. My feelings about Austin today are not reflective of a hatred of skyscrapers, high-dollar restaurants or rising home prices. My feelings are a testament to the lived reality that Austin is now a city that doesn’t exactly know where it’s going despite being in quite a hurry to get there.

The feeling with me today hurts deeply at the sight of a city that has sacrificed what was authentic and organic and real for a myth. A myth that has turned Austin essentials like musicians and housing affordability into nice-to-haves rather than needs.

It’s a myth that I can no longer call home.




I believe. I have ideas and turn some into businesses. Sometimes I run long distances. Chris Nolan, ATCQ, Lake Como & Murakami are my favorites. @joahspearman