Should we move to Austin , TX?
July 19, 2004 11:10 AM   Subscribe

Tell me about Austin? My wife and I are considering a move to Austin, but neither of us have ever lived there, so I turn to my fellow Mefites for help. [more inside]

We'd like a place that is cheap, cool, liberal, funky with good schools (kids aged 6.5 and 2.5) and no homeowner's associations to ruin our outre idiosyncratic color choices for our front door. Does such a neighborhood exist? (bonus points for places on the south or east of the city center, if possible)
posted by Irontom to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Oh, good lord, there are no cheap neighborhoods until you get to the 'burbs. However, you are more likely to encounter uptight homeowner's associations out there. If you decide to buy in the city, consider looking east of I35 or south of the river. Most of the homes in the neighborhoods with "good" schools are overpriced. The school district has a transfer system for those unsatisfied by the school in their neighborhood, plus an all-transfer school downtown.

But there is plenty of cool, liberal funk to be had within the city, and lots of free (or cheap) community events to fill your schedule. We moved here from Albuquerque, NM six years ago and it seems we pay much more for housing, much less for entertainment. ymmv.

Here is an AskMeFi thread about tourist-type stuff to do around here (which is what we did for about the first year or so). I wrote another round up for visitors on sxswblog, but the site seems to be down for the season
posted by whatnot at 12:00 PM on July 19, 2004

I didn't write this, and don't know who did - but its a good commentary and mostly still true, although slightly out of date.

I live in North Austin, Burnet/Rutland area, in a neighborhood where all the building covenants have expired, so I dont have to worry about HOAs.

1. First you must understand that Austin is not Texas, but Austin is in the heart of Texas. The rest of Texas is defined by two zones-the vaguely scary, inbred country regions, and the extremely scary, urban, conservative mega-cities. In Austin, we respect both zones (they are, after all, in the great state of Texas), but we really don't have much in common with them. You may hear us speak disparagingly of other parts of Texas, but you are not allowed to do the same. The only thing we hate more than people from Houston coming to Austin and trying to turn Austin into Houston is people from outside of Texas coming to Austin and insulting our state.

2. You should also understand that it is hot and humid as hell for at least 3 months out of the year. People in Austin know this, and they don't understand people who complain about it. The day lasts 24 hours. There are 7 days in a week. It's hot outside. None of these things are worth mentioning or complaining about.

3. Austin has some peculiar conventions when it comes to traffic. First, if there is anything that could potentially distract Austin drivers, they stop dead in the middle of the road. If they see the scene of an accident on the other side of the highway, they stop. If they see rain, they stop. If there is snow, they stop and start sacrificing goats. Get used to stopping on highways. At the same time, you should get over the idea that drivers in Austin will stop at other, more appropriate times. Austin drivers will not even slow down for a pedestrian, even if that pedestrian is clinging for life to the front grill of their Suburban Land Yacht. They also will not stop to talk on their cell phones, and they damn sure will not stop for a red light that is less than 10 seconds old. And, of course in Austin, as in the entire state of Texas, it is against the law to use a turn signal. A turn signal may distract other drivers, causing them to stop in the middle of the road, so it is best to not advertise your intentions to turn or change lanes.

4. If you park your car in Austin, it will be towed.

5. Getting around Austin requires a bit of training. First of all, it is relatively easy to go north and south in Austin, but not so easy to get
east or west. And if you are going north or south, the directions will surely begin with, "Go down MoPac... 'cause you sure as hell don't want to mess with I-35." Of course, this rule is changing as more and more people crowd onto MoPac, so in the future all instructions will begin with, "Actually, it's probably faster to just take Lamar." Lamar is a road with no beginning and no end, and everything is "just off" of Lamar, so it is just a matter of time before it becomes a parking lot similar to I-35 and MoPac. Eventually, a major flood of Shoal Creek will drown all the people parked on Lamar. We call this, "thinning the herd. "There is no point going anywhere during "rush hour," which runs from 6:00 to 10:00 in the morning and from 3:00 to 7:00 in the afternoon every work day except Friday (when rush hour starts on Thursday night and lasts all day). On most days, at least one driver is distracted by something during rush hour, which means that everybody has to stop. You should also make a note that Mopac IS Loop 1 -- they are one and the same. Similarly, Capital of Texas Hwy is 360, and Research is 183. 2222 is Northland or Allendale or Koenig, depending on what part of 2222 you are talking about. 290 is Ben White, but there are two 290 exits on I-35 * one of which is 2222 (which, as mentioned earlier, is Northland, Allendale and Koenig). Don't try to figure it out. Just accept it. If you question the intelligence behind this naming convention, people will simply tilt their heads to the right and stare at you. Don't ask about why we pronounce street names as we do. Just accept that Manor Rd. is pronounced May-nor and that Manchaca is pronounced "Man-chalk". Oh, and it's important to know that Guadalupe is pronounced "Gwah-dah-loop". If you give it the Spanish pronunciation you'll just confuse people.

6. Austin is effectively divided into two worlds. The new "tech" people who live "north" of town (north of 183), and the old "true" Austinites who live in the "middle" of town (although census data will no doubt reveal that the true "middle" of Austin is now well north of 183). South of town is hard to describe, so we'll pretend it doesn't exist, and East of town is embarrassing to describe, so we'll pretend it doesn't exist either. North Austin is a plastic, mass-produced world full of chain restaurants and movie theaters. The houses are huge, the yards are small, and the treeless streets have names like "Oak Forest View Circle." Central Austin, on the other hand,tends to attract the granola eating, deodorant-shunning, aging hippie-types. The houses are small and structurally frightening, but they are no less astonishingly expensive, and the businesses tend to be small, privately owned specialty shops that don't sell anything you'd want to buy.

7. There is no dress code in Austin. How you look and what you're worth typically have little do to with each other here. In central Austin, it is quite common to see some scruffy, smelly hippie with dread-locks, tattoos and piercings driving a new Lexus or Mercedes. People in Austin like to look weird. The woman you see walking down the drag with the tattoo of a dragon across her back and the purple hair may be your child's kindergarten teacher. Your congressman might be a leather-clad biker. And the girl in the coffee shop serving you a latte may have a Ph.D. in astrophysics. Don't judge a book by it's cover here. In the extreme, there is Leslie, who is technically a bearded man, but who likes to hang out downtown in a teddy and a tiara. Leslie's nuts, but he personifies Austin, and we're not going to get rid of him. Heck, he got about 10% of the vote in the last mayoral election.

8. Austin has a love-hate relationship with tech companies in general and Dell in particular. We love being progressive, and the tech companies represent "the future." However, they're boring, sanitized, and they tend to treat their employees like cattle. Dell is a nasty machine that uses people like a lubricant, grinding them up and cleaning them out when they get messy or inconvenient. People in Austin are beginning to have a sneaking suspicion that Orson Welles was right about everything except the date.

9. Austinites are largely a bunch of tree-hugging environmentalists. For example, we're strangely and frighteningly proud of our bats. In the
summer, the Congress Avenue Bridge is reminiscent of a Hitchcock film, but Austinites flock down there every night to see the show up close and personal. We have a statue devoted to the bats, and we named our hockey team after them (yes, we have a hockey team). The bats rule. As does our salamander. At one time, money-grubbing developers (Freeport-MacMoRan mostly) were building irresponsibly along Barton Creek, and because the bastards (may they rot in hell) couldn't be bothered with things like proper sewage drainage, our beloved swimming hole, Barton Springs Pool, was being polluted with the sewage from Barton Creek Development residents (a.k.a., "rich scum spoor"). Most of the city council and the Texas legislature were in the pockets of the festering scumbag developers, so it was necessary to bring out the big guns-the Barton Creek Salamander, an endangered species that was being threatened by the development sludge. For some reason, in Texas it is okay to make your citizens swim in crap, but it is illegal to make salamanders do so.

10. And of course, there is music. Austin is supposed to be the "music capital of the world." We have a shrine for Stevie Ray Vaughn down on Town Lake (yes, it's a lake-it looks like a river to you, but it's a lake); pay your respects if you come to town. While you're at it, swing by Threadgills and pay your respects to the memory of Janis Joplin, and drop by Antone's and pay your respects to the memory of Clifford Antone. He's not dead, but he's in a Texas prison on drug trafficking charges, and that may be just as bad.
posted by mrbill at 12:06 PM on July 19, 2004 [3 favorites]

caveat: i haven't lived in austin in over ten years, although i lived there for about six years, and i have friends who still live there whom i visit often. the traffic is now unbearable, the rents are through the roof, because the city was not designed to get as populous as it has.

also, the weather hasn't changed.

i think the weather is miserable for far more than three months of the year. unlike other parts of the country, central texas does not cool off at night. if it's 100 degrees and 90 percent humidity all day, it's still going to be hot and muggy at midnight, from april until september. from september to april, it gets less hot. texas has one hell of a drought-cycle, so frequently, round about the end of june, that sun has baked everything living to a nice dry brown.

my experiences in austin generally agree with what mrbill quoted about austin not being like the rest of texas, about the dress code and about the tech companies. also, austin has some great green spaces, some fabulous non-haute restaurants, excellent produce in the grocery stores, and lots of fun places to hang out. it does not have anything satisfying at the high end of the scale (posh shopping, posh restaurants, or an airport that can get you a direct flight to most other parts of the world)--it's not that kind of town. it's a college town, a state capital.
posted by crush-onastick at 12:30 PM on July 19, 2004

Well, I was born in Corpus Christi, and lived most of my younger days in little towns an hour west of Houston (Sealy, Bellville, Brenham) so I won't have a problem with #1. After leaving Texas, I lived in Tucson, Virginia Beach and the northern Virginia, so #2 is pretty well covered as well.

What's so embarrassing about East, and what's so hard to describe about South?
posted by Irontom at 12:33 PM on July 19, 2004

Whatnot: one of my friends is moving to Austin to attend grad school at UT, and he seemed amazed at how little he'd be paying for rent... is that just in comparison with Chicago, or is he nuts, or what?
posted by kenko at 12:43 PM on July 19, 2004

I am too lazy to look it up now, but many disparage the East side of downtown as a high-crime area. From what I've seen, that's not really true. It is has a high concentration of African Americans, so I have often wondered if the slagging of the East was actually a subtle form of racism. Many of the houses are old, and not all of them are maintained very well. I see that all over the city, however, so that's hardly a legitimate beef.

As for the South, well I have my prejudices about this, so take my opinions with a grain of salt. I love South Austin. There is a little more breathing room, plenty of diversity and a lot more greenery. North Austin is slowly becoming "New Dallas." Number 6 in mr. bill's list above, "a plastic, mass-produced world full of chain restaurants and movie theaters," is right on target. Now, some folks are comfortable with that homogenized atmosphere, and they find South Austin's funk and color a little embarassing. I would argue that this area, downtown, and a couple of neighborhoods in the north are preserving the local flavor and keeping Austin from becoming just another city.

kenko: I think we were stunned because we moved to a larger city and therefore had to pay more to live in a central location. Since your friend is moving to a smaller city, maybe his rent is just decreasing proportionally?
posted by whatnot at 1:06 PM on July 19, 2004

I have lived here almost all my life and I have to say I love it. I live in South Austin now, but have lived in NW austin (high school), East Austin (recently), Central Austin (a few years ago), by the lake (4 corners - near hippy hollow yall), and Round Rock. NW Austin, Pflugerville, Round Rock, West lake. Those are the places you live if you have kids. Great school districts. Westlake is expensive. The rest are more average, but you live in very un-austin like areas.

However, if you want to live in a neighborhod like you are describing, I would still pick south austin. AISD schools are not as good as others listed above, however, I think the environment of SA would be better for your kids than some of the richer more consumer based northern areas.

Yes, its hot. July, August, and september are severe. You get used to it and find ways to cope. You go to Barton Springs where the water is like, 60 degrees. (Thank you little salamanders) But the winter is mild and march til may is perfect.

Sorry, I am a bit of a fangirl about Austin.
posted by jopreacher at 1:24 PM on July 19, 2004

I mostly hated my time in Austin, but I'm the only one I've ever met who didn't love it there, so you should probably take my negativity with a grain of salt. I was in the midst of a pretty substantial bout of depression and social anxiety at the time, so that's probably why I found Austin so cliquey, lonely, and arrogant.
Anyway, since I'm the only hater you're likely to find on the subject, here are my tips:
  • Under no circumstance suggest that UT is anything but better in every discipline than any university in the world.
  • Under no circumstance suggest that The Strand or Powell's can in any way compete with Half Price Books.
  • Get covered parking. Garage, carport, under an overpass, it does not matter. Just make sure there is shade where you will be parking.
  • Shop at H-E-B. This is the one Texas institution that really is better than anything you can find elsewhere. Central Market is a revelation (I can't even cook worth a damn and it blew me away), but the other H-E-B locations are all superb. My favorite ended up being the one in Hyde Park.
  • Thundercloud Subs are good. Also, there's a sub shop whose name eludes me right now (a little help here; there's one right near the Blockbuster just north of campus on Guadeloupe. I think it's called Longhorn somethingerother. Actually, it may just be called Longhorn Subs. And there may actually be one in the student union building. Can't remember) that makes a brilliant falafel wrap and these seriously kickass little vegan spinach pies. mmm.
  • Ooh, eat at Chuy's, too.
  • South Austin is probably best if you're not wealthy, like a little funk, and want the kids to have some space to run around.
  • If Alex Jones is still on the radio, tune in for some sad but deeply entertaining paranoid schizophrenia
  • Drop into La La's Little Nugget for a Cuba Libre. It's Christmas there every day.
Hmm, those are mostly positive things. Maybe I didn't hate Austin after all.
posted by willpie at 1:25 PM on July 19, 2004

Willpie: Alex was on KLBJ just this morning in fact, ranting and raving as always. Highly entertaining.
posted by mrbill at 1:51 PM on July 19, 2004

willpie: i didn't hate my time in austin, but i didn't love it either. given the changes in population density and traffic since i've left, i'd never move back. i have to say, i found it cliquey, too, and i found the the yay!austin!is!the!best!place!ever! people a bit arrogant in a weird hippie laid-back sort of way. under no circumstances, ever, did i stay in town during SXSW (i was amongst the clique that called it SuxbySuxWest) precisely to avoid overdosing on austin's self-image. some people are well-suited to that self-image; some are really turned off by it; others don't seem to notice it.

and i completely agree about thundercloud and central market.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:14 PM on July 19, 2004 [1 favorite]

Mrbill, that was about as perfect and classic as one could get in descrribing Austin. Of course, sarcasm, satire and wit aside, it's a wonderful and lovely city if you move there and really become it and let it become you. The transient population is annoying (i.e. not the college students -- they keep things interesting and liberal) but the heart of Austin is a beautiful one.

I do miss it...
posted by fooljay at 2:33 PM on July 19, 2004

I've been living in Austin for a total of about 16 years (I first came here in 1984). It's changed a lot, mostly for the worse. How many Austinites does it take to change a lightbulb? Three: one to do it, and two to talk about how much better the old lightbulb was.

As others have said, traffic is awful, and if I had to commute, I'd probably have a much lower opinion of this town. A friend of mine used to have a commute that could take her an hour on a bad day: I could ride my bike to the same place in less than 30 minutes. TxDOT is trying to build roads as fast as they can, which just encourages people to drive more (and has the effect of turning Austin into Houston). One way Austinites are like other Texans is in their disdain for public transit. We have a bus system, but unless you happen to live on a route that takes you exactly where you want to go and you're not very particular about when you get there, it's not very useful: buses don't run very often, and the routes are limited. If you need to transfer, abandon all hope.

Central Austin actually has a lot of nice residences--30s-era Arts & Crafts homes, that sort of thing. There's also a lot of bad housing, and very few bargains. Once you get into more suburban (ie, newer) parts of town, you're probably looking at either awful 60s ranch homes, awful 70s ranch homes, or cheesy McMansions. Housing in central Austin isn't cheap. You'll have a hard time finding a livable house for under $1000/mo rent. If you're thinking of buying, $130,000 will get you a small house in an OK neighborhood that needs a lot of work. The market seems to keep going up, and property taxes are wicked-high. (There's no state income tax, and the money has to come from somewhere. Our inestimable governor wants to cut property taxes and has proposed taxing titty dancers to make up for it. Riiiight.)

Nothing wrong with east of I-35: I lived there before, I may be moving there again. Certain parts of it are scary (I call 12th & Chicon "crackhead corner"), certain parts are quite pleasant, and some parts are "in transition." South Austin was for a brief period the heart of Austin's funkiness, but increasingly it is being turned into a sanitized, cutesified, expensive version of it's former self. No, I'm not bitter.
posted by adamrice at 4:15 PM on July 19, 2004

I don't think rents are high here - I got my current apartment for $400/mo last November, and I have 641 sq ft, 1/1, and washer/dryer in my unit. Oh yeah, and a fireplace.

Hyde Park is my favorite neighborhood, but it's hella expensive. My ex and I bought a house there for $179k in 1999, but I moved out.

The summer weather is hellacious, and that bit about it not cooling off when the sun goes down is spot-on.

Good luck, I hope you like it if you come here. It's a nice place, aside from the weather.... (grumble grumble I am a person with air conditioning that only barely kinda keeps up).
posted by beth at 4:33 PM on July 19, 2004

kenko: i think whatnot is right about the change in rents between chicago/austin. i did the opposite move and my $800/mo apartment in bucktown (chicago) was larger than my $700/mo apartment--without central air!--about 1.0 mile from UT's campus. an apartment comparable to my bucktown apartment in depaul or wrigleyville was somewhere around twice the cost (though closer to the train).
posted by crush-onastick at 4:48 PM on July 19, 2004

I currently live in Dallas, which Austinites might argue, discredits my opinion 1000 fold.....but, I live very near downtown, and it is a completely different atmosphere than the plastic Dallas that I hate.

I have alot of family in the South Austin area, and visit them frequently, so I do know the city.

Everyone is correct about the's hot....for half the year, we just learn to cope. Imnagine walking outside and hitting a wave of heat like you were sitting next to a fire. That is Texas. Oh and plan to sweat alot, it's always humid, so you never cool off.

Austin is great for live music. 6th street has changed over the years but there are still staples like Stubbs. I saw Built to Spill there a few years ago, and it was amazing. I have always liked the music scene in Austin, they get some great bands being a large college town.

Overall, I think Austin still has its hippie heart, but is becoming a Tech mecca....

Oh and there's always SXSW...
posted by Benway at 5:02 PM on July 19, 2004

A friend of mine put together a decent list of good things in Austin. Pretty right on.

I moved here about two years ago, after living in certain large cities on either coast of this great land of ours, and I love it. Good food, good neighborhoods, good people, good stuff to do pretty much all the time. The rent and housing prices are pretty cheap, there's parking everywhere, and I don't know anyone who's ever been towed. It gets hot, yeah, but that's why God invented air conditioning. There are plenty of freaks here - people from those other places don't understand that Austin is not stereotypical redneck Texas... well, a little bit, but you know. We live in South Austin, which is great, but we do have some square friends up north, and they seem to get by just fine.
posted by majcher at 5:13 PM on July 19, 2004

I'd recommend central - Hyde park area. Although I'm not sure what you consider 'cheap', south central / south west has some very nice areas. I've heard Eames is a good school district. Eastside has some gems, but also lots of sketchy areas. Can't vouch for the school districts east of 35.

I think you'll enjoy it!
posted by jazzkat11 at 6:13 PM on July 19, 2004

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