The reaction was rapid and decisive.
Hours after “Chill: Austin is not Dallas or Houston” was published online, the frisky responses arrived by almost every means except Pony Express.
Setting aside the abusive or racist comments, concerns about the uneasy union of New Austin with Old Austin — and how that coupling compares with what’s happening in other Texas cities — fell into about six categories.
Familiarity. When we age, we miss the scenery of our youths. This almost universal feeling is impossible to dismiss. In fact, the emotion can be harnessed for any number of worthy causes.
Some readers, however, mourned lost landmarks they felt made room for New Austin, specifically the towers rising downtown. One reader countered with a sweet Facebook page called “Old Austin Still Around,” documenting familiar sights we can still cherish.
Among my favorite groups actively researching and protecting our past are Preservation Austin, Austin History Center, Briscoe Center for American History, Texas State Library and Archives, Carver Museum & Cultural Center and Emma S Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center. Check them out soon.
Open Spaces. One reader was particularly concerned that the new downtown towers stripped our area of open spaces. This opinion is hard to credit. Most of the towers have replaced hard-surface parking lots, abandoned structures and weedy, industrial wastelands.
At least in the abstract, a slender 50-story tower with four units per floor means 50 acres of open space will not be needed for suburban-style lots that typically measure a quarter-acre each.
Great groups working every day to keep our sustainable spaces open: Nature Conservancy of Texas, Hill Country Conservancy, Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, Texas Land Conservancy, Travis Audubon Society, Wimberley Valley Watershed Association, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and Pines and Prairies Land Trust.
Parks. Another reader wrote: “What concerns me more is how few parks have opened in the last 30 years …”
Could she be right? A quick check online showed that the Austin area is home to well over 100 square miles of parks and preserves — along with more than 50 miles of improved trails — most of them acquired in the past 30 years.
Our parks problem is more about stewardship. Besides untiring parks employees, others who roll up their sleeves to improve and maintain: the Trail Foundation, Austin Parks Foundation, Keep Austin Beautiful, Waller Creek Conservancy and Pease Park Conservancy.
Inclusivity. The most tart responses to the column referred to downtown Austin as a preserve for a white elite class.
True, downtown hosts some of our wealthiest citizens — of various ethnicities, don’t assume they are white — but also our least privileged, including the homeless.
And everyone, at one time or another, visits downtown. It’s the one place where all classes meet.
Meanwhile, we can devote our time — or at least a donation — to the Trinity Center, Caritas, Salvation Army, Front Steps, Austin Children’s Shelter, SafePlace, Mobile Loaves and Fishes or Foundation for the Homeless.
Affordability. This issue cuts across almost every sector of Austin. Our city seems affordable only compared to desirable metro areas located on the coasts, but not when benchmarked against Houston, Dallas or other Texas cities.
One thing is clear: The towers did not create the affordability crisis, which predated the latest high-rise residences. Our costs — including property taxes — go up every year because Austin is, too, a desirable place to live.
Ironically, every time we improve the quality of life here, including the economy, it lures more people to town.
Among the warriors making Austin more affordable for the city’s neediest are Foundation Communities, Interfaith Action, Austin Area Urban League, Green Doors, Austin Tenants’ Council and Habitat for Humanity. Please lend them a hand.
At a recent dinner party, I sat next to a thoughtful young man who had earned an advanced degree from a top American university. He holds down a swell job downtown and lives in a desirable near-in neighborhood very close to pretty parks and scores of singular Austin eateries and shops. He’s walking distance from downtown, right next to the most efficient bus route in the city.
Yet he is convinced that his quality of life is declining. (He later clarified that he loves Austin anyway.)
I was genuinely perplexed and peppered him with questions. Much later, I realized what I had missed. Because he sensed a diminishing quality of life, for him, it’s real.
Psychologists and medical doctors tell us that a persistent state of mind alters the chemistry of the brain. A biological event has occurred. Reality is manifest.
It’s like Austin traffic. I know it exists. I’ve seen the pictures. People talk about it.
But I don’t experience the awful traffic but once or twice annually because I don’t get in a car and take certain thoroughfares at certain hours of the day. Blame my traffic-averse brain chemistry.
Doesn’t mean people shouldn’t complain about their perceived reality.
Here’s mine: I fall in love with Austin every day when I leave our bungalow and walk downhill to the social center of the city.
Unabashedly, I cherish our arts, music, movies, fashion, sports, media, museums, nightlife, eateries, shops and parties.
I sing the praises of Great Streets, the Butler Hike and Bike Trail and the state Capitol. I linger over the reflections on Lady Bird Lake and the arcing green hills along the horizon.
I boast about the University of Texas — ranked in the world’s Top 30, according to the Times of London — and how Austin Community College responds nimbly to our business ecology. And how local leaders understand the difference between two missions.
As soon as I hit the social circuit by entering a room full of Austinites, I’m electrified. These people are worth knowing!
Most of all, I’m grateful for those who devote their hands and hearts to make sure that those less lucky than Kip and I have a place at the banquet that is Austin.
They are my real heroes. I’m not talking about the sour sorts who just complain. Instead, I’m referring to the Austinites — New or Old — who make a difference in the lives of others every day.
I salute you.