Discover more from The Honest Broker
Why I Moved to Austin—and How It’s Working Out
12 months after relocating, I reassess my decision. Was it the right choice?
Like David Byrne, I often ask myself: “How did I get here?”
That’s maybe even the first question that comes to mind each morning when I stare at that aging stranger in the bathroom mirror. And it’s especially appropriate right now, because I’ve ended up some place where, just a short while ago, I never thought I’d be.
The Honest Broker is a reader-supported guide to music, books, and culture. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.
I moved to Austin a year ago with a lot of enthusiasm but little actual experience in the community. I’ve described elsewhere my first visit to Austin, some years back, when I got publicly scolded in front of a large audience—not a great first date, by any measure. But subsequent visits were more enjoyable, and certainly friendlier. And now, in an unexpected turn, Austin is my home, and has been for 12 months.
So it's a good time to reassess the move. Was this the right step? Should we have chosen a different destination? Do I really look good in a cowboy hat and boots?
I could have moved almost anywhere—after all, I work out of the home, so any room where I power up a computer can be my workspace. And Tara and I actually considered a wide range of options. Austin didn’t reach the top spot on the list until fairly late in the game. And even in the final moments, we had many soul-searching conversations about our priorities and aspirations.
The basic idea was simple. We had been waiting until both our sons were off at college, and then we would move to our dream location.
But what was that dream?
As it turned out, we had plenty of time to think things over. We were actively parenting for a long, long time, and our children’s well-being was our top priority. And then, unexpectedly, the pandemic gave us even more time to consider options. We had been ready to make a move in late 2019 or early 2020, and even scheduled some exploratory traveling for the very same week that lockdowns began.
But COVID arrived, and we cancelled our trips. A few weeks later, the college sent both our sons back home. For the next year, we weren’t going anywhere farther away than the neighborhood grocery store. But all things must pass, even pandemics—and soon the world returned to its quasi-normal abnormality. Once again, we faced our looming decision over a new home town.
I made matters worse because of my complicated (and perhaps hopelessly muddled) priorities. Because what I want in a dream location is an impossible mixture of opposites. I want to have access to arts and culture and smart people, but I don’t like the intensity of urban life in densely-packed big cities. I want both the hub and the bub, without the hubbub.
My psyche is like a hermaphroditic merger of the husband and wife in Green Acres—there’s a ‘hey boomer’ reference for you—a kind of Times Square or fresh air dilemma. I want the advantages of both the country and the city in the same zip code. But is that even possible?
For a long time, my top choice was Napa (or maybe Sonoma as a fallback) in California. I had lived in both places. When our children were younger, Tara and I spent a little more than a year in downtown Napa, within walking distance of the Blue Note Jazz Club (yes, there’s one in wine country) but also with plenty of vineyards nearby. If it had been up to me, I would have returned there and happily stayed the rest of my life—making friends at wineries, maybe even tending an orchard of olive trees and pressing my own olive oil.
But Tara didn’t much care for wine country. Her favorite place in California is the north county area near San Diego, where we also resided for a year. She is very focused on healthy living—at different stages of her career she has been a dancer in the NY modern dance scene, a choreographer, a Pilates instructor, a dance teacher at colleges, etc.—and loves those little beach communities, especially around Encinitas where an influential yoga community was established back before World War II. (Swami’s beach mentioned in the song “Surfing USA” is there, and gets its name from an actual Swami—Paramahansa Yogananda— who established a hermitage in Encinitas in 1938.)
If we could have agreed on a California destination, we would be on the West Coast right now. But Tara’s bliss of body-mind realization at Swami’s was a little too far away from my goal of tasting the latest pinot noir in the Napa vineyards. Maybe we could have met in the middle—at Esalen in Big Sur, let’s say, or on the beach in Santa Cruz—but we could never figure out the specifics and settle on a shared goal.
We discussed all the tradeoffs over a period of years, and we gradually realized we needed other options outside of California. I’m a westerner by both birth and temperament, so we started thinking about other West Coast cities, adding Seattle and Portland to the mix, or maybe some more low-key destinations in the Pacific Northwest, say Tacoma or Ashland. At a certain stage we also put Santa Fe, New Mexico on the list, and for a while it even looked like our top choice—the city meets almost all of my requirements, with a comfortable pace of life but also a vibrant artist community.
By the way, we briefly considered relocating overseas. Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby, told me how cool it was to live in Oxford, England, and that reminded me of how much I had enjoyed my two years there as a student. Tara visited Cambridge, England when our son Michael was getting a master’s degree there, and sang its praises. Tyler Cowen told me to move to Zurich, and offered persuasive reasons. And I even thought about Adelaide, Australia, where I have had many happy experiences in the beach community of Glenelg. It’s like a variant on Hermosa Beach in SoCal, but even more laidback and with fewer hassles. But these places are too far away from our American family and friends, so we took them off the list—albeit reluctantly.
We took vacations in various places we thought might be our dream destination. But many of these trips were disappointing. We couldn’t escape the conclusion that the quality of life on the West Coast was in decline. We had unexpectedly bad experiences in a number of cities, and even a return trip to my beloved Napa was filled with a few unpleasant situations.
I only started considering Austin because I kept on getting speaking engagements in the city. And I started to realize what a sweet lifestyle the local residents enjoyed there. The turning point came when I found myself telling other people who were unhappy with California that they should move to Austin.
That was around 2015. Around then, I even prodded my younger brother Greg (then living in Silicon Valley) to consider Austin—which he did, moving there before I made the plunge.
At a certain point, I asked myself: If I’m recommending Austin to other people, why don’t I consider it myself. And the more I thought about it, the more plausible it seemed. By the time our youngest son headed off to college, and we were empty nesters, Austin had not only become the first choice, but was expanding its lead over the other options.
As I mentioned, the pandemic slowed us down. Yet as soon as Tara and I were vaccinated, we immediately started looking for a home in Austin. We made a very quick decision, after only one weekend of hunting, settling on a place a few miles outside the city limits, near Lake Travis. It had exactly that Green Acres combination I mentioned—fresh air and open spaces, but one of the best music cities in the world a short drive away.
After a year here, I feel fairly certain that we made the right move. There are downsides, of course, and I’ll lay all of them out below. For a start, the climate here will never match what Tara hoped to enjoy in San Diego. The Texas wines fall far short of my Napa-bred standards, and would probably make Robert Parker grimace and spit defiantly into the Texas soil. And I could happily live without the Austin snakes and scorpions—more defiant than even the other feisty residents of the Lone Star State, who are growing alarmed at the intrusion of strangers into their natural habitat. But it’s some compensation that I can stack up books on my shelves without worrying they will tumble on top of me in an earthquake.
I have a few other complaints. Traffic is getting worse (although still nothing compared to California), and public transport is woefully inadequate. The airport is far too small given the city’s growth and future ambitions. And Austin still hasn’t found its architectural and visual identity, uncertain whether it wants to exemplify the Southwest, or imitate bigger cities on the coasts. So the skyline doesn’t look very distinctive or impressive—perhaps emblematic of a city that doesn’t feel entirely sure that it wants to be in the major leagues but, like some starstruck rookie, has already signed the contract.
Yet those are small details in comparison with the larger advantage, which I’d like to tell you about. But it’s hard, because it’s an intangible—and almost impossible to describe.
Maybe the best word is optimism. The worldview in Austin is upbeat and welcoming of the future—there’s a widespread confidence that goes along with that, and a lessening of frustration and disappointment. All that is in such sharp contrast to what I have seen elsewhere in my travels, especially in most large US cities.
Of course, the locals have good reasons for this optimism. The economy is booming here, and standards of living are rising (although, I must add, not uniformly for every demographic group). In many ways, Austin reminds me of how Silicon Valley operated in an earlier day. But there are a few significant differences, and they are mostly (but not entirely) positive. First, people here want to succeed, but they are not as intensely materialistic as the late stage technocrats now in control out West.
I witnessed the shift firsthand in Silicon Valley, and it was depressing. When I first settled down in my tiny Palo Alto apartment after leaving graduate school, the neighborhood still felt like a college town, more upscale than most, but still not all so different from when the Grateful Dead and Ken Kesey had walked the streets a few years before. But with each passing year, my neighborhood became more like the epicenter of a status-driven plutocracy.
Austin also loves tech and entrepreneurs, but the vibe is more on building a positive future, not on cashing in a billion dollars of stock options. It’s not cool to flaunt your wealth in Austin, and I like that attitude. In general, people work to live here, as the saying goes, rather than live to work.
Yes, we have one resident here who does cash in billions of stock options. But even he comes across as more of a dreamer than a schemer, with plans to go to Mars, dig large holes in the ground, and build green vehicles. For better or worse, he definitely lives up to the “Keep Austin Weird” mantra of the locals.
Even so, the conflict between different visions for the city’s future will inevitably grow more intense in the coming years. I know that many local Austin-ites desire, like Peter Pan, not to grow up. But I’m afraid that’s the one option no longer available.
The most accurate account of Austin I’ve seen anywhere is David Perell’s description of Austin as “a mediocre city, but a great place to live.”
His detailed account is well worth reading, but here’s the bottom line:
“My quick summary is this: Just about everything is a 7/10. The food, the weather, the music, the sports, the nature, the comedy. It’s pretty good in almost every category. Austin also has glaring flaws—especially its general eyesore-ness….
“And yet, I’ve chosen Austin as my home for the foreseeable future. It’s a good place to live. The people are down to earth. Instead of defaulting to drinks at a bar, people meet up for active, outdoor activities like pickleball and paddle boarding. Though it’s the capital of Texas, the quirky vibe hardly resembles the guns and cowboys culture that rightly defines the rest of the state. Socially, it’s one of the most communal places I know. Intellectually, it’s a haven for the kind of free-thinking that’s historically defined America but is on the way out these days. It’s as far as you can get from a coastal city, while still being able to work out at Equinox. And technologically, it has its finger on the pulse of the future — maybe more than any other American city.”
My own experience matches every one of those points. Well, except for one—I have no clue what pickleball is.
But I must add this: In all those areas where Austin only rates 6 or 7 on a scale of 10, the score is still rising. For example, Austin isn’t as good of a food city as San Francisco, but it’s getting better all the time. I’ve seen strides even in the year I’ve been here. The literary scene can’t match New York, but Austin is improving on that metric as well, and I fully expect both more homegrown talent and top-tier writers relocating here from elsewhere. The jazz and classical music offerings aren’t as impressive as the country, rock, or blues scene, but still there’s a vibrancy and growing confidence in every music genre here.
Before moving to Austin, I got to meet some of the key decision-makers in the music scene, including the mayor and the folks in the Texas Music Office, and they convinced even a cynical skeptic like me that they actually care about the nightclubs and the musicians. I really don’t have much patience for politicians and their initiatives, but Austin made me a believer. I don’t think there is a city in the country with more ambition or genuine commitment for its music ecosystem.
Even better, the citizens here support the music scene. Here’s an example: Last week I went to a downtown Austin jazz club to hear a local artist without a record deal—not a star by any measure. But the venue was packed, and we were lucky to get the last two seats, although we had to sit on stools at the bar with a pillar blocking our view of the bandstand. And we only got those seats because we arrived almost a half hour before the music started.
When we left, the crowd waiting to get in now stretched up the steps and out into the street. In other cities, local jazz musicians and venues rarely get that support, and even an established artist from out-of-town might play to a lot of empty chairs.
Now I will gripe that many people talked loudly during the performance. If I had been looking for a quiet and reverent attitude from the audience, I had picked the wrong venue, and maybe the wrong city. On the other hand, I have to respect a community where people looking to socialize and have fun will pay the cover charge at a jazz club for the privilege. And the sheer number of people at the clubs compared to the total Austin population (under one million in the 2020 census, although that number is rising fast) is especially impressive.
For me, this thriving music scene is a big deal—that alone might have been sufficient to get me to move here. But the creative energy here is happening in many spheres, not just on the bandstand. Every passing week, I seem to stumble upon some other encouraging sign about the city’s future. And it’s not just residents—the number of interesting people who visit Austin on any given day is another factor in its favor.
The simple fact is you don’t lose your old friends if you move here, because most of them have reason to visit the city. In the music world, that’s clearly true during South-by-Southwest each year, but it’s also true in a larger sense. Austin just feels more connected than any other city between the two coasts.
So, in every sphere that matters to me, Austin is either already a top ten city in the US, or will be soon. If we could just get a NBA franchise, I’d have everything I desire—but the San Antonio Spurs are not far away (a little more than one hour) and will play some games in Austin this season. So even in that regard, I’m not without options.
It’s entirely possible all of this will collapse. Maybe the city will attract an army of philistine money-grubbers. The scorpions and snakes might be followed by plagues of locust, lice, and gnats, as in ancient Egypt. Maybe every one of the problems I left behind elsewhere will follow me here.
I worry about all of those things. But I don’t believe they are inevitable.
I can see a different path. It feels different this time. My sense is that Austin is on a slope of ascendancy that will last at least another ten or twenty years, or maybe longer, before it loses momentum.
The influx of new Texans certainly causes some alarm among the old timers, but my observation is that the people coming here are some of the best folks in the country—smart, caring, upbeat, friendly, and determined to make their new home town as nice as possible. And although I hear some good-natured gripes about all the former Californians here, I haven’t experienced any real hostility about my West Coast origins. Austin is a genuinely polite city.
There is, however, one major problem coming down the road—and the longtime Austin residents don’t seem aware of it. They really aren’t ready for the price Austin will pay for its prosperity. They don’t fully grasp what happens when a medium-sized city rapidly turns into a global center of business and urban activity—yet it’s taking place whether they are ready or not.
I will actually go so far as to say the folks here are a little naïve. Perhaps charmingly so, but naïve nonetheless.
The clearest sign of it happened when I first showed up ready to buy a home. A number of locals told me to wait—because the real estate market was turning crazy for a spell, but everything would soon settle down. I hear similar promises on a daily basis. Everything is in flux in Austin, but the locals keep telling me that this is all temporary and life will soon return to the way it once was.
I have to laugh. I know that the current craziness is only a small taste of the craziness to come.
Because of my own personal experiences, I know what happens when the stars are aligned and a community takes off. I saw it in SoCal in my youth. I saw it in Silicon Valley in the 1980s. I saw it in Shanghai in the 1990s. I’ve had a front row seat when the game accelerates, and I’ve learned enough to hold on for dear life. Things start happening faster than anyone anticipates. Change is everywhere. The unexpected is an everyday experience. Strange happenings become normal.
I take some consolation in the fact that the folks here brag how much they love weirdness. They are in for a large dose of it—more than they realize, and in unfamiliar guises. I’m guilty of contributing to it in my own way. Even by Austin weirdness standards, I am an extreme case. So I can’t complain. And after 12 months on the ground, I’m determined to take things as they come, however strange it gets.
But my hunch is it will get much weirder and far sooner than anybody expects. On the other hand, that might just turn out to be the best thing about living here.