Issue LVII: Austin and the Cost of Cool

9 Jun

Leslie Cochran, the most famous homeless man in Austin, died last year.  For a city whose unofficial slogan was “Keep Austin Weird,” the town became just a little bit more square.  As the icon of weird in Austin, he ran for mayor every election and crashed on the street in front of my apartment near the old Tower Records.  His obituary ran in the New York Times.   

And that perhaps is the problem.  When the New York-Hollywood media set starts to notice a fun place, they’ll suck all the coolness out; at a minimum, they’ll wrap a velvet rope around it and start charging for entry.  For a place that is no longer and town and not quite a city, Austin looked to guidance for its future as one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in Texas and the nation.  And the coolest.  

Richard Florida, an urban studies professor, preached a vision for growing urban areas like Austin.  His theory was that cities needed to recruit what he called “the Creative Class” who will bring the new economy to blighted cities like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he used to teach at Carnegie Mellon University.  The Creative Class works in industries that require thinking and creativity and high levels of formal education.

It is important for your city to be “cool” for young people.  Because without all those gays and rock bands, your town will not attract workers with the high social capital and job skills your region needs to grow in the future.   

Austin was a chosen city that was intrinsically cool (#2 in Florida’s list).  Austin has been “cool” since at least the 1970s when cheap pot, rent, and beer brought the music scene it is known for today.   

 What makes a city cool?  A combination of “diversity”, tolerance, outdoor activities, arts, nightlife, and walkability sets the stage for most creative cities or towns.  Richard Florida’s book made a huge splash amongst policymakers and the media.  He turned his book into a consulting company and then abandoned Pittsburgh for the University of Toronto.       

 Ten years later after Richard Florida’s book came out, what has the Creative Class done for America’s cities?  Our first warning in 2005 was when Joel Kotkin first pointed out that San Francisco (#1 in cool) had become an ephemeral city with no middle class, children, or jobs that transformed itself into an entertainment and eating center.  The City of St. Francis has become an adult Disneyland that drives the rent up and pushes minorities and the middle class out.      


Now Florida admits that the benefits of focusing on the Creative Class actually benefit that class and not anyone else in the city.  It gentrifies cities and makes them monochromatic and increases the gap between the rich and power when the middle class moves out.  Austin is the only city in Texas that became less diverse and more white.  East Austin (historically a Mexican-American neighborhood) is one of the most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods in the United States. 

And not every city can be cool like Austin, Boston, Boulder, or San Francisco.  There are not enough yuppies and hipsters in the world to save every city in the nation.  But it does help real estate companies pocket big tax subsidies for projects in these neighborhoods and help Richard Florida collect $35,000 per speech from Rust Belt towns.


I am not saying that tolerance, arts, walkability, and creativity suck.  All cities need them, even the boring ones.  The New Urbanism movement of re-creating lost spaces and emphasizing the environment when planning development has improved nearly every American city.  But focusing on a narrow sliver of the population to save very different cities will not improve most cities or even states in the nation.  And the side effects of attracting wealthy outsiders may just make life more unpleasant from the poorest people actually living there and the rent much higher.        

 Cool costs too much.  It costs personality and pushes out locals for out of towners obsessed with “the local thing to do” all while the actual markers of local flavor pass away to make room for placeless markers of upscale “cosmopolitan” urbanity that an honestly be find anywhere. 

 True Austinites swore to never let their town turn into Dallas, but that never stopped the city from subsidizing a mall with a Neiman Marcus.  Focusing on the city’s fundamentals and authentic flavor and independent businesses is the key to true personality and (hopefully) revival.        


Austin was always the place that was way cooler before you go there.  The end of Austin was hailed (before my time) when Liberty Lunch closed, when Las Manitas Avenue Café closed (during my time), and when Leslie Cochran died (after my time).  This time the old timers may be right. 


Washington Monthly – “The Rise of the Creative Class” 

Houston Press – “Finding Austin

San Francisco Chronicle – “The Ephemeral City

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