How Austin Became the Best Millennial City in the U.S.

My morning routine, just like that of everyone else in my generation, begins with checking my smartphone that has slept beside me for the night, carefully balanced beside my pillow. On Monday, I woke up to three separate messages from friends-of-friends and acquaintances, reaching out about moving to the fantastic city I now call my home: Austin, Texas. Networking, “friend dates,” roommate searches and food truck recommendations are frequent in the world of any 20-something. But in Austin, these interactions seem to be more pronounced than usual.

Austin is the city of the moment for millennials, consistently touted for its fruitful job market, affordable housing, vibrant music scene and its special culinary culture. Residents, both natives and transplants, fight to “Keep Austin Weird” and prefer local establishments to corporate chains. The city contains the highest concentration of gluten-free vegans anywhere in the country. (I’ll have to get back to you with exact statistics for that figure.) A playground for 20-somethings, Austin has a bountiful selection of interesting nightlife spots, colorful neighborhoods, locally-owned coffee shops and plenty of thrift stores. Creativity flows steadily throughout the city, whether it’s an auto repair shop decorated with a car on top of the building or an institutionalized piece of street art.

With a booming technology start-up community and some of the lowest tax rates in the country, the city is consistently ranked as one of America’s fastest growing cities. Austin topped Forbes’ annual list for the second year in a row, cited by Daniel Fisher as having “what might be America's only competitive real estate market,” an absence of state income tax and its status as the state’s capitol city. Having a major research institution doesn’t hurt either. Austin's projected economic growth rate from 2011 to 2016 is 6.1 percent, "more than double the national as a whole," and its projected population growth rate of 2.8% was triple the national rate. 

The city is home to major events that keep money and young crowds flowing into the city at regular intervals throughout the year, including South by Southwest, one of the country’s most important events of the year for music, technology and film. Austin City Limits, another major music festival for the city, has added a second weekend of festivities this year, while 2012 saw the completion of the city’s first formula one racetrack, Circuit of the Americas. The F1 event, America’s first since 2007, brought in 300,000 people and an estimated $500 million dollars to the city.

Millennial inhabitants of Austin cite easy access to nature as a huge draw, from natural water holes to some of the best bicycling opportunities in the country. Nestled in Texas’ Hill Country, residents can easily trade the taco trucks and music halls for camping trips to Reimers Ranch or Krause Springs and boating trips on Lake Travis.

In April, Google announced Austin as its second city to be wired with its new ultra high speed Internet offering, Google Fiber, highlighting Austin on its website as a city “known globally as a mecca for creative and entrepreneurial people, including musicians, artists, tech companies, and the University of Texas and its new medical research hospital to name a few.” If Google likes Austin, it’s no wonder the millennials like it, too.

But can the city known for its small-town charm handle the massive influx of people, cars and businesses? An approximated fifty new cars make their way into Austin each day, something residents worry about in a city that is now also ranked as one of the worst for traffic congestion. Longtime residents say the city has lost or is losing its character and culture, physically unable to handle the influx of newcomers. 

There is certainly a love-hate relationship with the growth amongst long-time residents and natives, who tout the city’s exceptionalism, but don’t necessarily feel that every 20-something in the country deserves a piece of the pie. A March 2013 article in The Pessimist, aptly titled “Please Don’t Move to Austin” explains it all, asking New Yorkers and Los Angelenos to stay put, after discovering that “unlike their states, Texas has no income tax. They also realized that it’s actually kind of affordable to live here, since you can get a 5,000 sq. ft. home in a nice school district for the price of a 500 sq. ft. rail car with a scenic view of synchronized urinators in Soho.” The sarcastic, poignant post rails on the “ugly condominiums that have been choking our city like kudzu, and leading to the forced relocation — or outright destruction — of some of Austin’s best institutions.” Although shrouded in humor, The Pessimist is highlighting some very real feelings of Austin’s people.

These musings represent the usual challenges and complaints that accompany major change in a city or neighborhood, from dwellers who so closely identify themselves with their special place of residence. And, as is typical of growth and change of this kind, the momentum is not likely to slow down any time soon.  

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Julia Bass

Julia "bassenyourseatbelt" Bass spent a year living, writing and teaching in South Korea. She is a freelance writer based in Austin, TX.

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