I t had been seven years since last I visited Austin, Texas, and if I have any sense, it won't be seven years until I go back. For all its vaunted weirdness, it's still a town with considerable charm, albeit strained more than slightly by its prodigious growth rate.
This sort of thing matters to me, a dyed-in-the-polyester Oklahoman, because my own home town is enjoying something of an Austinesque boom these days, and the temptation to make indefensible comparisons is one to which I yield with amazing frequency, so here's a not-even-slightly-inclusive list of advantages the capital of Texas holds over the capital of Oklahoma:
- Cultural activities at the level of a city maybe twice its size.
Even apart from that "Live Music Capital of the World" business, almost anything you can put on a screen or a stage or a canvas, you can find somewhere in Austin. Artists, I suspect, are more the rule than the exception among the city's 710,000 people. We're not exactly slouches in Oklahoma City, or for that matter in Tulsa, but this is by far the biggest draw that they have and we don't.
- A greater emphasis on purely environmental values.
There's only so much water in Central Texas, and Austin lives on a lot of it, which means that the city has to make substantial efforts to keep from depleting the available supplies. What's more, the increasing price of transportation means more pressure on developing the city's core, which would be a Good Thing were there room for everyone's particular schemes, which there isn't. (My cousin, a neighborhood activist in central Austin, explained the new VMU zoning, which is intended to turn the Dreaded Sprawl from a horizontal direction to vertical, by encouraging high-rise urban development along specified core transportation routes.) I'm not a sworn enemy of sprawl by any means, but if fuel prices keep going up and I'm not persuaded that it would be a tragedy if they do sooner or later we're going to be doing something similar, or we'll be driving people out of town altogether.
- The place has diversity out the wazoo.
And people aren't constantly yammering about it, either: it simply is. Back up in Soonerland there are still entirely too many people who consider it their business whom you're sleeping with, or where your family came from, or something similarly beyond the pale, and to the extent that they discourage people or businesses from locating here, they do all of us a considerable disservice.
All that said, of course, there are some aspects of Austin I'd just as soon not see us emulate:
- Traffic is somewhere between horrible and unbearable.
And in just three days, I managed to see it at both ends of that spectrum. It's not surprising, really: while Austin's bus system is better than Oklahoma City's and they have more bicycle lanes, they have 150,000 more people in less than half the space. It doesn't help that they resort to so-called "traffic-calming" shtick like "road humps," more likely to induce road rage than any actual calming effect. Much of Live Oak Street is posted with a speed limit of 30, but there's a hump on almost every block. Surely if they wanted people to drive 20, they'd have posted 20, wouldn't they?
- Almost everything is political.
For those of us who would just as soon stay out of the Great American Corruption Facility, this is a scary prospect indeed, albeit one which may be inevitable.
- All this community-improvement stuff is ungodly expensive.
Oklahoma City actually spends more money per capita for FY 2008-09, both Austin and Oklahoma City anticipate expenditures around $750 million but Texas in general is more dependent on property tax, and the aforementioned cousin, whose house is worth about three and a half times as much as mine (location, location, location), pays out almost ten times as much in property tax. (Sales tax is about the same: 8.25 percent in Austin, 8.375 percent in Oklahoma City. The difference: of the 8.25, only 2 goes to Austin, with the rest going to the state. Oklahoma's state rate is 4.5 percent, so Oklahoma City actually gets to keep 3.875 percent.) Austin projects small budget deficits for the next few years; Oklahoma City would never hear of such a thing.
Still, it's a great town. They have thousands of bats; we have thousands of potholes. We have a way to go, it seems.
16 June 2008