We have an early flight out of Austin this morning. We got here early, and thank goodness for that: the airport is jammed with travelers and a bit of a madhouse. The regular security line snaked along for hundreds of yards, filled with anxious people worried about catching their flights. It was the greatest advertisement for getting TSA precheck status you could imagine.
It’s officially Thanksgiving week, folks, and the packed airport proves it. If you’re traveling don’t take chances—get there early!
On Friday we drove from Austin out into the Texas “hill country” and traveled around towns with evocative names like “Dripping Springs” and “Driftwood.” For decades, such places were part of the wide open spaces to be found in this area, with a rolling landscape dotted with small trees, mule deer, and roadrunners.
That is true no longer. Now the area is home to housing development after housing development, with many other new housing developments visible on the horizon. We drove through some of them, and were amazed at the size of the developments and the number of houses being built. There were houses in every phase of development, from cleared land being staked off to homes in the framing stage to homes where workers were putting on finishing touches and landscapers were getting the lots ready for a for sale sign. And all of the activity was right next to completed homes where families had just moved in. I’m surprised we didn’t see any moving vans.
According to the 2020 census, Texas added more population from 2010 to 2020 than any other state in the country, assimilating almost four million people. The Austin area has gotten its fair share of the newcomers, and people who live around here have gotten used to seeing cars with license plates from other states. And the accompanying development isn’t limited to the cities, as our road trip to the hill country demonstrated: the Texas countryside is being transformed, too. Given the frantic pace of the development, areas like the hill country that are near the growing cities will look a lot different in three or four years than it does right now. The traffic patterns are bound to change, too.
When you decide to go deep in the heart of Texas a few years from now, expect to see a lot more houses, and the stars at night might not look quite as big and bright with all the house lights on the horizon.
I’ve been meaning to write one last thing about our recent trip to Austin. If you’re interested in architecture, Austin is a must-visit destination. With the city growing like crazy, and new buildings being constructed everywhere you look, Austin allows a kind of real-time look at the direction of modern architecture.
So, what do you see in Austin’s new buildings? Lots of geometry, for the most part, and not much ornamentation. The ruffles and flourishes that you notice in older buildings—sometimes beautiful, sometimes garish, but almost always interesting—are long gone. The new buildings are sleek and gleaming, and in many instances the simple rectangle and cube designs that maximize the space under roof reign supreme.
But that doesn’t mean the architects don’t try to come up with visually interesting buildings. The Google headquarters building that is under construction and shown in the first photograph in this post is enormous, occupying an entire city block, but the design includes a graceful curve and, at the front of the building not visible in the picture, a unique stacking of floors that makes it look like the observer is peeking into the innards of the building. The design of the top of the building in the photograph immediately above tries to depart from the standard flat roof. And other buildings, like the eye-catching “Jenga” building shown in the bottom photograph in this post, make a statement by playing off the cube and rectangle look in an arresting way.
In the ancient architectural battle of form against function, functionality seems to be winning, but the architects look to be doing their best to add a dollop of flash and flair and inject some art into the architecture. And one other thing is clear: if you live or work in one of Austin’s new buildings, you are going to get lots of natural light, because windows—lots and lots of windows—are a dominant feature. That’s a good thing too, because it shows that today’s architects are concerned about the experience of the people inside the building as the people like me gawking at the skyscrapers from the outside.
There is a bridge in Austin that is home to hundreds of thousands of bats, which roost in the rafters of the underpass. During certain times of year, at sunset, the bats emerge as a huge group, execute a kind of collective swirl maneuver, and fly off into the sunset, heading down the Colorado River. The bats then return to their home sometime before sunrise.
It is apparently quite a sight, and large crowds gather to watch the bats take off. (We haven’t witnessed it yet, but we’ll catch the Bat Emergence on a future trip to Austin.) For this reason, Austin is also known as the Bat City, and it has embraced that moniker and become . . . well, a bit batty about it. You see paintings of bats on walls, Bat City t-shirts, bat graffiti, and other bat-related items everywhere around the city. It’s fair to say that Batman would feel right at home in Austin.
My favorite bat-themed feature is these bat-shaped bicycle racks on a downtown street.
Yesterday morning we enjoyed a hike at Mary Moore Searight Metropolitan Park, an enormous, sprawling park on the outskirts of Austin. It had rained early in the morning and rain was forecast for the early afternoon, so our plan was to dodge the raindrops and do our hike when the air was cooled by the rain that had just passed through.
The Searight Park encompasses lots of different kinds of habitats. There are wooded areas, meadows, and even a shallow canyon that was carved out of the native limestone by a small creek. There are dozens of different trails, one of which follows the rim of the canyon and features some impressive drops, as shown above. No guardrails or fencing, of course!
The creek bed itself is a very pretty area. The creek has formed small pools that feature lots of small fish and some colorful algae. Richard and Julianne’s dog Pretty enjoyed a refreshing dip in the water, as did another dog. The limestone was still wet after the rain, and in some algae-covered areas it was slick and you really had to watch your step.
The park includes an area where the creek has been dammed, creating a deeper, wider stream. This area is popular with kayakers, although none were out on the water when we passed by.
Much of the park consists of large unmoved meadows that are designated wildflower areas, as shown below. In some areas the native grasses are nearly shoulder high, and give you a sense of what the prairies must have looked like long ago. There were still some wildflowers in bloom, but we apparently had just missed the prime time to visit, when the whole area was bursting with color.
Still, there were some flowers to appreciate. One variety I had never seen before, shown below, is the Castilleja plant, colloquially known as “Indian paintbrush” or “prairie fire.” The plant is native to the western part of the Western Hemisphere and is found from Alaska to all the way down to the Andes in South America. It’s a pretty and distinctive flower with bright petals that look like a paintbrush, which explains its nickname.
The Mary Moore Searight Park is a great park to have nearby, and our hike yesterday barely scratched the surface. We’ll be looking forward to heading to other parts of the park on a future visit.
It’s been in the 90s in Austin, and pretty humid, too. But it’s nice when there’s a river that’s handy. In Austin it’s the Colorado River —not the one that goes through the Grand Canyon—and people were taking full advantage today.
There were tons of kayaks, rafts, and floats on the water, and hardy teenage boys were jumping off a pedestrian bridge into the river. Not a bad option on a hot day!
It’s fair to say Austin has a healthy thirst for adult beverages. The downtown area features two significant drinking areas—Sixth Street and Rainey Street—where you can wet your whistle at countless bars, cocktail lounges, and saloons, many of which are blasting recorded music or featuring live music. But that doesn’t really give you a clear picture. Here are some vignettes that help to illustrate the point:
• When we checked in to our hotel, the Van Zandt, on Friday afternoon, the clerk asked if we would like a beer or a water. I’m pretty sure the beer was mentioned first.
• One of the bars on Sixth Street is evidently so popular that, as the sign above indicates, people are willing to install the “LineLeap” app and pay for the privilege of jumping to the front of the line—something I’ve heard of for amusement parks, but not bars. How do the other liquored-up people in the line like that?
• When I was taking the above photo at about 2 p.m. two guys who had gotten an early start came up to me and one, with breath that could stop a rhino, challenged me to “rock, paper, scissors, two out of three!” I politely declined.
• We walked down Rainey Street at a little after noon, where I took the picture of the sign below. The bars were already filling up, and it was clear that the cocktails would be lonely no longer.
• When we later returned to our hotel a little after 9 p.m., Rainey Street was packed with people. The music being pumped out by one nearby bar was so loud that the bass reverb was distinctly heard and vibrating the windows in our room on the 12th floor.
Austin is a big scooter town, even bigger than Columbus. On Friday night we saw hundreds of scooter riders, and people were zipping everywhere and completely ignoring the instruction on the base of the scooter that says you can’t ride it on the sidewalk. Pedestrians in downtown Austin on a Friday night need to maintain a state of constant vigilance to avoid collisions with newbie scooter riders.
Saturday morning is a different story. The Friday frivolity has ended, the scooters are no longer needed, and they’ve been casually abandoned everywhere, in willy-nilly fashion. Instead of worrying about collisions, the walker has to be careful not to trip over a scooter some thoughtless and likely inebriated person left right in the middle of the sidewalk. It makes it impossible to enjoy a Saturday morning walk without navigating around and between hundreds of discarded scooter carcasses. But at least the Saturday morning pedestrian has company: the scooter crews are out in force collecting their scooters and putting them back upright, in cool configurations, in position to be used by the Saturday scooter set.
We’re down in Austin for a visit, and our first day here reaffirms what I’ve believed for a while: Austin is one of the most interesting cities in America.
For one thing, it’s booming. Many tech companies have moved into the Austin area, and the skyline is dotted with construction cranes putting up some very interesting new buildings, like the one in the photo above. Many transplants from other states, particularly California, have followed the tech companies to Austin, resulting in Texas’ capital city dealing with an unprecedented influx of recent arrivals that has created perhaps the hottest–some might say completely overheated–housing market in the United States. If you’re trying to buy a house in Austin, coming from a place like Columbus, prepare yourself for egregious sticker shock and the frustration and disappointment of being routinely outbid by people paying far above the asking price because they also are desperate to buy a home of their own.
From our walk around downtown last night, it’s pretty clear that Austin has a very active population of youngish professionals and tech workers who are looking to have a raucous good on Sixth Street or Rainey Street on a Friday night. There’s an active nightlife, and we had dinner at a really good restaurant that was so busy we couldn’t get in until 9:30 Central Time. That’s like dining in New York City.
But the booming growth and sizzling housing market and partying is going on cheek by jowl with an obvious homelessness problem. Many intersections, highway underpasses, roadway sidebeds, and downtown sidewalks are the site of homeless encampments. The Austin homeless live in tents or under tarps, like the person in the photo above, with their possessions defining their own personal space. It’s hot here now, and it’s hard to imagine how the homeless survive broiling days when the temperature hits the upper 90s. The choice between being out in the blazing sun all day, or sitting in a suffocating tent, isn’t a good one. It can’t be healthy for these unfortunate people, and the encampments raise e, public health, basic sanitation, crime, and personal security issues. But how do you begin to tackle such a huge problem?
The photo below shows a homeless encampment right in front of the Austin City Hall building, at one of the major intersections bringing you into the downtown area. It’s not exactly the kind of image that a city would want to project to visitors, but there’s a lot of things on Austin’s plate right now. The city is trying to deal with the homelessness challenges, an obvious housing shortage, bursting at the seams growth that looks like it will continue indefinitely, a changing political dynamic, and assimilation of a bunch of newcomers into the proudly weird Austin way of life.
The initiative stems from a 2015 study of the materials that ended up in Austin’s landfills. The study found that 37 percent of the landfill deposits from businesses was organic material that could have been composted or put to some other use. Accordingly, when the city enacted its Universal Recycling Ordinance, which has the goal of reaching the point of zero waste by 2040, one of the first targets was to reduce, and ultimately stop, the flow of organic material into landfill space.
The ban on throwing away food by local businesses is a first step in the process. According to the article linked above, Austin city officials hope that the restaurants and food businesses either donate the food to the needy, or give it to local farmers, or compost it. The affected businesses have to submit an “Organic Diversion Plan” each year.
The Austin initiative raises a lot of questions. Aren’t there health risks in giving leftover food to shelters and food banks, and how will they be dealt with? What are local farms and food banks supposed to do with leftover organics they can’t use? How much composting is really feasible, and what kind of environmental and health and atmospheric (i.e., odor) impact will lots of new composting piles and devices have? How is the city going to police compliance with the ordinance, and how many additional city workers will need to be hired to accomplish that? How much will prices charged at Austin restaurants have to increase to pay for the new activities that restaurants and food businesses will have to undertake? And, ultimately, when will individual residents in Austin have to establish their own compost piles to meet the zero waste goal?
Cities and counties are often viewed as laboratories of our democracy because they are willing to experiment, on a small scale, with different and creative potential solutions to societal problems. Local governments have long understood that we can’t simply keep burying trash and other discarded materials in landfills and have been looking for workable alternatives — so far, without a lot of success. I expect that many local governments will be paying careful attention to how Austin’s experiment with its Universal Recycling Ordinance works. Depending on how some of the questions noted above ultimately are answered, we may all see more composting in our future.
On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman killed his wife and mother, then armed himself with rifles and ammunition and climbed to the top of the clock tower on the University of Texas Austin campus. From there he randomly shot passersby, ultimately killing 14 people and wounding more than 30 more. The inexplicable rampage ended only when police shot and killed Whitman. The Whitman shootings are a reminder that mass killings aren’t only a recent development in American history.
The clock tower is still on the UT campus, at one end of a graceful quad framed by a fountain at the other end. It’s a fine building, but I’m not sure I could work around it without constantly thinking about that fateful day 50 years ago.
Austin lives up to its rep. So far today we’ve explored the River Walk area, where the joggers and dog walkers roam, and checked out the downtown area and Texas Statehouse grounds. The weather is cooperating, too — warm but not too warm, with a little cloud cover and a decent breeze.
The Austin River Walk, which runs along the Colorado River and Lady Bird Lake, isn’t quite as elaborate as the San Antonio RiverWalk, but it’s a pretty area that obviously is well used by every Austinite who wants to get a little exercise. It’s part of an extensive park system that includes a cool map of Texas and lots of room for dogs, kite-flying, and general lounging.
The Texas Statehouse grounds, as the top of the hill on Congress Street, are also interesting and attractive. In addition to the impressive dome and the expected memorial to the heroes of the Alamo, shown below, I also caught an impromptu performance of a big, and impeccably attired, mariachi band, shown above. When I walk by the Ohio Statehouse on my way to and from work every day I don’t often hear traditional mariachi music.
Everybody knows Austin has a thriving bar and live music scene. Last night we started our pub crawl in the very cool Rainey Street area, which I’d never visited before, stopped to have a beer at the Container Bar, which is largely constructed out of those enormous corrugated containers used by the shipping industry, then legged it up past Stubb’s to a bar called Cheer Up Charlie’s, where a kind of light show projected against a white bluff entertained us. After noshing at Stubb’s we headed over to Sixth Street, the traditional strip of bars and live music venues that keeps getting bigger — and louder.
Around Austin you see people with t-shirts that say “Keep Austin Weird,” or something like that. After our foray through Sixth Street, I’d say that goal is being accomplished. You see people wearing flags as capes, masks, wigs, glitter, and just about any combination of clothing, or lack of clothing, you can conceive. On Sixth Street, you can still freely let your freak flag fly.
We’re down in Austin to visit with family and see a performance by the Austin Symphony. And if I’m in Austin, for any reason at all, I’ve got to stop by Stubb’s to have a little world class barbecue, liberally doused with Stubb’s equally world class sauce, and listen to some live music.
Last night we stopped by Stubb’s in the midst of a rambling pub crawl — which is a pretty good time to visit the establishment, incidentally — and I got the small combo plate with sausage, brisket, macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes. It was excellent, of course, with just the right amount of smoky bark on the brisket and the creamiest mac ‘n cheese you can get anywhere. It all went perfectly with a local brew. Then, it was on to Sixth Street.