The Little Town on the River
Austin has been my primary place of residence since June of 2020, but it really became my home this week when I moved into my own apartment after more than a year and a half of staying with a very generous friend. I now live in the heart of downtown Austin, and have spent enough time here to feel that I have a real impression of the place.
This impression is coalescing around a vision I had a few weeks ago while driving north across the First Street Bridge from Bouldin Creek to downtown. As I was driving, I for a moment had a vision in which all the big buildings disappeared, and in their place was just an old fashioned mill with a water wheel along the bank of the river, straight out of the 1800s. It almost felt as if the city channeled this vision to me, telling me, “this is who I really am.” Weeks later, having reflected upon this, I think it’s true. Austin, despite its new glossy and urbane aesthetic, still has the heart of a small town.
Dallas is big. Houston is everything. Inherent to the concept of a big city is a sense of scale and replicability. While cities tend to be among the most progressive and open places, they also have a tendency to shrink the individual into some pattern and conformity. But Austin, like it’s left coast counterpart San Francisco, has a long history of accepting the eccentric, or “weird.” Such eccentricity doesn’t scale to a city. But it works fine in a town. And people seem to really like this town.
Austin as of late has a tremendous gravitational pull. People come here to visit and get stuck, like an asteroid entering a planetary body’s orbit. It remains astounding that so many of my friends have moved here in the short time that I have called this place home. I don’t foresee the influx slowing any time soon. I have been reflecting on why this is.
While Austin is not a new town, it is a place filled with newness. The newness that manifests in the gloss high rise buildings of downtown at first seems to contradict my image of the mill and water wheel. Actually, these two are very much of the same essence.
The mill and water wheel evokes adventure and the frontier spirit. Austin in its early history was the home of pioneers, and today it is the home of pioneers of a different sort. Austin’s vibrancy comes from its people’s tendency to embrace challenges to the norm, a safe haven from dogma. For the people of Texas, Austin has long been a refuge from the more restrictive elements of traditional culture. For the people of America, Austin has become a refuge from the increasingly repressive dogmas of the coastal elites. While at times these groups come into conflict, the classic liberals versus the progressives, they are both manifestations of the same impulse towards renewed prosperity. Given what is happening in the world and especially in America, we need this.
I am excited to live in this little town on the river. No matter how urban Austin becomes, I will never forget what this city told me about itself.