Austin Keeps Growing While Retaining its Unique Culture

Throughout the 1980s, writers and cultural observers drifted in and out of Austin to cover the story of a fast-growing city and whether it could hang on to its laid-back culture and attractive quality of life.

It’s a hearty perennial story in Austin, a city that has cycled through many population surges and seemingly unbounded economic growth.

As the latest generation of Austinites debate the evergreen questions about how to manage growth while retaining character, it’s worth digging into the archives at the Austin History Center to see where we’re coming from.

The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and New York Times each punched out stories about the booming city as its technology sector ballooned through the 80s.

“Austin May be First City in Sun Belt to Question if Growth is too Rapid,” read a headline in the Washington Post on July 12, 1981.

“Today Austin is a miniature Silicon Valley, with scores of electronics and computer firms such as IBM, Texas Instruments, Tracor Inc., Motorola and Data General Corp.,” Post writer Dan Balz wrote.

In 1983, The New York Times published a piece titled “Booming Austin Fears It Will Lose Its Charms.”

“Austin in a way has the best of all worlds: the fine restaurants, theaters, and good bookstores of urban life, yet a small-city layout with lots of parks that lets you get home from work in 15 minutes,” Robert Reinhold wrote in the Times. “Many of its residents are Texans who came to study at the university and stayed, many of them professionals who have sacrificed more lucrative careers elsewhere. Many artists, writers, poets and artisans have also gravitated here.  It is just these things that have brought high-technology businesses seeking refuge from the high costs and congestion in California’s high-technology area and wanting an agreeable setting to help recruit staff.”

The Wall Street Journal assessed the city in 1984, noting that rapid growth was upsetting some residents who felt it was causing sprawl, bad traffic and strain on city services.

But none of those concerns seemed to diminish the enthusiasm.

“By some measures, Austin now is the fastest-growing city in the country,” David Stipp wrote. “Its population has increased from 250,000 in 1970 to about 400,000 now and is expected to surge to one million by the year 2000.”

Along similar lines, The Christian Science Monitor, Forbes and the Associated Press outlined the city’s success story as residents found new ways to maintain the city’s creative culture.

Austin: The Perennial Chart-Topper

By 1988, the New York Times was asking: “Is Austin the Next Silicon Valley?”  With IBM Corp, Motorola Inc., Tracor Inc., Texas Instruments Inc., and Lockheed Missiles & Space Co. all having a presence here, it seemed Austin was certainly well on its way.

National Geographic made Austin its cover story in 1990. It’s subtitle: “Warmed by Sunbelt growth, Austin grew like a fertilized weed in the early 1980s. Then greed overreached. The under financed, over inflated bubble burst, leaving the city sadder but wiser, and as fetching as ever.”

Much of the downswing came with falling oil prices, which affected the entire state, in 1986.

But, Austin keeps bouncing back onto its headline grabbing path after a few bumps in the road.

Just take a look at its present day accolades. The Austin Business Journal tried to corral them in a 2012 article.

It’s too much to drum through here, but consider that Forbes picked Austin as the best big city for jobs; the Financial Times ranked it second among cities people are moving to; and Adecco Staffing U.S. echoed, saying it’s one of the best cities to find work.

The lists have virtually no end — great for vegetarians, fitness enthusiasts, single people, retiring people and, of course, one of the best cities for foodies.