Though they are only 80 miles apart and share the same climate, soil, and natural resources, San Antonio and Austin have grown into two very different cities. San Antonio is much older and has been more static. Austin is young and always in flux. In short, while the former is all about structure, the latter is all about flow.
The city of San Antonio is a collection of tightly knit, structured communities. Some residents can trace their lineage all the way back to the original Canary Islanders who settled here in 1731. Others have family going back to the days of the empresarios of the early 19th century, the Anglos who contracted with the Mexican government to bring settlers to Texas from the United States.
San Antonio has always had a special relationship with the army. The city is home to a lot of career military, both active and retired, and they add another layer of networking to the social fabric of the city. The military has its own channels of communication: listserves, newsletters, and bulletins. And retired military personnel socialize frequently and, in the way of any subculture, share information about their surroundings, including San Antonio. And then there are the neighborhoods, which provide a strong sense of identity to their members. This is especially the case on the south side but is true of neighborhoods on the north and east sides, too.
With these microcosms in place, San Antonio has a placid air about it, which masks the city's economic dynamism. It doesn't feel at all like the boomtown that it is, and this could be because much of the change of the last 20 years has been growth at the city's periphery. At its core, San Antonio still feels like a small town. Moving through neighborhoods in Central San Antonio, one gets the impression that nothing of much importance has happened since 1960.
Austin makes the opposite impression on the visitor -- that nothing of real importance occurred before 1960. Austin residents move around a lot -- the typical Austin resident has lived in at least three or four different parts of the city -- and as a result, few people identify themselves by their neighborhood. In the last 50 years, Austin has gone from a sleepy state capital and university town to a national center for high-tech manufacturing and software development.
Mobility is a key factor in Austin's identity. The city's three biggest elements are the state government, which sees politicians, lobbyists, and functionaries come and go as their careers take them to larger or smaller political stages; the university, with its large and mobile student body; and the tech industry, which is always in flux. All of this gives the city a more wide-open feel than San Antonio.
In almost anything you read or hear about Austin, you will be told that it is a laid-back city. "Laid-back" has become Austin's defining trait. First-time visitors get here and expect to find a city whose denizens all move about and express themselves in the unhurried manner of Willie Nelson. They must feel a little put upon when they drive into town only to find bearish traffic and pushy drivers and a downtown that is looking uncomfortably similar to Houston or Dallas.
Over the years, Austin has gotten bigger and busier, but it hasn't lost its essential nature. Stay here for a couple of days and you'll feel the laid-back quality you've heard about. Austinites are personable, gracious, and open, and for them the enjoyment of the simple pleasures of life holds a great deal more attraction than the rat race. At times it seems that everyone you meet is either a musician, a massage therapist, or has some other sort of alternative career.
Austinites of all walks of life enjoy the outdoors. Barton Springs is the preferred spot for a swim; the popular hike-and-bike trail that encircles Town Lake is a favorite place for either a leisurely walk or a serious run. The city streets and bike lanes are filled with Austin's many cyclists. Just outside of town are several parks, nature preserves, and rivers and lakes that can be enjoyed. Hand in hand with this love of the outdoors comes a strong environmental consciousness, which is reflected in the local government. Austin leads the nation in green energy production, has the most aggressive recycling and energy conservation programs in the state, and, though starting late, it has instituted programs to reduce traffic and urban sprawl.
One can't talk about Austin for very long without mentioning the rather large university at its center. The University of Texas feeds the Austin scene. It has brought thousands of bright students here, some of whom don't wish to leave once they've received their degrees. They stay and add to a large pool of educated people looking for a livelihood. This in turn has attracted high-tech companies that seek a large educated workforce.
During the 1990s, Austin's population increased by 41% (from 465,600 to 656,600). Many of the new residents moved to the suburban west and northwest, but the economic expansion also fueled a resurgence in the older central city.
Downtown projects of the last 15 years include the restoration of the capitol and its grounds, the refurbishing of the State Theatre, the renovation of the Driskill Hotel, and the reopening of the Stephen F. Austin Hotel, two grand historic properties. The convention center doubled in size and the Bob Bullock Texas History Center, a major tourist attraction, opened in 2001.
The downtown area has become popular as residential space, too. It began with a move to convert former warehouses and commercial lofts into residential housing. A popular farmers' market has sprouted up Saturday mornings on Republic Square, which, along with the flagship store (and corporate headquarters) of the Austin-based Whole Foods Markets at Sixth and Lamar, makes living downtown easy and convenient, if not cheap.
Just across the river, South Congress Street (aka SoCo, of course) continues to see the development of a hip retail and restaurant district with one-of-a-kind galleries and boutiques, which stay open late once a month to take part in the First Thursdays block party. The popularity of SoCo has altered the rest of South Austin, sending house prices up and increasing the number of apartments and town houses under construction.
This boom in real estate is disquieting to many Austinites. There's now a gated residential complex right down the street from the famed Continental Club, and, because of increased rent, many of the struggling musicians who gave Austin's music scene its vitality can no longer afford to live here. And although the new airport prides itself on its use of local concessionaires, the restaurants and hotels that are springing up alongside the facility are chains. Indeed, locals are sufficiently worried about the city's evolving character that they've spawned a small industry of bumper stickers and T-shirts pleading KEEP AUSTIN WEIRD.
One of the most pressing problems is out-of-control traffic. Streets are filling with cars, and the freeways, especially I-35, are seeing frequent jams and delays. A new toll road (Hwy. 130) has been built to the east of town that seems to be siphoning off some of the traffic, and government planners hope more will follow when another 40-mile segment is completed in 2012.
Another solution to the traffic is a commuter rail service that now runs from the northern satellite community of Cedar Park to downtown. Completed in 2010, it should ease some of the traffic that clogs the northern freeways during rush hour, but ridership so far has not been as high as expected. Plans are currently on the table for an electric streetcar system to circulate through downtown and connect it to the university, Zilker Park, Austin-Bergstrom airport, and some of the central neighborhoods on the eastside.
The burst in the housing bubble has made for a glut of condos in the downtown market. Several planned developments, including a few hotel/condo towers, have been postponed or canceled. But the downturn has not stopped the construction of new housing in other areas in the central city.
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