When planning for a city, you don’t expect it to become the 11th most populated and fastest growing city in the country, 182 years after its founding. You also don’t expect it to be among the top ten best places to live year after year but that’s exactly what’s happened in Austin, Texas.
Austin is a city of contrasts. Intertwined with tall brown buildings and traffic-filled paved roads sits a winding blue lake separating one half of the city from the other and large, lush grassy areas like Zilker Park and Auditorium Shores.
At night down on 6th street, you’ll find twenty-somethings bar-hopping through dance-music filled hole in the walls while over on Rainey Street, thirty-somethings are too busy discussing world politics and sipping their craft beer or local vodka to notice. If you go too far to the south end of downtown, you hit “South Congress”, a world all it’s own full of knick-knack shops, vintage stores and legendary local restaurants. If you go too far north, you enter the world of the University of Texas and all its collegiate glory, frat houses and all.
This city is ever expanding and changing. What once was home to the state’s most eclectic of hippy’s during the 70s is now shared with technology executives and more millionaire than you could count, although you’d never know it. A running joke in Austin is that if you’re trying to find the richest guy in the room, just look for the one in jeans, flip flops and a t-shirt. Status is determined not by what clothes you wear or what car you drive but by how ethical your company is and how beautiful the view from your backyard looks.
This is thanks to the fact that through the years, as Austin’s population has skyrocketed, it hasn’t forgotten its history or its culture. In between the ever present construction of new residential towers, like The Austonian, which recently overtook the 360 Condominiums as the tallest building in town thus breaking the record for tallest residential building west of the Mississippi river, there lay secret nods to its history, only obvious to those who know where to look.
Down MLK, on the “local” side of town, in between college coffee bars and upscale boutique restaurants, is a tall metal tower that one might mistake for just another piece of construction clutter. This narrow, thin metal frame holds a circle of large lights on its top, which at night illuminates the entire block on which it sits. This tower, and the 16 others that remain scattered throughout the city are all that remain of America’s moonlight towers, an invention brought on by the high cost of street lamps in the late 1800s and early 1900s as they could shed light on up to 1500 feet. These 17 towers are the sole survivors of their kind, as all other cities have taken theirs down in favor of expansion.
Austin not only still has standing towers that turn on nightly, the locals are proud of them and consider them an integral part of the city’s culture. At Austin City Limits Music Festival, one of the city’s biggest outdoor music events, the sides of the stages are covered with photos different city landmarks, like the capitol building and longhorn statue. One stage every year is covered with pictures of the moonlight towers, an incredible honor for something that went out of fashion over a century ago.
Along with towers from the past, there are other historical sights sitting right alongside the newest and most modern of constructions. On Embassy Road on the east side of town, near the Texas State Cemetery is a small house surrounded by, you guessed it, residential construction. This house once was the home of the French Embassy, back when Texas was its own country. It is also, coincidentally, the oldest home in the city, celebrating 175 years, and is now a museum.
With artifacts like these and others like the Treaty Oak (which has a long history filled with Native Americans, protest, attempted tree murder and much more), it’s obvious that Austin is set on preserving as much of its rich and unique history as possible. It also stands as an example to other major cities that its is possible to expand at a rate of nearly 50 people per day and still have the ability to preserve the essence that made the city great.
Ask me about this in another decade, however, and you may get a different response. With the extreme growth and booming economy comes a need for newer, more upscale attractions and with this comes higher rent. Higher rent means that the original hippies and hipsters no longer can afford the town they helped to shape. With more and more of them being pushed out, it will be up to the city to continue to stay true to their roots and not let the growth overtake the culture and help preserve the people who make the city great in the same way they have preserved its landmarks.
Yours Politely, Natalie