Midwest Migration: What’s So Great About Austin? Plenty, According To Former Midwesterners

This week Changing Gears is taking a closer look at the Midwest Migration, and we’re talking with people who have left the region. Reporter Peter O’Dowd met with some of those former Midwesterners living in Austin, Texas, and brings us this report:

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The Brookings Institution reports that 20-somethings fled Detroit and Chicago at the end of the last decade for places like Seattle and Portland. Cities they thought were cool. “Cool” has become a selling point for young professionals. And perhaps no city has it figured out better than Austin, Texas. Over the next few days Changing Gears will profile people who have left the Midwest, and that’s where we go next – to the home of music festivals known around the world.

John Livingston at the Pour House in Austin, Texas / Credit: Peter O'Dowd

John Livingston and his friends say Austin has a soul, and on a gorgeous Friday night in March you can see why.

Livingston is a lot like any other 24-year old. He and his friends still like to party, and on this night, they’re doing it on the north side of town.

Not long ago, Livingston and four others moved to Austin from Bloomington, Indiana.

It was January 2010. College was coming to an end. The friends were drinking at their favorite hang-out, and wondering what to do next in life. It was pretty clear that Bloomington – a city of 80,000 and home to Indiana University – didn’t have what they wanted.

“We just started thinking of places to go – something different, something new. By the end of the night we were all just chanting Austin. We wanted to go to Austin. We were all about Austin,” says Livingston.

A lot of people these days are all about Austin and its reputation for constant cultural festivity. The city is home to Austin City Limits and South By Southwest. If you’re even remotely into music, you already knew that. So Livingston and his buddies stumbled home that night with visions of central Texas in mind.

“The next morning we woke up and really started thinking about it and the logistics and it was a good idea. It still is a good idea,” says Livingston.

They had no jobs lined up and the economy was still lousy, but they found the cost of living in Austin was comparable to Bloomington. And it didn’t actually take very long for Livingston to find a job in tech support for a video game company called Blizzard Entertainment. His buddy, Travis Carrico, got the same gig.

“Those types of jobs don’t exist in Indiana,” says Carrico. But they do here, and that’s just the type of work Carrico wanted.

It’s a pretty classic story: A few ambitious kids move to Austin and love it. So what’s the deal with this city?

Ryan Robinson is the city of Austin’s demographer. “How can you engineers and manufacture that?” he asks. “At the heart of our success is the fact we attract more highly skilled college educated individuals than any other city in the country. It’s our golden goose.”

Golden is a good word for it. The last Census showed half a million people moved here in the past decade. That growth spawned jobs in retail, healthcare, real estate and technology. Austin’s job growth over the past year ranked third in the country. The city’s unemployment rate is about 6 percent. Robinson says 60 percent of its population growth came from Latinos, another 25 percent from Asians.

“Cities that are not diversifying are not growing, but it goes way beyond that,” Robinson says. “Socio-economic diversification, cultural diversification, lifestyle diversification. Simply put, we are a far less homogenous place today than we were 30-40 years ago.”

Robinson says Austin’s diversity and vibrancy emerged over time. The University of Texas is here, and had a lot to do with the burgeoning culture. But Robinson says Austin’s boom has led to a worrisome socio-economic divide – an underclass of under-educated, minority workers. He says it threatens to stall the city’s rise if not tended to.

What can you possibly say to a city that’s losing its educated, young creative class about what you’ve been able to do here? Robinson’s not sure what to tell them.

“It’s all organic,” he says. “It’s the gifts that history gives you. There’s only so much you can do to make that magic happen.”

Sometimes it can feel like everyone loves Austin’s magic. After spending some time here, it gets kind of weird when the only complaint most people have is about the terrible, terrible, terrible traffic. In some ways, it’s the most tangible sign that Austin hasn’t been able to keep up with its growth.

Matt Sadler is a comedian who grew up in a military family. He has lived everywhere, but settled in Austin and loves it. He’s proud of the city, but he can throw a stone or two. “Driving in Austin, Texas, is an effing nightmare,” Sadler says. “Would I give another city advice about how to be more like Austin? I’m not sure I would. Austin doesn’t necessarily have it figured out.”

As with most things, what’s charming and quirky can quickly become tiresome. Before I came to Austin I cast a poll on Facebook to see what my network of 20- and 30- somethings knew about the city. People had mostly good things to say, but I did find one person who complained that Austin is obsessed with being cool.

The city is full of hipsters drinking old-school beers and liberals protesting every injustice. Criticizing Austin’s vibe is definitely not cool. I asked Matt Sadler about this.

“Ask anyone who has been here 10 years, and they’ll tell you how cool it was 10 years ago, ask someone who lived here 20 years and they’ll tell you how much cooler it was 20 years ago. With the population boom we’ve got a lot of douchebags. We’re douchebag heavy right now,” he says.

Long-time residents of any growing city tend to be skeptical of newcomers. The gang from Bloomington appreciates the energy of this place. John Livingston says Austin is just more interesting than Indiana.

“This is the place where the fun is. This is where things are changing. This is where people are coming up with new ideas and growing those and everything,” he says.

When you’re young, change is what you want. Forward momentum and good music. At Travis Carrico’s apartment we listened to an Australian band called Tame Impala. Carrirco saw them live when they came to Austin.

“That’s what I expected when we moved down here – to see a show that probably wouldn’t be playing back home. I was really impressed with them,” Carrico says.

It hasn’t been all good. Carrico recently lost his job at Blizzard Entertainment, proof that Austin isn’t totally immune to recession. But he has no plans to come home to look for work.

Carrico didn’t finish college, but he is confident that he is better off looking for work in Austin than Indiana.

“I’ve never wanted to work a factory job…I don’t know if I was afraid of that, or if i wanted to distance myself from it, because that’s all I knew of manufacturing industry – the image today of the Rust Belt, these empty factories turning to rust, just rusting away,” he says.

Instead he’ll stake his future to this quirky, rhythmic city a thousand miles from home.

This story was informed by the Public Insight Network. If you want to learn how to be a part of our network, click here.

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