What Austin can teach Seattle

It's a city that has learned to be comfortable with being the right size, not hankering after the out-sized. Good food and music, too.
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Texas state capitol: Don't mess with Seattle, Longhorns.

It's a city that has learned to be comfortable with being the right size, not hankering after the out-sized. Good food and music, too.

I paid my first visit to Austin, Texas earlier this week, a city that makes a useful comparison with Seattle. We could do well by emulating some Austin traits.

The city lines up in an almost baroque layout that a proud French or Italian city would understand. The south border of downtown is the Colorado River (not that Colorado), and then comes the complex of downtown buildings (massing into skyscrapers on a Bellevue scale) with an agreeable intermix of 19th century, pleasantly ordinary warehouses and commercial buildings. Sixth Street is the famous district of live-music clubs and other funky places. I found it only mildly impressive in daytime, and I had a completely ordinary Tex-Mex lunch at Iron Cactus. (To be fair, I had a delicious Tex-Mex dinner the night before at El Chile on Maynard St., a place with just the right Austinesque blend of unpretention in decor and seriousness about food.)

Next in the baroque procession ("baroque" in the sense of arranging city spaces for impressive public displays of royal power) comes the state capitol and grounds. It's a gorgeous 1888 building, especially lighted at night, and the rotunda is a thrilling piece of magnificent space-creating. (Former Gov. George Bush is there in portrait, looking about as cocky as Sam Houston.) The renovations in 1993 further opened up the views of the central complex, shaped like a smaller U.S. Capitol but with warmer stone and golden windows. The whole ensemble stands up proud as a lone-star. Nearby is the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, also an expression of Texas-size pride but in an unfortunately ponderous neo-classical building. The exhibits inside almost fill you with nostalgia for oil rigs. I noted a popular-music exhibit mounted by the Experience Music People — nothing much.

Next up, still heading north, is the University of Texas campus, 55,000 students strong. I rather liked the architecture, blending traditional collegiate with Spanish adobe and other strong modern forms. Terminating one axis is the famous bell tower, with heroic statues (including Jefferson Davis) scattered about. (Texas is big on heroic narratives.) Looming over all is the huge football stadium, which must be 20 stories tall, and seemed to be full or roaring Longhorns even though empty at the time.

The campus is very well kempt — maintenance workers actually wave at strangers as they drive about in their carts — quiet, shaded with live oaks and other grand trees. Lots of churches, including one edifice called Longhorns for Christ. Conservatively dressed undergraduates, with less racial diversity than I would have expected. It reminded me a bit of WSU's campus in its orderliness, friendliness, seriousness — a place meant to impress alumni a bit more than to express undergraduate rowdiness.

I was there for a journalism conference, and we were housed and met in the AT&T Executive Conference Center right on campus, with hotel rooms and fine meeting rooms. This strikes me as a very good idea for the University of Washington to adopt, a way to make influential friends every day of the year, and more outward looking than the usual alumni house. (I noted that the Austin Chamber of Commerce meets there, for instance.) U.T. really associates itself with Austin, a very popular city in the nation, and not just because of its claim as "the live music capital of the world." Whereas UW sports a giant W these days (not exactly the best political connotations), all the university signage here says University of Texas at Austin.

Austin, like Madison, Wisconsin, and Boston, is an unusual combination: big university and state capitol. That means lots of brainy people, many newcomers, tons of young people creating a lively nightlife. (Austin is the only city in the nation with a higher percentage of newcomers, folks living in a city fewer than five years, than Seattle.) It's more liberal than the rest of Texas, but it seems deeply connected with the rest of the state (and not just during football games).

Only 20 years ago, Austin was a small city with low housing prices and a laid-back manner The metropolitan region, with 1.7 million population, is 35th in the U.S. and is growing rapidly thanks to companies like Dell, Whole Foods, and a good high-tech job base. But unlike Seattle, it's happy about its size, its lack of major league sports (U.T. more than compensates), its "Keep Austin weird" mentality, and its very friendly way with strangers. Portland too has made this adjustment, embracing "right-size" rather than lusting after "major league." The irony is, cities that embrace this kind of right-sizedness are irresistible magnets. Fortunately for Austin, if's beastly hot there all summer.

Another takeaway for me was how Austin's sense of bigness has a lot to do with its embrace of Texas, not the nation and the world. The little town originally called Waterloo in the 1830s, rather accidentally became the state capitol, and it has fully embraced that role. Texas has always had a vibrant public life, and the good journalism that goes with that. Our hosts, the creators of a new website called TexasTribune.org, may be based in Austin but the site is all about pulling the state together politically, rallying politically engaged folks to "make a better Texas together." The University underscores that state pride. The Austin City Limits are as big as the whole outsized state of Texas.

I like that. Seattle, by contrast, thinks on a big canvas in part by disparaging the rest of the state. Which city is the more insecure?


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