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Boomtown forever: Austinites have been complaining about the city losing its weird charm since the 1800s

The Texas Capitol pictured side-by-side published in 1925 and in modern time. (Laura Figi/Austonia)

If you live in Austin, you've heard it before: 'Austin has lost its weird.' Longtime residents might tell you Austin died along with the closure of the Armadillo World Headquarters, or the end of the pseudo-red-light district that used to be South Congress, or the steady decline in affordability for its heralded artists.


People have been complaining about Austin changing for over a hundred years. An Austinite living in 1884 might tell you that construction on the new Driskill Hotel has left the old town behind. But the truth is, Austin has never stopped changing and what was once frightening has become a way of life here over time.

In all the historic reports, two things stayed constant: Austin's reputation as a Central Texas paradise and mentions of change around the city.



Though the block on Pecan and Brazos Streets was "ragged-looking" in 1884, it was full of landmarks and fond memories on Peck Corner. On top of 30-40-year old houses in the city center, the Driskill Hotel was erected, where it still stands today.

With the business sector booming downtown, a 1910 report from the Austin American-Statesman remarked that housing prices were rising, likely due to Congress Avenue recently being paved. Wealthy men moved to Austin to "invest their wealth and spend their declining years," and by then, the city is on a steady path of growth.

"There is no boom," the 1910 report said. "There has been nothing the least sporadic in all the revival." By 1911, Austin had a public library to match the literacy spreading in the South.

Congress Avenue in 1916. (Austin History Center)


Reports in 1915 say that "never had any city a brighter outlook" with newly paved streets, sanitary systems and streetlights, and by 1926, Austin had 55,000 residents who were reeling at living in "a much bigger town than we realize." Since reports have dubbed Austin a "center of culture," it must cope with the "demands of a growing town."

Fast forward 10 years and Austin is so much bigger, "Rip Van Winkle would have rubbed his eyes in amazement as he observed the changes that have taken place." With infrastructure rivaling "cities many times larger than Austin," the buildings in the center of town, now around 20 years old, have been "modernized"; South Congress widened and paved as traffic congestion increased.

As traffic and growth increased, 1947 was a year of "unprecedented growth" for the city. Austin really began to get comfortable with its newly found title as the "center of a booming Central Texas area," while Congress Avenue is flanked with "new storefronts." Oltorf Street, Lamar Blvd. and Barton Springs Road are buzzing and concern is beginning to grow that Austin is being lost, "with the new area's birth, an old one is dying."

Austin's "spectacular period of growth and change" continued through 1955, and with the demolition of housing in the downtown business district, residents grew more concerned over holding on to "something of value" from the past. Paying homage to their history, residents recognized that "it would be impossible to save all the landmarks in busy, expanding Austin," as they remember what was.

Less than 10 years later, Texas State University alumnus Lyndon Baines Johnson took office in the White House, bringing Austin to the forefront of world news. While a first-time visitor to Texas might see a bigger city in Dallas, a British reporter said Austin "may change the Texas image" with its "surviving repository of Southern taste, gentility, class consciousness and poverty."

Motorola workers in 1979. (Austin History Center)


By 1979, it is "incontestable that change did occur" over the past 10 years. Austin grew from 81.39 square miles to 124.61 square miles, 160 to 360 traffic lights, and "the city became a major center of computer technology manufacturing." Some changes good, some bad, but Austinites took respite in knowing the old Scholz Garten was still waiting for them downtown on game day.

Unfortunately, The Austin History Center is lacking when it comes to news in the 1980s, but a jump to 1999 shows that coverage didn't change too much. Locals say the old Austin is long gone, dying with "the last night of the Armadillo World Headquarters," or that it peaked in the mid-70s.

If there's one thing to take away from these looks back into the past, it's important to remember that "the only thing that can come out of this worship of the past is disappointment." Besides, "the perfect Austin has always been a fictional creation," as a 1999 article put it.

So next time you hear someone complaining about Austin's changing character, remember, they've been saying that since 1884.

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