Barton Springs vs. bayou. Black Pumas vs. Beyonce. Live Music Capital vs. Energy Capital.
As Austin expands into "boomtown" status, it's become subject to a growing rivalry between another storied Texas city: Houston.
While Houston still edges out Austin in population—it's the fourth-largest city in the U.S. and boasts a metro of over 7 million compared to Austin's 2.3 million—Austin has been generating significant buzz as tech CEOs, Californians and migrants nationwide begin to call the Texas capital home.
Most Austinites will tout their Hill Country beauty, world-renowned live music and the proud "weirdness" that has long defined their city. But some say Houston's signature self-deprecating humor and status as the most diverse city in the nation gives them a leg up
It's time for these quarreling siblings to duke it out.
Here's how Austin and Houston compare, mapped out in five categories:
Affordability: Houston 1, Austin 0
Ask anyone in Austin: the city is not what it used to be. That change is no more apparent than in the skyrocketing housing market, which has shot from an average median home price of 189,000 in 2011 to a peak of $482,364 in June 2021, a 255% increase.
The exploding housing market is one of the best examples of Austin's "boomtown" status and is great for current homeowners, but it's a near-death sentence for many with an average income looking to survive. In fact, Austin is expected to become the least affordable metro outside of California by the end of 2021.
According to Salary.com, this translates into the cost of living—it's 11% more expensive to live in Austin than its southeast Texas neighbor.
With both cities nestled in Texas, a state well-known for its bang-for-your-buck housing, both are still attracting ex-pats from expensive metros across the nation. But Houston's reputation as an affordable city lingers.
A study by Property Club in 2019 found that a homebuyer in Houston with $250,000 could purchase 1,204 square feet—six times more than in NYC and more than 49 of 50 global cities studied.
That affordability is conditional, however—the fourth-largest city in the nation differs drastically in price in different neighborhoods. And Houston's housing market is beginning to heat up just as Austin's slightly cools, with home prices up 15.7% in September 2021 as compared to the year before.
"We are witnessing the most energized Houston real estate market in history," Houston Association of Realtors Chairman Richard Miranda said in a June 6 monthly update. "It's difficult to predict how and when this incredible housing run will end."
But with a median home price of $285,000, Houston's housing prices are still just a rumble compared to Austin's boom. Kevin Quist, a Houston urbanist activist, said that comes down to the cities' different zoning policies.
To the chagrin of struggling Austinites everywhere, Houston takes the cake with this one.
Economy: Austin 1, Houston 1
Austin has come a long way from its days as a college town. While a major employer for the city continues to be the University of Texas and the Texas Capitol, the city has been dubbed "Little California" by recent move-in Elon Musk for a reason.
The area's tech boom, headlined by Tesla CEO Musk and his upcoming Giga Texas plant, brought in tech transplants including Oracle, blockchain companies like Blockcap, and 35 others in 2020 alone.
With Fortune 500 companies like Dell and national brands like Indeed and Bumble already in the area, Austin has become the darling of startups looking to relocate to a California-esque utopia with no state income tax.
But the Energy Capital earned its namesake for a reason—the city is home to 24 Fortune 500 companies and over 500 oil and gas firms. With a seven-mile-long Energy Corridor and nine refineries, Houston's opportunities abound.
Still, Austin's job market is projected to expand by 47% in the next decade to Houston's 30%. While both sit under the national average of 5.2% unemployment rate in August 2021, Houston saw a 4.9% unemployment rate compared to Austin's 3.8%. And with many parts of Houston experiencing higher poverty rates than others, Houston's average income is nearly 20,000 less than Austin's $71,579 at $52,558.
Austin may be hard to live in, but its current economic opportunity outpaces Houston.
Janice Omadeke, CEO of startup The Mentor Method, is one of many startup CEOs in Austin. (The Mentor Method/Facebook)
Diversity and Culture: Houston 2, Austin 1
According to Wallethub, Houston was the United States' most diverse city in 2021. By contrast, 38th-place Austin has become more cosmopolitan in recent years but is losing some minority residents—census data shows the city's Black and Hispanic populations decreased from 2010 to 2020.
That's not to say that Austin doesn't have culture—it's a majority-minority city that has seen its Asian-American population skyrocket and diversify. It's not uncommon to find Spanish spoken in Austin, with a quarter of residents speaking Spanish at home and Spanish-language chants like "Dale ATX" chanted at the city's first professional soccer team, Austin FC.
That diversity bleeds into food. The breakfast taco hub is home to Tex-Mex eats of every creed, and residents can grab bites from all the world's cuisines at its ample food truck locales. But with 145 languages spoken in the metro, Houston's dining scene far outpaces Austin's in variety,
While Austin beat Houston in socioeconomic diversity in the same Wallethub study, that may be more due to economic segregation than anything else. According to the city of Austin, an "island of affluence" has emerged to the west even as some means of residential segregation have improved. Houston, on the other hand, often sees "newly poor" neighborhoods right next to their more affluent counterparts.
While neither topped the charts in religious diversity, Houston is the third-most religious area by percentage of population in the U.S., slightly edging out Austin when it comes to places of worship.
It looks like being a truly global city does have its perks. Houston is once again up, 2-1.
Himalaya Houston pairs fried chicken with Pakistani flair for a truly Houston dish. (Himalaya/Instagram)
Identity: Houston 2, Austin 2
Whether it be the Live Music Capital or Keep Austin Weird, Austin has always known what it is. Legends including Willie Nelson and Janis Joplin helped join a massive musical movement in the 1970s that saw hippies, outlaws and cutting-edge artists flock to the Live Music Capital of the World in the mid-to-late- 1900s. By 1991, the city discovered it had the most live music per capital, and an iconic name was born.
Houston, however, has seen a few failed slogans—see an "Austin City Limits" knockoff, "The City With No Limits," or even worse, "Houston's Hot." The city's new unofficial slogan, "Houston. It's Worth It," embraces its imperfections as what makes it special, a name that is aptly fitting for the city's signature self-deprecating humor.
While Houston has finally found its niche as an imperfect place for imperfect people, Austin has known its identity for years-even if some say it's beginning to blur.
The tech boom has seen some of that laid-back Austin swagger morph into a more corporate feel, accentuated by new developments such as The Domain. Every year, new move-ins and natives alike lament about the legendary "old Austin" and its wacky eccentricities.
But the world-renowned music festival Austin City Limits still exists. Weirdness is still accepted in this city like no other-from The Austin World Naked Bike Ride to playing bingo with "chicken shit."
That historic identity shines through, albeit less bright, in every corner of the Texas Capitol. Austin ties it up 2-2.(Charles Reagan/ACL)
Lifestyle: Austin 3, Houston 2
In June, Texas Monthly instigated a war when they wrote an article imploring Austinites to move to "an affordable, weird city: Houston."
"Those Austin amenities that people swear they could never do without—the live music! The outdoors! The progressive attitude!—exist in every other major metropolis in one form or another," writer Evan Mintz said.
But as stated before, that weirdness is not quite matched even in global cities like Houston. In fact, Houston's big-city status may be what hinders it from certain Austin-y amenities.
Even as things change, remnants of Austin's small-town charm still shine through in pockets of seemingly millions of local cafes, wacky mom-and-pop shops and character-filled neighborhoods. Festival culture abounds, from the Moontower Comedy Festival to SXSW, to give residents a fiesta feel all year long.
While Houston has Austin beat in sports ventures—think Astros and Texans—Austin professional soccer team Austin FC has made Q2 Stadium "the biggest party in Austin," and University of Texas tailgates are unmatched. Not a fan of watching? Join sports teams from Quidditch to pickleball.
The Hill Country beats the bayou, as well—a Texas beach isn't too far from Houston's interior, but a river cuts through downtown Austin, improving residents' quality of life with its acres of hiking trails, swimming holes and more.
Houston defeats Austin in sheer numbers of things to do, but Austin takes it home in the lifestyle category to beat its fellow Texan sibling once and for all.
Austin FC matches are just one of many ways to get your party on in Austin. (Austin FC/Twitter)
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There is a fearless declaration of the obvious in “Being Texan: Essays, Recipes, and Advice for the Lone Star Way of Life,” a book that invites its readers to recall the power and panache of the late Texas Gov. Anne Richards, before getting schooled on no less than twenty types of taco.
Released this month, “Being Texan” is the first of several Texas Monthly titles to come in the build-up to the magazine's upcoming 50th anniversary in 2023. It is divided into four sections: Identity & Culture, Town & Country, Arts & Entertainment and Food & Drink.
In the introduction, titled “What Does it Mean to Be Texan?,” Texas Monthly editor Dan Goodgame addressed the eclectic aspirations of the book, writing: “Our modest goal was to craft a well-informed, thoughtful sampling of the best the state has to offer.” To this humble end, forty-two editors were utilized to cover fifty-five topics, which tackle everything from the various dress codes that make up “Texas chic” to Selena’s ongoing appeal.
The resulting richness is all over the map, running from Texas Monthly Senior Editor John Nova Lomax’s frustration over the frequent mispronunciations of Texas cities (“From Amarila to Wad-a-loop”) to Oscar Casares’s bittersweet essay on Dia de Los Muertos in the time of COVID (“Souls of the Departed”).
The book goes from silly to serious fast, and the pace might unseat some readers who would otherwise just enjoy the ride of pride that comes from being reminded that Texas gave the world Cheetos, Fritos, Doritos, Dr. Pepper, Liquid Paper and the microchip.
So, in a book that switches from the state’s early instance on remaining a slave republic to a piece about collecting San Antonio ghost stories, it perhaps goes without saying that the essays on brisket and beer are the easiest to digest.
“Being Texan” does, in truth, contain some delicious and downright literary food writing.
Joe Galvan’s “Ode to the Raspa,” treats the summertime shaved ice staple as nothing less than a kind of edible ambassador of U.S. cuisine. “They serve as an important and necessary reminder of the fluctuating, imprecise words that American food inhabits,” he writes like some semiotics professor, before waxing poetic on how raspas embody childhood innocence as well as “the humidity of a July evening that finds itself at the bottom of a Styrofoam cup.”
But readers who are tempted to skim the section on “Strong Texas Women” or “The Evolution of Juneteenth” to get to Paula Forbes’ warning not to skip the processed cheese when slow cooking queso, will have missed out on some deep insight into what it means to embrace all the appealing and uneasy aspects of the state.
In “A Tale of Two High Schools,” Dan Q. Dao, details how, as a Vietnamese kid growing up in Houston, he employed the tropes of Texas culture as a tool of survival. “Perhaps out of a sense of self-preservation, I became enamored with the gilded mythology of Texas, from the folklore of the Alamo to the twang of country music. I wore cowboy boots, showed up for Friday night football games, and rarely missed a rodeo,” writes Dao, observing that: “Part of me believed that if I proclaimed my Texanness loudly enough, I would be spared the label of outsider.”
The dilemma of the homegrown Texas outsider is artfully explored in Skip Hollandsworth’s “Why McMurtry Matter,'' a meditation on the ironic popularity of Larry McMurtry, a writer who wrestled with his relationship to Texas--particularly the Hollywood myths and misconceptions that surrounded the state. Speaking about (to his mind) the perplexing success of “Lonesome Dove,” McMurtry said: “All I had wanted to do was write a novel that demythologized the West. Instead, it became the chief source of western mythology. Some things you cannot explain.”
There is much about Texas itself that seems hard to explain.
But David Courtney, a senior editor at Texas Monthly, does a good job of speculating on this rare amalgam of conservative pride and fearless experimentation that tends to run through the state, when he writes “Texans believe they possess something deep within themselves that sets them apart, and therefore they kind of do.”
Despite the surface-level accessibility of a book that addresses the cultural significance of Neiman Marcus and the extreme brand loyalty to Whataburger, “Being Texan” offers rare input regarding Texas and its citizenry, as well as handy advice for breaking in a pair of cowboy boots.
'Not a band, an experience': Musician Pete Monfre pushes the boundaries of making it in the music industry
In a city where live music is heralded above all else, Pete Monfre was surprised to find local musicians working for free that he quit the industry for 10 years in 2006.
Local musicians tended to be underpaid before COVID-19 sent the music industry reeling, but the fallout from the pandemic exasperated the existing problems. Musician and marketer Monfre knows—he’s been behind that shaking tip jar, trying to turn a profit while doing what he loves. He’s tackling the problem with a unique brand of live shows, which go against the grain, mix business with pleasure and help bring home the bacon.
The shows, called Stories from the Road, are an informal storytelling jam session at The Saxon Pub that encourages interaction between the artist and audience.
After a brief hiatus due to ongoing woes of the pandemic Stories from the Road came back to The Saxon Pub on Saturday. It was the first of 23 consecutive shows that didn’t sell out, which Monfre attributes to the break of not having shows.
“We called it Stories from the Road—not a band, an experience,” Monfre said. “We're not going to rehearse, we're not going to have a list, we're not going to prepare, every show is a one-off and you will never see it again.”
His shows start early at 6 p.m., with a rotating group of musicians playing blues or Americana who need not rehearse. This time it featured Mark "Kaz" Kazanoff on saxophone and harmonica, bassist Mark Epstein, drummer Kevin Hall and Adam Pryor on Hammond Organ.
You’ll probably end up spending a bit more than the typical show at the Saxon Pub, around $30 per person, but each show goes directly to supporting the artists that made it.
“Part of the mission was to advocate for fair wages for musicians and to help musicians understand their economic value,” Monfre said. “Now I can afford to pay musicians a modest guarantee and we call that the Fair Play approach to live music.”
Monfre moved to Austin as a young adult with the intention of “conquering the music industry” in 1981, which he told Austonia he did not do but did meet “a lot of interesting people.” He left Austin to tour for a few years, then moved to Milwaukee, where he continued to play music.
After returning to Austin in 2006, Monfre discovered some musicians were playing shows for free.
“I'm playing in Chicago and Michigan and hardcore blues places, and we don't play for free,” Monfre said. “So I actually quit for 10 years. There is no reason to play for free whatsoever if you just get the model right.”
Having already tried to conquer the music industry once, Monfre took a business-forward approach the second time. The model also caters to what he believes is an underserved group: working professionals who want to meet like-minded individuals but also be home by 9 p.m.
Chief Technology Officer for Economic Transformation Technologies David Smith, who has been coming to other Monfre shows since they started in 2016, said he enjoys the improvisational nature of the shows because it reminds him of old Austin.
“The Stories from the Road get back to the root of what music is: the fact that you can sit and jam, make music with musicians because they understand music, and that's the soul of Austin,” Smith said. “It really is a celebration of music.”
Monfre said the informality is what makes his shows so popular—you’ll hear the musicians ask the key for a song, take a request from the crowd, make a lighthearted jab at one another or create a song from scratch.
“They want to see the sausage being made, it's really funny I would have never thought it,” Monfre said.
Price (right) said he was happy the show ended early so he could make it home to Lampasas. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
“I am knocked out. It just really didn't get any better than what we just had—this band was so good, the crowd was so good,” Price said. “That's what Austin in the ‘60s and ‘70s was all about, just everybody throwing it together.”
Stories from the Road is returning to The Saxon Pub stage on Dec. 18, with a completely new group of musicians. The show, like always, will start at 6 p.m.
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The holiday season is upon us, so get ready to celebrate with carols, snacks and light shows galore. Austin is full of holiday festivities spanning throughout all of December so get out and enjoy the cool weather while it lasts.
Don't miss these nine holiday-themed light shows.
Austin's most famous annual light show and a Readers Choice of USA Today's 10 Best Public Displays of Holiday Lights, the Trail of Lights will be drive-thru again this year Nov. 27-Dec. 31. For 57 years in a row, the Trail of Lights has lit up Zilker Park with games, food, local vendors and more than two million lights gleaming for the holidays. The event, as always, is free to the public and you can reserve slots here. The Zilker Tree is already up, so you can already see it if the holiday cheer is too much to bear.
Coming back for the second year in a row, Peppermint Parkway will transport you to COTALAND, where six million lights gleam and Christmas is just a one-mile drive away. The hybrid event will have you drive through the display of lights, dancing elves and unique little villages before you hit the walking plaza, where you can grab a bite to eat and meet Santa. Tickets range from $40-$95, some including a lap around the COTA track, running from Nov. 26-Dec. 26.
Dreamland Dripping Springs has been transformed into a winter wonderland—running throughout the month of December, the venue's first-ever holiday display is taking over with activities for the whole family. Plus, running from Nov. 20-Jan. 4, a pop-up ice skating rink will really bring the holiday cheer for $10 or $5 Monday specials. The lights display will feature half a million lights and warm, festive sips from the taproom.
With events galore for the holiday season, winter is really when the Hill Country Galleria thrives. Starting with its Light Up The Plaza event on Saturday from 6-8 p.m., where visitors can see Santa, gaze at the official lighting of the holiday tree and hear some live tunes from rock band American Authors. The Galleria will also hold a holiday market every Thursday, Friday and Saturday leading up to Christmas Eve and periodic photos with Santa at Buenos Aires Cafe.
Deck the Halls at the Driskill Hotel
(Courtesy of the Driskill Hotel)
This holiday season, the Driskill will deck out every nook and cranny of the historic hotel from the grand staircase to the 16-foot Christmas tree in the lobby to be lit on a Dec. 1 ceremony that will be open to the public. Touches of Driskill festivities can also be seen at Dell Children's Hospital with a gingerbread village for its annual "Cookies for Caring" event.
Kicking off the lighting of the tree on Saturday, Dec. 4, Austinites will gather on the steps of the Texas Capitol at 6 p.m. to sing the 45-foot tree to life. Afterward, local band Los Coast will close out the night with a free concert. The fun doesn't stop there though as the Downtown Austin Alliance will host the Downtown Holiday Stroll, with "holiday passports" and stamps to collect for local restaurants and stores, and a Frida Friday Holiday Market at Republic Square.
Combining festive holiday lights and the beautiful native plants of Central Texas, Luminations at the Wildflower Center is back with thousands of lights, luminarias and a lit-up look at Fortlandia. This year will also feature an interactive light maze called "silvana" by Ben Busche of architecture firm Brut Deluxe, which will be the maze's first appearance in North America. The event will run Thursdays-Sundays from Dec. 2-Jan. 30 for $10-$25 per person.
Reserved tables are back for Mozart's Coffee Roasters annual Christmas Lights Show for $20 four-person tables and $30 six-person tables—so get your tickets early because these tables are likely to sell out. The light show will also feature a festival-style Bavarian marketplace for those last-minute gifts. If you're too late to reserve a table, don't worry, there will be standing room available for free so come one, come all, and come early for parking.
From Dec. 2-4, Old Settlers Park will light up with holiday displays, family activities, festive refreshments and live music. Watch the balloons hover above the lake as you sip on a hot chocolate or give to those in need, with stands for Round Rock Operation Blue Santa, which is taking toys for kids in need, the Play For All Foundation, which is accepting cash donations for disabled children, and the People & Parks Foundation, accepting cash donations for green space in the community. Admission to the event is free, along with most of the activities in the park.
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