Austin is often called a boomtown, but the city's population has been growing at a rapid clip since its founding in 1839, nearly doubling its population every 20 years except for two periods. During the 20th century, major historical events such as World War II gave way to new migration patterns that fueled this growth and set the stage for the birth of Austin's big tech industry.
Austonia has looked at the drivers of migration—into Texas and Austin—starting with the 19th century (view here). Stay tuned for the last installment of this series that explores the growth of the city at the turn of the 21st century.
A migrating border
Texas, and to a certain extent Austin, experienced three distinct waves of Mexican migration over the course of the 20th century, bookended by the advent of liberal policies at the end of the 19th century and neoliberal policies at the end of the 20th.
After the Mexican-American War, which stemmed from the annexation of the Republic of Texas in 1845, many Mexicans were left on the wrong side of the border. "A lot of people say they didn't move," said Paul Hart, a professor of history at Texas State University whose research focuses on modern Mexico. "The border was moved on them."
Starting in the late 19th century, U.S. corporations ventured into Mexico, disrupting the traditional agricultural economy many Mexicans found relief on. The concurrent expansion of the railroad in the U.S. required labor, which drew many Mexican migrants looking for work. The violence and destruction of the Mexican Revolution, which lasted from 1910 to 1920, exacerbated this trend, and Mexican neighborhoods began to emerge in East Austin and South Austin, Hart said. The Great Depression ended this initial wave of migration, as repatriation efforts and deportation drives forced many Mexicans out of the country.
The second wave of migration from Mexico into the U.S. was connected to World War II. As wartime industries claimed U.S. workers, farmers needed a new labor force. In 1942, the U.S. and Mexico created the bracero, or laborer, program. "It was supposed to ensure that U.S. agriculture had the labor necessary to get crops in the from the fields, and the Mexican government agreed to the bracero program because they thought that it provided greater assurance for Mexican laborers—that people wouldn't just be wantonly exploited by individual growers," Hart said.
The bracero program ended in 1964, around which time the economic policy was shifting in Mexico. Throughout much of the 20th century, the Mexican government presided over a land redistribution program, which served rural residents and "kept people at home in Mexico," Hart said. But in the late '80s the program started to fail due to a combination of factors. In conjunction with the North American Free Trade Agreement, which took effect in 1994 and "just devastated Mexican producers," these policies—and the economic devastation they caused—prompted a third wave of migration, Hart said, that lasted until the great recession.
Job opportunities in the booming service and construction industries "brought people to Austin," he added.
The post-war population boom
In addition to spurring international migration, WWII also led to a shift in the state's demographic and economic makeup as industrialization took root.
Wartime demands led to mass domestic migration into Texas as well the migration of state residents to urban areas, where industrial jobs were more plentiful, according to the Texas State Historical Association's handbook. Urbanization became "the dominant migration pattern in postwar Texas," as the state's population drifted from rural areas to major metros, including Austin, per the handbook.
The war also spurred federal investment in defense spending and research universities—including the University of Texas at Austin—followed by the emergence of microchip and then hard- and software companies.
Margaret O'Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington and author of "The Code," a history of Silicon Valley, told Austonia last month that this mirrored what was happening in the Bay Area and at Stanford around the same time. But what drew tech companies to California starting in the 1960s and '70s has now been compromised by the success of those companies. "The Valley used to be attractive because it was relatively affordable," she said. "Now that no longer holds."
Austin, on the other hand, remains relatively affordable for people and companies moving from more expensive cities and states. In the second half of the 20th century, this drew big tech originators such as IBM to the city because it offered lower labor costs. Combined with homegrown companies, such as Dell, and other attractions, such as UT and the Capitol, the city established itself as a destination for domestic migrants looking for job opportunities and lower costs of living.
This trend set the stage for growth into the 21st century, as Texas has maintained a business-friendly climate and relatively low cost of living compared to major cities such as New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. But it has also led to growing pains, particularly when it comes to the infrastructure—from public transportation to basic utilities—needed to support this growing population.
"When rapid growth, multiple people (in Austin) used to say, 'If we don't build it, they won't come,'" State Demographer Lloyd Potter said. "It turns out they were wrong."
Read Part 1 of this series:
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In May, Circuit of the Americas chairman Bobby Epstein looked back on 10 years of Formula 1's U.S. Grand Prix at COTA confident that the race would be here to stay in Texas. But sources tell Austonia that securing another contract may be in jeopardy.
Some insiders worry that COTA's 2021 Grand Prix race might be its last.
The multi-day fest from Oct. 22-24 will include a 56-lap race over the 3.3-mile track, food and musical performances from two acts, including Billy Joel at COTA's 1,500-acre facility in Southeast Austin. But after this year, the U.S.' first F1-specific track could lose its headline event.
The facility's inability to secure a contract thus far comes down to the Texas Legislature, a new threat in Miami, and, most importantly, money.
The first F 1 race will take place in Miami next year. (Hard Rock Stadium)
Every year, Formula 1 receives roughly $25 million from Texas' Major Events Reimbursement Program, a taxpayer-funded initiative that helps bring big sporting events like 2017's Houston Super Bowl to the state. A 2019 report by the Reimbursements Program on that year's race said the "data is inconclusive" on if the event has a positive or negative economic impact on the state with the resources given. In 2018, the Austin-American Statesman reported that COTA had brought back a total of $75.7 million between 2015 and 2017 for hosting the U.S. Grand Prix.
Legal issues have also barred Epstein and Co. from securing another 10-year contract earlier: in 2018, the company lost its yearly $25 million bid after failing to submit a human trafficking prevention plan as part of its yearly application.
That same year, F1 managing director of commercial operations Sean Bratches told the Associated Press that the organization hopes to stay at COTA "for many years to come."
However, in May, the racing league announced that it had secured a 10-year contract to hold the Miami Grand Prix as American interest in the sport soared following the three-season "Drive to Survive" documentary, which gives behind-the-scenes looks at drivers and races of the Formula One World Championship.
Epstein is optimistic about the new U.S. location and told Autoweek in May that "more race in our time zones are good for the sport."
"I think we're getting double the impact this way," Epstein said. "Miami should sell out huge the first year and maybe the second year and then after that, I think we'd be spitting audience if we were around the same time on the calendar. So the spread is fantastic."
Bobby Epstein recognizes the 1 millionth customer of COTA in 2013. (COTA/Facebook)
The new F1 venture may impact COTA's contract, however: in an opinion piece for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, writer Mac Engel said Texas is unlikely to fork over taxpayer money if the facility is no longer the only F1 track in the U.S.
According to Engel, the Major Events Reimbursements Program agrees to provide funding only "if Austin holds the only F1 race in the country."
Epstein hasn't addressed such claims; by contrast, he feels as though there's room for a third race in the U.S. as ticket sales rebound after COVID.
"In the first week, we sold pretty much all the tickets we put up for sale and we plan to break the 2019 attendance record," Epstein told Autoweek. "Texas was the first place to lift COVID-19 restrictions (in the U.S.) and put on sporting events, and we're full. We're at 100% capacity.
Despite ventures to diversify revenue at COTA—Epstein's USL soccer team Austin Bold has seen its own share of troubles, and the facility plans to develop into a multi-faceted entertainment arena complete with music venues, a waterpark, condominiums and an 11-story hotel—a loss of its primary event could be devastating for the $300 million complex.
F1 has rarely lasted more than a decade at venues in the U.S. over the last century; let's hope Austin breaks that curse.
COTA's media relations team did not immediately get back to Austonia for comment.
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Houston? Dallas? San Antonio? No, it has to be Austin.
We know Californians love Texas, but a recent string of posts on neighborhood platform Nextdoor in Santa Barbara, California, displays what the craze to move to Austin looks like.
When one user posted, "Hi neighbors, I want to buy a house in Houston, Texas any recommendations?" the responses flooded in displaying what the admiration for Austin looks like from the West Coast. Users mostly advised against a move to Houston; one person even wrote, "Austin is the ONLY place to consider!!"
While some defended H-town, saying, "Awesome place to live," one person wrote, "WORST PLACE TO LIVE." Reasons to not move to Houston from Californians' perspective included:
- "Foul air from refineries"
- "horrible flooding due to the flat Gulf coastal shelf"
- "crazy zoning"
- "racial prejudice"
- "super high humidity"
- "very conservative"
The comments were shifted to Austin's lush greenery, weather and acceptance of gay people.
Over the last five years, Austin has seen more migrants from California than any other state, according to an Austin Chamber of Commerce report. The Austin appeal from residents living in more congested places like California became more prevalent during the pandemic when stay-at-home orders were issued and people sought more space.
It wasn't just Austin though; lots of other Sunbelt cities saw an influx in their housing market as a result of people working from home and looking for a lower cost of living. And that included Texas in general, with people flooding to various Texas cities.
But it hasn't come with resistance. The "Don't California my Texas" pleas are still alive and well, as Californians are blamed for raising the cost of living by outpricing current residents. The housing market has reached record numbers in the median home price year-over-year since the beginning of the pandemic. Austin was even predicted to be the most expensive city outside of California by the end of the year.
Still, Californians and even New Yorkers can't stay away. Companies and celebrities have followed, leading Texas transplant Elon Musk to label Austin's future as "the biggest boomtown that America has seen in half a century."