New Yorker - "The Astonishing Transformation of Austin"
By Lawrence Wright
"Aperson can live in many places but can settle in only one. You may not understand the difference until you’ve found the city or the town or the patch of countryside that sounds a distinct internal chord. For much of my life, I was on the move. I grew up in Texas, in Abilene and Dallas, but as soon as the gate opened I fled the sterile culture, the retrograde politics, the absence of natural beauty. I met my wife, Roberta, in New Orleans. She was also on the run, from the racism and suffocating conformity of Mobile, Alabama. In our married life, we have lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Cairo, Egypt; Quitman, Texas; Durham, North Carolina; Nashville; and Atlanta—all desirable places with much to recommend. We travelled the world. I have spent stretches of my professional life in the places you would expect—New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., all cities that I revere, but not places we chose to settle.
Unconsciously, during those vagabond years, we were on the lookout for home. I nursed a conception of an ideal community, one that combined qualities I loved about other places: the physical beauty, say, of Atlanta; the joyful music-making of New Orleans; an intellectual scene fed by an important university, as in Cambridge or Durham; a place with a healthy energy and ready access to nature, such as Denver or Seattle; a spot where we could comfortably find friends and safely raise children. I’m not saying that we couldn’t have been happy in any of the places I’ve mentioned, but something kept us from profoundly identifying with them.
In 1980, I joined the writing staff of Texas Monthly, in Austin. The population then was a little more than three hundred thousand—the current size of Lexington, Kentucky. Thirteen per cent of Austin residents were University of Texas students; another five per cent were faculty and staff. The only other significant presence in town was the state capitol. You could park free on most streets. Of the limited offering of restaurants in town, we favored the Raw Deal, a greasy spoon where, for five bucks, you could choose between the pork chop and the sirloin, accompanied by red beans and Pabst Blue Ribbon. Above the register was the surly admonition “Remember: you came looking for the Raw Deal—the Raw Deal didn’t come looking for you.”
Life in Austin was offbeat, affordable, spontaneous, blithe, and slyly amused, as if we were in on some hilarious secret the rest of the world was unaware of. Even then, the place had a reputation for being cool, but in my experience it was just extremely relaxed, almost to the point of stupor. There was a reason that the director Richard Linklater titled his 1990 portrait of the city “Slacker.” I was happy to be in Austin for a while: it embodied all the things I still loved about Texas—the friendliness, the vitality, the social mobility—yet it also stood against the mean-spiritedness of the state’s politics, despite being the capital city. Staying, though, violated my resolution to keep my distance from Texas. But Roberta declared that she was never going to live anyplace else."
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