Sometimes I have the uncanny good fortune to land in a city and discover my host is a perfect reflection of the place I’m visiting. In his initial e-mail to me, David Lanham said, “Austin is the living embodiment of the most ominous and wonderful trends in American culture.” In many ways, David Lanham is the living embodiment of Austin, and the dissonance between its funky image and affluent reality.
David is a musician and a poet. He studied writing at the famous Interlochen high school in Michigan and Beloit College. He was a musician in New York City, owned an array of guitars, had a penchant for his pedal steel instrument, wore skinny jeans and cowboy boots, but got tired of endless rent. He decided to move, “as far South as I needed until people stopped asking me what a steel guitar was.” He landed in Austin in 1995 and bought a bungalow south of the river.
“Where are all the cowboys?” he wanted to know. Dave was directed to the rodeo northeast of town. The rodeo occurs on the same weekend ‘South by Southwest’ takes center stage downtown. The two simultaneous events illustrate Austin’s dichotomy. “The cowboys are all working class guys while Austinites wear five hundred dollar boots to work on heritage days.”
Dave played music here, “for $40 a night and plate of ribs.” He appreciates Austin’s musical breadth, but acknowledges few locals make a living at it. “The music scene is being cut back by the cost of living and noise reduction ordinances. People move to the condos downtown because of the vibe, then complain about the noise. Now, there are fewer outdoor venues.”
Dave calls himself a mapmaker. “As a cartographer, I’m a short order cook.” He creates custom maps of the city of Austin for three primary clients –a law firm, a development firm and a real estate firm; each of whom want specific information about traffic patterns, soil conditions, zoning restrictions, and Starbucks locations to understand where Austin’s at, and where it’s going. If you want to know where the population of $50,000 per year families is growing in order to locate the newest Chipotle, Dave has a map for you. “Six thousand people make over $100,000 per year and live alone within a half mile of the Whole Foods mothership at 5th and Lamar. That explains the store’s focus on prepared food. It also explains Snap Kitchen, which sells ready-to-eat meals designed to make you fit. Convenience and status matters more than price to those folks.”
As the unofficial expert of Austin demographics; Dave has his finger on the pulse of a city that is growing diametrically opposite from its beloved image. “Balcones’ Fault runs right through Austin. It is the geographic and physical division between the poor, who live on the flats east of town, and the west side rich who live in the hills. Now, the east side is gentrifying and poor people are being pushed out. The SMSA counts two million people in Austin. Only 9% are black. Austin’s black population is small compared to neighboring cities, and decreasing. In twenty years, I have never worked with a black person.”
Hispanics represent 35 to 40% of the population. “They are fully integrated into the city’s economy, but not in terms of neighborhood or socially. Many will tell you they are invisible.” Although Dave points out there are no barriers to Hispanic/Anglo relationships at a friendship or romantic level, the city has much less Hispanic flavor than the Latino proportion implies. “The University of Texas and the State Government set the tone of the city. Yet all the work done in this town is by Hispanics. They’re not all illegal, but a lot of them are. The entire economy of Texas is predicated on it. The poorer Hispanic community fears being exploited by illegals. The affluent Hispanic community often takes advantage of illegals.”
Sometimes Dave provides text to accompany his maps. “I used to stress Austin’s laid-back atmosphere. That was part of our charm. But about ten years ago the commercial and real estate interests didn’t want to hear that. Now I stress our competitive advantages and high-tech.”
Dave reports that 120 people move to Austin every day. Few leave. “A person can move here from a Palo Alto, sell a $1.2 million ranch, buy a $600,000 McMansion, and live like a king.” Austin accommodates its newcomers through sprawl. “Austin has an absolute primacy of neighborhood associations. They suppress zoning changes and therefore density.
“I was in New York, working with musicians who had incredible drive. I moved to Austin and started working in commercial real estate. I work with people who have incredible drive. In each case, if you did not have anything to offer them, they have no use for you. Some are nice about it; others are not. Either way, it’s the same ambition.”
Dave is uncomfortable about Austin’s trajectory. The city cannot ‘stay weird’ if grows so affluent, so fast, and so wide. Yet, Dave owns a single-family house less than 2 miles from downtown that has quadrupled in value. It’s hard to rail against a paradigm that delivers such bounty. “My parents are 90 and 91. I’m going to be responsible for them. I feel responsible to my partner, who has less financial stability than me. Thanks to what’s happened in Austin, I have enough, but I’m always figuring on it.”
Although Austin may not be as weird as it fancies, it’s still a place where a guy who works in commercial real estate gets his feet washed in counterculture. Dave still plays guitars with abandon. He writes poetry and publishes in small magazines. “It is my way of having an immediacy with the world. I write poetry to understand the world I am in. My writing is always focused on a moment. It is not profound.”
After meeting Dave, and spending four days in Austin, his insights on his adopted city rang true. I also had an opportunity to read some of his poetry. I disagree with him on that point. Much of it is profound.
How will we live tomorrow?
“As a people, we will live far more economically separated. The main indications I see driving this are the gerrymandering of political districts and the movement toward economic inequality. Zoning, neighborhood associations, wealth is separating us. Educated poor people will live in common. Uneducated poor people will not do that as much. The wealthy have separated themselves for a long time. Middle class people will do that as much as possible.
“I am 62. We are the last generation to experience widespread economic growth. We are going to face problems in retirement and aging.
“In a more positive light, when aspiring for stuff is thwarted, that might realign us to relationships with each other and with society.”