In 2000, Red Wassenich pledged on a local radio station to keep Austin weird. In the two decades since, the slogan has been used by the Austin Independent Business Alliance for the purpose of small-business promotion — but to the residents of Austin, Texas, it represents much more than that. It is a statement of pride, an appreciative nod to a hyperlocal movement that is now internationally recognized. Austin never really tried to be weird; it simply became that way (sometime in the 1970s, in Wassenich’s humble opinion), the way many college towns do, due to its large population of young people interested in independent music, art, and media.
Countercultural movements took root everywhere in the wake of the Free Love era, to be fair, but Austin seemed slightly more reluctant to let go of the hippie ideals that once drove America in more progressive directions.
From the infamous Cathedral of Junk built by visual artist Vince Hanneman to the annual South by Southwest music festival, there is something pleasingly innocent yet edgy about Austin. And while it does not necessarily create any more rebels, revolutionaries, and creative geniuses than any other college town in America, it does live up to its motto by maintaining a certain weirdness factor. Like the relaxed confidence of the hipsters who make up the wide majority of its population, it’s cool because it isn’t trying too hard to be cool.
If your knowledge of Austin is limited, you may have a vague, hazy idea of its aesthetic: quirky, young, kitschy, almost naive. You would mostly be correct. Everyone in Austin has a side hustle, a dream they’re chasing while they wait for their ship to come in. Contrary to every imaginable Texas stereotype, Austin skews very liberal.
Around every corner, the city’s wild and rich artistic history is evident. Creative agencies, indie record labels, clothing boutiques, and one-of-a-kind hotels are scattered throughout Austin, and live music is always on offer at charmingly bohemian dive bars such as The White Horse.
For older adults who have settled into the day jobs they once stubbornly resisted, Austin might lack the same appeal it has for young people. But millennials are flooding to Austin like moths to a flame. They just can’t seem to stay away.
The reason may be less superficial than once imagined. According to one study by WalletHub, Austin’s twenty- and thirty-somethings are the least depressed in the nation, a statistically significant conclusion considering a 2017 study from Psychology Today revealed that one in five millennials suffers from a mental health condition — and corroborative studies have found that, overall, Texas might be the most depressed state in the country.
Yet Austin has proven to be a habitable and exciting place for millennials. How can one city provide a refuge for so many?
It may be that Austin’s inclination for the absurd allows young people from all backgrounds to find their niche in one of the city’s most inviting neighbourhoods, the centrally located Old West Austin Historic District. Within spitting distance of the University of Texas Austin campus, and packed with coffee shops and independent restaurants, it isn’t difficult to see why this is the neighbourhood of choice for millennials to settle down and buy homes. Old West Austin manages to find the delicate balance that many young modern homeowners look for. Regal historic homes provide a luxury aesthetic. Leafy green trees line picturesque streets; neighbourhoods are secure and crime rates are low. Key, of course, is the fact that a thriving coffee culture, independent restaurant scene, nightlife, and creative community is quietly thrumming on Old West Austin’s streets.
In this particular neck of the woods, it is evident that this generation of forward-thinking young Texan parents is not surrendering to the humdrum routine, but rather involving their children in Austin’s rich and vibrant cultural influence.
Only time will tell if Austin manages to keep itself weird, but in the meantime, it is providing a haven for a new cohort of young adults with an eye for aesthetic and artistic beauty.