Wikipedia informs us that two cities are sometimes nicknamed City of the Violet Crown, after the purplish glow of their sunsets. The first one is Athens, Greece, which the classical poet Pindar has described thusly: “O shining and violet-crowned and celebrated in song, bulwark of Hellas, Famous Athens, divine citadel.” The second is Austin, Texas, which has a climate not entirely dissimilar to Greece, and where the light reportedly scatters in a beautiful Belt of Venus after sunset over the hills of the Hill Country. On the day I learned this, I went outside at dusk to watch the bats under the Congress Avenue bridge. And sure enough, the sky turned into a painting.
I don’t live in Austin, but I’ve just been here a few times, the first at the beginning of last fall. I’m a visitor, but a returning one. There’s something strange with returning somewhere that isn’t your home. You don’t get the excitement of novelty, nor the relief of familiarity. I once went back for a week to the city of Uppsala, Sweden, where I had previously lived twice for a total of 10 months. As I rode the bus from the Stockholm-Västerås airport, the neutrality of my feelings startled me. I was expecting to feel something from being back, but no — Uppsala was, on that occasion, very much just a place. Although I haven’t been in Austin long enough to exhaust its novelty, is feels a bit like that. It doesn’t help that by default, the City of the Violet Crown feels like just another North American city. It might have a lot of personality compared to other Texan cities, or even American ones, but it’s also middling in many ways. It’s simultaneously big and not-that-big: 2 million people in the urban area, half the city where I live. It’s Texas but also not really Texas — it has too much in common with the liberal and cosmopolitan cities of the coasts. But it’s also not quite like those, because it’s in Texas. Austin is a city that almost no one outside the United States ever thinks about, and even as I sit here in the heart of downtown Austin it still feels that I am not really anywhere. The only fix for this would be to make it my home.
I took a crappy picture at night to make a point:
This is the architecture of Austin. Recent condos, diverse, blocky, occasionally colorful, mixed-use, often with businesses on the ground floor. Most lovers of architecture won’t fall in love with this, and indeed I didn’t. Yet there is something joyful about those cookie-cutter condos. They indicate that this is a city that grows, and that is able to build housing. In some circles, which tend to be very present on Twitter and in the tech industry, it seems that everybody is moving to Austin, often from places like San Francisco and New York. At a meetup two days ago, most people had moved to Austin a year ago, five months ago, two weeks ago, three days ago. The occasional person who had lived here for four years was almost an Austin local — something absurd, I’m sure, to anyone who was born and raised here. As a result of this migration I am told that the real estate market is, to put it mildly, batshit crazy. But at least the city decidedly grows. Growth feels better, is better, than stagnation or decline. Just like it is attractive to see somebody grow in their career, skills, or fitness program, Austin is attractive because it gets better every day — which accelerates its growth.
There are a lot of shared electric scooters. My own city, Montreal, banned them. A man yesterday at the bat bridge told me that Dallas, north of here, banned them. Austin did not ban them, and a predictable result is that they are all over the place, including at the bottom of the Colorado River.
Speaking of which, the Colorado River that flows through Austin is not the Colorado River. That one, which gives its name to the State of Colorado and has carved the Grand Canyon, flows through the Rocky Mountains and into the Gulf of California. It is also reddish — the name Colorado means colored or red in Spanish. The Texan Colorado River is not colorado; but the nearby Brazos River can be. The two rivers were confused by early explorers and somehow, they ended up with the wrong names. Ever since, a Colorado River that is neither the Colorado River nor a colorado river has flowed through Austin.
People don’t move to Austin in droves for its purple sunsets, or its cookie-cutter condos, or its electric scooters. They may move here for the agreeable weather, but mostly they move here for other people. The population of this city seems disproportionately smart, young, interesting, optimistic. Somebody at a meetup of Twitter people asked if part of me wanted to move here. I told him that I liked how he had phrased the question. No, I don’t want to move here, I like my own city, and I think it’s worthwhile to grow roots somewhere rather than move often; but yes, there is a “part of me” that would like to join the formidable network that is being nurtured in Austin. I expect that I will visit regularly. I expect that it will grow, for me and for the world, into more than just a place.