The Astonishing Transformation of Austin


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Oct 05, 2023

The Astonishing Transformation of Austin

By Lawrence Wright A person can live in many places but can settle in only one.

By Lawrence Wright

A person 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.

"Keep Austin Weird" was the city's unofficial motto—you saw it on bumper stickers, guitar cases, and VW buses, often alongside another slogan, "Onward Thru the Fog." That one is harder to explain. In 1967, Gilbert Shelton, the creator of the "Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers" comic books, imagined a character named Oat Willie—a scrawny, bare-chested guy with a Pinocchio nose, wearing polka-dot underwear, carrying a blazing torch, and standing in a bucket of oats on wheels. Austin's druggy counterculture adopted the character as its mascot; a popular head shop was named Oat Willie's. An origin story explained the character. Oat, a student at U.T., was conducting an experiment on oat seeds when he was shocked by the news that President Kennedy had been assassinated: "Thunderstruck, he failed to notice that his hand had brushed a control knob, releasing RADIOACTIVE ELEMENTS into his oat bucket!" When Oat Willie climbed into the bucket to mash the oats, the RADIOACTIVE ELEMENTS caused his feet to fuse to the bottom. There was no remedy, so he attached wheels to the bucket, like an early Segway. After various adventures, Oat Willie wound up in New York, arriving as fog smothered the city. People were stranded. "SAVE ME!" they cried. "WHERE ARE MY HANDS?" Fortunately, the oat bucket floated, and Oat managed to paddle to the Statue of Liberty and borrow her torch. As he guided New Yorkers to safety, he cried, "Onward through the fog!" If this makes sense to you, you should have been in Austin back in the day.

The city was pretty, with cypress-lined Lady Bird Lake dividing it between north and south. A burgeoning literary scene grew out of Texas Monthly, and hundreds of working bands filled clubs and dives. There were a handful of tall buildings downtown, mostly banks. I recall standing in the conference room on the top floor of the tallest one, a twenty-six-story tower, and looking out at Austin's unobstructed downtown core: parking lots and warehouses and a small commercial district. To the north was the gorgeous capitol, fashioned from pinkish granite, and beyond that the University of Texas, whose buildings were made of limestone and Spanish tiles. To the south, across the river, was Travis Heights, the neighborhood where we lived at the time and where Roberta taught at a public elementary school. West of that was Zilker Park and its hallowed swimming hole, Barton Springs. On the east side were the communities of color, segregated from the rest of the city by I-35, sometimes called the Interracial Highway. For all its charms, Austin was beset by racial divisions that have undermined its character and its reputation to this day.

Residents appreciated that Austin felt like a small town. Though we endured a lot of inconveniences—you had to change planes if you wanted to go almost anywhere out of state—it seemed worth the trade-off. We looked at Dallas and Houston with dread. The mantra was "If we don't build it, they won't come." I hoped that Austin, if it did grow, would initiate height restrictions that would keep the city humanely proportioned, like Washington or Paris. Who needed skyscrapers in Austin? Everywhere you looked, there was vacant or scarcely used land.

Several months ago, I got to induct Joe Ely, the rocking Texas troubadour, into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame. I spoke about how Ely, a Lubbock native, had moved to Austin as a young guitarist, alternating shows with Stevie Ray Vaughan at a club called the One Knite, where they’d make maybe fifteen bucks in tips. Ely had been supplementing his income in a quintessentially Austin fashion: as a llama herder in a circus.

After the induction ceremony, Roberta and I spent a night in the W hotel, adjacent to the Moody Theatre, where "Austin City Limits" is taped. When Roberta opened the blinds, we had a sensation known to every longtime resident: we had no idea where we were. It was difficult even to discern what direction we were facing, because skyscrapers blocked the horizon. Ten building cranes were visible from that one window. Today, two projects are competing to claim the title of tallest building in Texas, one at seventy-four stories and the other at eighty.

I play in a local band with Ricardo Ainslie, a psychologist and professor at the University of Texas. (Rico's on guitar; I’m on keyboards.) He recently told me, "There's a line in ‘Civilization and Its Discontents’ in which Freud invites the reader to think about Rome not as a geographic space but as a psychic space." We were on the patio of Julio's Café, one of our favorite lunchtime spots, although you have to guard your food from the grackles. "I think it's true," he went on. "We have an emotional relationship to cities. We identify with them—not always without ambivalence." We can complain about traffic, for instance, or the failure of services, "but when any calamity happens we are suddenly aware of the sense of loss or of psychic dislocation. When our cities undergo profound transformation, it poses challenges for us." He added, "No city in America has changed more than Austin has in the last two decades."

Austin is the fastest-growing major metro area in America, having expanded by a third in the past ten years. It is already the eleventh-largest city. New jobs mop up newcomers as fast as they arrive. Every day, the metro area adds three hundred and fifty-five new residents, while two hundred and thirty-eight Austinites depart, many of them squeezed out by high rents and property taxes, or by the disaffection so many of us feel because of the pace of change and the loss of qualities that once defined the city. Austin is now characterized by stifling traffic and unaffordable restaurants. It was never known as a home for billionaires and celebrities, but in the past few years notable refugees from Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and New York have stampeded into town, with different expectations about what Austin should become—and outsized power to shape the city around their desires. Locals point disdainfully to the Hermès shop and the Soho House on South Congress, formerly the funkiest street in town. Evan Smith, a founder of the Texas Tribune, told me, "Austin now has an upper class."

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Elon Musk is just one of the recent billionaire arrivals hanging around Austin. There were two or three until not long ago; now I hear there are fourteen. Imagine you invite the new neighbors to a pool party and they turn out to be elephants. When they jump in, it changes things.

Of course, such complaints are signposts of a booming economy—the kinds of problems many people elsewhere would love to have. In any city whose identity is changing, it can be hard to avoid the sense that a golden age has slipped away. Newcomers to Austin fall prey to this nostalgia almost instantly—and, with a longtime resident like me, the symptoms can become comically acute. But the feeling is more like watching someone you love become someone you didn't expect. It doesn't mean that you’re not still in love—just that complexity has entered the relationship. Austin forty years ago was like a graduate student with modest tastes and few resources; now she's sporting jewels and flying first class. She's sophisticated, well travelled, and well connected, and those aren't necessarily bad things—they’re just disorienting. Nostalgia is a way of remembering when things were simpler; it also makes us forget that simple things can be boring and frustrating. Instead of running on the fumes of memory, I decided to reacquaint myself with the actual Austin I’m living in—a city rapidly transforming into America's next great metropolis.

Austin's future was determined in January, 1983, when Admiral Bob Inman, recently retired from the Navy and from serving as the deputy director of the C.I.A., was selected to head a novel consortium called the Microelectronics and Computer Consortium. Japan dominated the semiconductor-manufacturing industry at the time and had announced an ambitious effort to create computers capable of generating artificial intelligence. The Reagan Administration saw this as a serious threat, and M.C.C. was the response. Twenty of America's foremost high-tech companies—among them Microsoft, Boeing, G.E., and Lockheed—would share resources to secure America's hold on the future. The first decision was where to locate this new entity.

M.C.C. was scheduled to exist for a decade, and the city chosen to host it would inevitably be transformed. The predictable choices would have been Silicon Valley or the Boston suburbs, but Inman—slender and succinct, with arched, skeptical brows—proposed an open competition. Fifty-seven communities bid. It was a commercial auction never before seen in America.

A site-selection committee of Inman and six C.E.O.s held its first round of auditions. Mayors, governors, university chancellors, and business leaders teamed up to make their case. The committee examined various criteria: quality of life, cost of living, tax environment, quality of public education, commute times, airline connections, and access to graduate students in electrical engineering and computer science. In the first round, San Antonio made the best presentation, led by its charismatic mayor, Henry Cisneros. "The one thing he didn't have was a research university," Inman told me.

The contestants narrowed to four: San Diego, Austin, Atlanta, and the Research Triangle. Although Inman was a graduate of the University of Texas, he favored San Diego, a city he’d enjoyed during his Navy days. The team met at the University of California's campus there. George Deukmejian, California's governor, kept the committee waiting for twenty minutes, read a speech, then departed. Such atmospherics mattered. "They would have been far better off if he’d never shown up," Inman concluded.

When the team visited Austin, Pike Powers, the chief of staff to Texas's governor, Mark White, welcomed them to a breakfast in the grand atrium of the L.B.J. Library, hosted by Mrs. Johnson herself—who "served quail," Inman recalled. The team was impressed by Austin's quality of life and affordability. Employees moving to the area were promised reduced mortgage rates. What clinched the deal was the university's commitment to provide a reliable stream of talent. U.T. offered to fund eight chairs in electrical engineering and computer science, at a million dollars each. The university later sweetened its offer by funding thirty-two such chairs, but by then the search committee had made its decision. "Austin won going away," Inman said. "The outcome was a shock to both the East and West Coast."

It was a shock to Austin, too. I remember the mixture of amazement and unease that greeted the decision. Back then, Austin was a uniquely liberal entity in Texas—"the blueberry in the tomato soup," to employ the unappealing metaphor that prevailed before all the major cities in the state turned blue, a decade or so ago. You could make the case that, if you drew a line from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, Austin was the most liberal American city south of that border; at the same time, it harbored a reactionary resistance to change, especially when growth was a likely consequence.

Just as M.C.C. was finishing up its search, a freshman pre-med student at U.T. was upgrading computers in his dorm room from stock parts and securing contracts to provide computers for the State of Texas. His name was Michael Dell. He dropped out at the end of his first year, having capitalized his company with a thousand dollars. His manufacturing team, he later recalled, consisted of "three guys with screwdrivers." By 1992, Dell was the youngest C.E.O. of a Fortune 500 company. He became Austin's first homegrown billionaire.

Dell reminded me that Austin already had a cluster of tech companies. "In the sixties, I.B.M. came," he said. "In the seventies, you had Texas Instruments and Motorola." In 1986, three years after M.C.C. set up in Austin, Sematech, another consortium created to boost semiconductor manufacturing, arrived, bringing along Robert Noyce, the visionary co-founder of Intel. "It was like Benjamin Franklin moving to Austin," Dell told me.

Real wealth marched into town, first with the "Dellionaires" who invested in Dell in its early years. (Thanks to Roberta's urgent counsel, we became modest investors.) No longer were the capitol and the university the city's major economic forces. Austin's cultural appeal wasn't the only lure for tech giants; Texas bestowed fabulous tax incentives.

Other cities longed for such an influx of tech-savvy professionals, but Austinites were ambivalent about the economic bounce. People moved to Austin because of what the city was—but, in the act of moving, they helped obliterate that history. Treasured music clubs were razed to make room for apartments and office buildings. The once crystalline Barton Springs became clouded by runoff from development. The dignified capitol was shadowed by glassy towers that reflected the Texas sun, making sidewalks sizzle. Traffic and crime and other big-city stressors made the old days appear more glorious than they actually were.

Every new Austinite brings a bit of the culture he left behind. No matter how interesting the newcomers are, their attitudes, their preferences, their prejudices become novel flavors in the cultural stew. Austin will never taste the same.

Other Austinites I spoke with had gone through similar searches for an ideal home. Luke Warford grew up in Rhode Island, then lived in New York, Cincinnati, and London, where he went to grad school in economics. He spent a year in Ethiopia. "Every extra dollar I made in my twenties I spent on travel," he told me, as we sat in an East Austin coffee shop. A thirty-three-year-old marathoner with dark-brown hair and beard stubble, he was wearing a memorial baseball cap for the Uvalde massacre. After working at Facebook in Silicon Valley, he decided to put down roots: "I wanted to go someplace I could have a really big impact, and where there's a lot of opportunity, and a place that's young and active." It came down to Denver or Austin. The hike-and-bike trail around Lady Bird Lake—"the most beautiful running spot that you could possibly imagine"—sold him.

Another factor in his decision was politics. "Texas is going to be the most politically consequential state in the next decade," he said, and he wanted to be a part of that. Texas, in his assessment, was "thirty million persons governed by entrenched assholes." Changing that would be a huge undertaking, but Warford likes solving "big, intractable problems." He went to work for the dispirited and ineffectual Texas Democratic Party. He spent a year and a half there before announcing that he was running for railroad commissioner.

For a young man intent on changing the world, there couldn't have been a better choice. The Railroad Commission, its quaint name notwithstanding, has nothing to do with railroads: it regulates oil and gas in the state. There's no more consequential entity in America for managing energy. The failure of the Texas grid in 2021 was a trigger for Warford. Wayne Christian, one of the three commissioners, was up for reëlection the next year. Christian is a Tea-Party Republican who is in the Texas Gospel Music Hall of Fame. He was supported almost entirely by the industry he nominally regulated. His solution to climate change: "Turn the damn air-conditioner up." That proved to be a winning platform.

Warford isn't discouraged by his loss. He's convinced that he’ll help Texas eventually flip blue, and that this will change America. Texas rewards risk-taking, he told me: "That's certainly been my experience. I mean, I was a statewide Democratic nominee for a fairly reputable, high-profile office three years after moving here."

Eduardo (Eddie) Margain, an investor in real estate and in oil and gas, has lived in Austin for fifteen years. He has been buying signature buildings downtown, including the noble Driskill hotel—"the grande dame of Texas," he calls it. He also was an organizing force behind bringing professional soccer to Austin, in 2021. Until then, the city was the largest in America without a professional athletic team. Margain and I met at Q2 Stadium, where the soccer team plays. He is intense and energetic, with a narrow face and pale-blue eyes, his hands conducting the conversation. "We sold out every game from the start," he told me, as we walked the beautiful field. His family came from Monterrey, Mexico, in 2008. His father-in-law, Alejandro Junco de la Vega, owns a media conglomerate whose star property is the center-right newspaper Reforma. Margain, having seen how violence can take over a country—newspaper offices were firebombed and the family lived under constant threat—has become the head of the Greater Austin Crime Commission. Austin remains one of America's safer cities, but crime has been rising. In the fall of 2020, the city council defunded the police's budget by a third. It also suspended new cadet classes, and although instruction has resumed, the city is woefully short of officers. There's no visible traffic enforcement, and since 2021 the murder rate has hit a historic high. But Margain is undaunted. "If we fix public safety, we’re going to be the best city in the world," he told me.

Joe Lonsdale, a venture capitalist who co-founded Palantir, the data-analysis company, and started the investment-technology firm 8VC, among many other enterprises, came to Austin from Silicon Valley. "I like Texas," he told me. "There's this spirit of the Texas frontier—strong people confronting challenges and doing so boldly." That's the myth I grew up with, but it still has the power to summon entrepreneurs like Lonsdale. He worries that Austin's rising cost of living disenfranchises the very people who made the city so distinct. "You want to have lots of hippies around because they make the music and the food better," he told me. "But you just don't want them in government."

After attending Stanford, Lonsdale became an intern at Peter Thiel's PayPal, and got to know three future billionaires now living in Austin: Luke Nosek, Ken Howery, and Elon Musk. (Musk has claimed to live in a forty-five-thousand-dollar tract house in Boca Chica Village, at the bottom tip of Texas, to be close to his rocket company's launch site, but he's also been seen staying in friends’ mansions in Austin.) Called the "PayPal mafia," they have brought with them the disruptive self-image and libertarian politics that characterized their Silicon Valley ventures. Palantir, which is based in Denver but has offices in Austin, typifies the moral complexity of the current tech culture. The company has been criticized for allowing U.S. immigration authorities to use its sophisticated software to arrest parents of undocumented children, and for working with the N.S.A. to improve software that the agency used to spy on American citizens. But during the pandemic the government tracked outbreaks by analyzing COVID-19 data with Palantir software, and the company's algorithms are reportedly being used in Ukraine to monitor Russian troop deployments. David Ignatius, of the Washington Post, described Palantir's code as "the most advanced intelligence and battle-management software ever seen in combat."

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One of Austin's assets, Lonsdale told me, is its location in the middle of the country, which obviates the need for cross-country flights. I asked him if the air connections in Austin were adequate for peripatetic business leaders. "Austin's a lot more connected than it used to be," he said. "The obnoxious reply would be that, of my twenty or thirty most prominent friends who moved here, they all have planes anyway."

As Lonsdale sees it, Austin also offers a middle ground in a political sense. He considers himself a "moderate person on the right" who opposed Donald Trump. His long list of campaign donations shows him contributing to both parties. He is prone to expressing irascible opinions, as when he tweeted, apropos of Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, that any man who takes a six-month paternity leave is a "loser." "I’ve always called myself socially liberal and fiscally conservative," he told me, but living in San Francisco radicalized him against "far left" politics. The city felt dangerous. Friends complained that their children were being indoctrinated in school about gender politics. "It got to be so wacky," he said. He had the sense that they were living in a "decadent society that's not working."

In Austin, he was struck by the fact that people who staunchly opposed his politics nevertheless discussed their differences with him in a civil manner. He told me, "In San Francisco, when I would go against someone, they’d be, like, ‘You’re an evil person.’ So there's something still very healthy about Texas. I really hope we can keep it this way."

In 2018, Lonsdale founded the Cicero Institute, a think tank and lobbying organization that promotes deregulation. He is also the chair and principal backer of a new academic enterprise: the University of Austin, styled UATX. It is supposed to be a freewheeling intellectual environment, in contrast with what Lonsdale sees as the "nihilist, Marxist" bent of contemporary academia. Among its early supporters are the Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the playwright David Mamet, and the journalist Bari Weiss. Such contrarians may feel less out of place in Austin, which has long navigated a tension between its progressive city government and the radical-right politics of the governor and the legislature.

I talked to the founding president of UATX, Pano Kanelos. A former head of St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, he is a burly, jovial man with a gray beard. His parents ran a restaurant in Chicago. He went to Northwestern, got a master's in political philosophy and literature from Boston University, a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, and a postdoc at Stanford. He's an academic through and through; he even has a perfectly egg-shaped head. But he believes that higher education in America has gone badly off track: it's crazily expensive and bloated with bureaucrats. Like Lonsdale, he thinks that liberal ideologues have squelched campus debate. The question is whether UATX will be freewheeling or merely oppositional.

I noted to Kanelos that Austin was already well stocked with colleges and universities. "I totally disagree," he said. "Every great city has a great public research institution and a great private research institution. As I’ve said to my friends at U.T., we want to be the Stanford to your Berkeley." He told me that UATX will welcome its first class in 2024. "The time is right for new institutions," he said. "If you’re going to build a new university today, anywhere in the country, maybe in the world, it should be in Austin."

My neighborhood in Austin, Tarrytown, is named for the hamlet in upstate New York where Washington Irving set "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." When Roberta and I moved here, in 1995, many of the houses were one-story cottages inhabited by professors and state bureaucrats, amid a forest of cedar elms. Now there are billionaires. You don't know who your new neighbors are because the sellers sign nondisclosure agreements. I know what you’re thinking, but Tarrytown isn't nearly as grand as River Oaks, in Houston, or Highland Park, in Dallas—street after street of Gatsbyesque mansions. There are more distinguished neighborhoods in Austin itself, but truly lavish properties are almost impossible to acquire in the city's fevered housing market.

The land that became Tarrytown was subdivided by the heirs of Governor Elisha Pease, who lived on an imposing estate, built in 1854, called Woodlawn. The house is eight thousand square feet, on four acres amply supplied with majestic live oaks. The property recently changed hands, but nobody seems to know who bought it. A white Rolls-Royce was seen trolling the block, fuelling a rumor that it was Beyoncé. The Austin American-Statesman uncovered hints that the purchaser was the rapper 50 Cent, who left New York for Houston because of taxes. "All of Silicon Valley is now in Austin," he declared in 2021. "I’ve got my cowboy hat."

A friend of mine, a real-estate developer, used to live about ten blocks from us, in a handsome Georgian home with an extra lot. Two years ago, the actress Emma Stone reportedly bought it. I walk by the property several times a week. It's being completely redone in a manner befitting a Hollywood star. I’m tickled to have her in the neighborhood, and yet I wonder what it is about Austin that drew her here.

Roberta and I got a preview of Austin's future when, in 1998, Matthew McConaughey moved into a two-bedroom bungalow across the street. He grew up in Texas, in Longview and Uvalde, and planned to attend Southern Methodist University, with the goal of practicing law in Dallas. His brother Pat asked, "Have you been to Austin? That's your kind of city! You can walk into a bar barefoot and have the sheriff to your right, a local Native American to your left, a hippie on the other side of the sheriff, and a lesbian on the other side of the Native American, and you’ll probably be served by a dwarf with blue hair. They’re all gonna be sharing a beer. And the only thing you have to do is be yourself." McConaughey went to U.T., earning a degree in film in 1993.

Five years later, he was a celebrity who could live anywhere, but he longed to return to his laid-back college town, which is where he’d got his first big break in movies, in Richard Linklater's "Dazed and Confused." By the time he showed up on our street, Austin was no longer the place McConaughey remembered. This was underscored when he got busted for playing bongos in the middle of the night with his windows open—for being "disorderly," a cop standing in my front yard told me, and on suspicion of possessing a small amount of narcotics. (McConaughey ultimately paid fifty bucks for violating a sound ordinance.) It didn't help his case that he wasn't wearing clothes at the time, but in Old Austin such behavior wouldn't even have been commented upon.

Instead of leaving town, McConaughey appointed himself Austin's minister of culture, taking as his brief music, sports, youth development, and tourism, with the goal of preserving qualities that formed Austin's identity. He's now a sober family man who teaches a film course at U.T., titled Script to Screen. On game days, you’ll see him at the football stadium, dressed in the orange-and-white team colors, working the sidelines as a motivational coach. He's been known to arrive at the stadium in a Lincoln adorned with a longhorn hood ornament, cruising past screaming fans while flashing a hook-’em-horns salute. He's become an important investor in Austin, participating in Eddie Margain's consortium that brought in the Major League Soccer team. McConaughey even helped design the university's new Moody Center, an arena that seats fifteen thousand people. It's a little unsettling to be living in a city that has been commandeered by a quirky actor who once starred in a "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" movie. Lately, he's been toying with running for political office. Who knows. I think of him as a mascot for New Austin, a modern incarnation of Oat Willie, guiding us onward through the fog.

I recently mentioned to McConaughey the disorientation I felt looking at the welter of skyscrapers outside the W hotel. "There's a lot of shadows in Austin now," he said. "If any town can keep a sense of style, keep its DNA, keep its soul, I believe Austin has the ability to do that, because it has an identity." But he worries that newcomers might exploit the city's guilelessness. "Austin will open up its Rolodex to you as a visitor or a newcomer quicker than any other place I’ve been," he said. "But we also have to be wise. You don't want to let a tyrant in your kitchen. So when we open up our Rolodex and say, ‘Yes, come on in! Start that local business! Yes, take this real estate!,’ we’re gonna see how this turns out in ten years."

"Don't California my Texas" is a phrase that our governor, Greg Abbott, likes to toss around. He and California's governor, Gavin Newsom, have resumed an ideological war that first heated up during the reigns of their respective predecessors, Rick Perry and Jerry Brown. Perry had the gall to run radio ads in California urging companies to move to Texas—using the lack of a personal income tax as bait.

In September, Newsom attended the Texas Tribune Festival, in Austin. "I love Texas, O.K.?" he said. "None of this is personal. And I’m happy to take Austin back to California. Just sayin’." He recently bought billboard space in Austin, and in other cities whose state legislatures have passed highly restrictive abortion laws, to declare, "California is ready to help." Despite hand-wringing in the Texas business community, the state's many right-wing social policies—book bans, reckless gun laws—haven't yet made a dent in the flow of migrants.

A tenth of Texas newcomers come from California. In the past few years, in the Austin area alone, they have brought along Tesla, Oracle, and other high-tech firms. The city's skyline is now defined by the sail-shaped Google building. Apple recently built a giant campus. Politically and culturally, this historic migration has consequences that we still haven't sorted out. The two states are on the opposite ends of the seesaw of national politics. In California, the Republican Party has collapsed. In Texas, Democrats haven't won a statewide election in twenty-eight years, and for the past two decades Republicans have had total control of the government. The consolidation of partisan power in both states has empowered ideologues on either side.

I assumed that the newcomers would tilt Texas blue. This was naïve. Many of them, such as Peter Attia, a doctor and podcaster, were Californians escaping what they considered to be bad schools and inept government services. He told me, "The only thing I find distressing about Austin is that it is taking a page out of the California playbook," with such city-council actions as the slashing of the police budget in 2020. "Those of us who came here from what I call a failed state are warning, ‘Hey, guys, you don't want to do this. I’ll show you what it looks like to have needles in your front yard, and what it feels like when you’re uncomfortable leaving a restaurant.’ That's why we left."

The net result of such migrations may make California bluer and Texas redder. The G.O.P. strategist Karl Rove—who, more than any other individual, helped turn Texas from being an all-blue state to its present all-redness—told me a 2022 poll of newly registered Texas voters found that fifty-nine per cent of them would vote Republican and forty-one per cent would vote Democratic. He offered a caveat where the future of Austin is concerned. The tech community first spilled over from Silicon Valley into Reno, Nevada, with the result that "Reno became younger and more vibrant and more liberal."

Many Californian imports identify more as libertarians than as progressives or conservatives, reinforcing Austin's live-and-let-live vibe. For as long as I’ve been here, Austin has considered itself a liberal bastion, in contrast with the conservative state it finds itself in. Though the city council remains progressive, the dominant tone of Austin today—social tolerance mixed with turbocharged capitalism—is closer to libertarianism than to liberalism.

Linda Avey, a founder of 23andMe, moved to Austin in 2021, from the Bay Area, having fallen for "the sentiment of keeping Austin weird." Avey, who is sixty-three, explained, "I’m just so held by that. Frankly, I think that's why San Francisco was so appealing to me back in the eighties." But the bohemian culture that drew her to San Francisco withered as the tech industry ran riot: "Artists and teachers and firefighters and all the people who are so necessary to the fabric of a community were no longer able to live there." San Francisco became characterized by the super-rich and the homeless, coupled with the stark absence of children—the fewest per capita of any city in the country.

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Patrick McKenna grew up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, raised by a single mother, who worked as a mail carrier. After attending the University of Southern California, on a scholarship, and getting a master's degree in international finance at Georgetown, he joined a small tech startup funded by Benchmark, a venture-capital firm in Menlo Park, California. Benchmark had offices on the legendary Sand Hill Road—the Wall Street of Silicon Valley. McKenna commuted from San Francisco, which wasn't really considered part of Silicon Valley at the time. The drive to Mountain View, San Jose, and Redwood City often exceeded ninety minutes, so Google and Facebook and several venture-capital firms opened large offices in the city. McKenna recalled, "It was really the workforce that dragged tech to San Francisco. And the city wasn't ready for it."

The tech sector boosted tax revenues in San Francisco, but the boom was marked by enormous income disparities. Locals weren't seeing the benefits. "People's lives were getting more expensive, but their kids weren't getting invited to join an internship, or their school wasn't being sponsored for a tech-entrepreneur program," McKenna said. "We were so busy building our companies, we weren't thinking about the local high school." McKenna blames San Francisco's government for not investing enough of the tax-revenue bonanza in schools and infrastructure. "In the end," as he sees it, "entrepreneurs like myself were vilified."

McKenna decided to try his luck in a different city. As Bob Inman had done with M.C.C., McKenna developed a list of criteria. At the top was talent. The tech industry is rapacious in its need for skilled workers. High-quality colleges and universities were essential, not only in feeding the talent pool but also in adding vibrancy to the culture. Quality of life wasn't just about the cost of living; it was art, music, public spaces, architecture, bike lanes. McKenna was also looking for a "trust network." The tech industry, he explained, relies on credentials. One way in the door is to work for a Silicon Valley titan like Google or eBay. "We know they have great training programs," he said. "We know how they build their code." Another way in is to get an engineering degree from an illustrious school such as Stanford or M.I.T. Then there's the venture-capital community. McKenna told me, "If you worked at a startup that was funded by Sequoia Capital or Kleiner Perkins, and even if that startup fails, you’re part of the trust network."

In Austin, he realized, "you have so many nodes of the trust network." He said, "Kids coming out of U.T. can enter the trust network through a job at Google, Meta, Oracle, Amazon, or Apple—you can work for all these companies right here."

McKenna's view is that "San Francisco failed through success." He worries that Austin, newly drenched in venture capital, will make similar mistakes: "If Austin stops being affordable for those who make it an interesting place, it will stop being an interesting place."

Emily Gimble moved out of Austin in 2016. She is a part of Texas music royalty; her grandfather Johnny Gimble played fiddle with Bob Wills, who is considered a founder of Western swing. Years ago, I had the opportunity to play with Johnny, one of those luminous moments which music offers. Emily's dad, Dick Gimble, played bass with Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, among others. Emily, a gifted piano player and singer, was named the State Musician of Texas in 2020. She's the kind of person Austin can't afford to lose.

Property taxes and rents helped push her out of town. But there was another irritant: Austin had become too loud. Gimble said, "When you’re on the road, you’re in a bus and it hums, or you’re on an airplane and it hums, and it hums at sound check—there's always noise. I don't know if it's a musician thing or a human thing, but whenever I get home I just want to not hear anything." So she moved to Lockhart, a little town famous for barbecue. It's about half an hour south of Austin, and quiet—the way Austin used to be. Gimble recently had a baby, and that makes it harder to drive downtown to hear music, as she so often did when she was younger. She said, "Every once in a while, I’ll go see Jimmie Vaughan late at night and it doesn't matter, because you’re getting to hear some of the best music in the world."

Gimble is part of a larger artistic diaspora that Austin is experiencing. No doubt, surrounding communities are being fertilized by the talent leaking out. Gimble has observed a small music community and art galleries springing up in Lockhart, though the town's character hasn't significantly changed—yet. Not long ago, she stopped at a coffee shop. "There was a sticker on the refrigerator: ‘don't austin my lockhart,’ " she said. "And I was, like, ‘That's so ridiculous.’ Then, by the time I left, I was saying, ‘Yeah, it's my Lockhart.’ "

"I spent my entire life trying to build up the reputation of Austin so that we could have access to more quality entertainment at an affordable price," Eddie Wilson, the entrepreneur who created the Armadillo World Headquarters—the venue that consolidated the Austin music scene in the nineteen-seventies—told me. "Now I can't afford a bus downtown."

It's strange to live in a town without Wilson's fingerprints on it. Not only is the Armadillo gone; the Raw Deal, which he also founded, is long since out of business. His beloved restaurant, Threadgill's, has closed—another victim of the pandemic. In a previous existence, it was a gas station and roadhouse owned by Kenneth Threadgill, who held the weekly musical jams that first brought a U.T. student named Janis Joplin to public attention.

The music scene arose in Austin because it was youthful and cheap. (Wilson initially paid five hundred bucks a month to rent the enormous former National Guard armory that housed the Armadillo.) Artifacts of Wilson's Austin are on display in his home office: an Autoharp like the one Joplin used to play; a Gilbert Shelton sketch of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers; Jim Franklin's memorable music posters, adorned with images of the nine-banded armadillo, which Wilson calls an "icon of hippiedom." Every name in this paragraph was a cultural landmark in the Austin of the seventies and eighties; now perhaps only Joplin's resonates, and even then her association with Austin is a dim memory. "Growth is weird," Wilson said, combining New Austin and Old Austin into a single succinct equation.

While Wilson was establishing a home for the Austin music scene, Louis Black set out "to find America." Black grew up in New Jersey, lived in New England, then moved to South Carolina and Florida before arriving in Austin, in 1974. "I fell in love," he said. He enrolled at U.T., taking graduate courses in English, "which I hated," so he switched to film. He was restless. Like other shape-shifters in Austin's history, he had a yen to create something, but he wasn't sure what it should be.

In 1981, Black and his friend Nick Barbaro started the Austin Chronicle, a progressive tabloid modelled on the Village Voice. "We thought it’d be easy," Black recalled. "It was horrible at first—we didn't have enough money." From the start, the Chronicle spotlighted local music, becoming an essential guide to the players and the clubs in the city. The paper eventually caught on, and that led to an even bigger venture. In 1987, Black and Barbaro, along with the Chronicle staffer Roland Swenson and the band manager Louis Jay Meyers, started South by Southwest, as a meeting place for musicians and people in the industry. "Guys that had been in the music business for fifteen years would have never met a record-company executive," Black observed. The founders were hoping that three hundred people would show up. Twice that many came. "We didn't know what we were doing," Black said, but it was clear that SXSW, as it became known, answered a need: "It was about the punk ethos—there's no difference between who's in the audience and who's onstage but a foot and a half."

SXSW has lost that intimate feel. It now has the placeless vibe of a TED-talk conference. This is in part because SXSW expanded well beyond music. In 1994, it added film and interactive media, bringing in the tech community. The festival grew so fast that the organizers lied in order to downplay how big it was becoming, unable to believe it themselves. Then, in 2007, Twitter held a major launch event at SXSW. As Black put it, "Suddenly, everybody began saying, ‘We’ll meet you in Austin.’ "

I asked Black how Austin has changed. "There was a significant community here that had a vision about what a city should be," he said. Austin would be creative, coöperative, noncompetitive, green, and politically plugged in. "We succeeded. And we made this really wonderful place that everybody came to, which then wrecked the core idea."

Before we settled in Austin, my wife and I had a brief stint here in the early seventies, while she finished a master's degree. I worked at the local PBS station as a carpenter and a grip, moving heavy lights around Studio 6A atop a tall ladder on wheels. I don't much like heights, and my confidence was not boosted by what looked like bloodstains on the concrete floor. Two years later, Studio 6A became the original home of "Austin City Limits." Willie Nelson performed for the pilot, and after that the nation began thinking of our city as a musical epicenter. The program has spotlighted Stevie Ray Vaughan, Doug Sahm, Roy Orbison, Lyle Lovett, Asleep at the Wheel, and countless other great performers. To draw a crowd in those early days, the show offered free beer. Laura Bush was one of the servers. (This was before she married George.) Now "A.C.L." is the longest-running music program in television history, with a bespoke concert venue seating nearly three thousand people.

"Back in the day, it was a country-music-inspired showcase," Terry Lickona, the show's longtime producer, told me. "The idea was to re-create the Armadillo vibe." For a long time, progressive country music dominated the show. "Then we went through a period, ten or fifteen years ago, where we were trying to figure out who we were and what kind of music we wanted to play. We eventually came to the point where our overriding philosophy is ‘Anything goes.’ . . . If it's a good live show, then, yeah, bring it on."

Lickona came to Austin in 1974 from Poughkeepsie, New York, to attend Willie Nelson's annual Fourth of July Picnic, just as "A.C.L." was getting off the ground. He has watched the music scene move from clubs and coffee houses to stadiums and ball fields, dominated by national acts rather than by homegrown musicians. It's difficult to defend the motto that Austin is the "live-music capital of the world" when so many small venues have shut down. Lickona noted, "It's always been a part of our mission to continue to showcase Austin music. Every year, there are at least three or four Austin artists that we consider ready and deserving, whether it's somebody like Black Pumas or Gary Clark, Jr., or Marcia Ball. It would be a really sad day if people just stop caring about getting out to see a show."

Just when I was feeling discouraged about Austin's music scene, I talked to Henri Herbert, a blazing young piano player from England, who grew up imitating the licks of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. Then he learned about the boogie-woogie masters in Austin, such as my teacher, Floyd Domino, and Marcia Ball. "We used to play her songs in one of my bands," Herbert told me. He performed at SXSW in 2016: "I met all the great players and saw the music that lives here." He’d tried his luck in London and Paris, but he had to supplement his income by washing dishes. He wanted to be somewhere where he could play every day.

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He settled in Austin in 2019. It was exciting and terrifying. "I only had my keyboard and a backpack," he said. That year, he was nominated for Best Keyboards at the Austin Music Awards, alongside some of his heroes. "Something told me that I could show up here, not trying to take things but to give things, and I would become a part of this beautiful community."

Gina Chavez is more ambivalent. Born in Austin, she has toured the world as a musician, but she's never found a place in the city's musical culture. She calls Austin "a city of legends," Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan among them. But their music didn't really resonate with her. "There's a phrase in Spanish—Nunca me llamó la atención. ‘It never captured my attention.’ "

The music Chavez plays—Latin, percussive, bilingual, sometimes political, always groovy—would probably fare better in Miami, or even in San Antonio, just down the highway. It wasn't until she played an NPR Tiny Desk concert that Austin tastemakers seemed to notice her. "If I had the ability to rewind twenty years, I would have preferred somebody looked me in the eye and said, ‘Gina, your tribe may not be here.’ " When she considers the artists who have successfully broken out of the Austin scene, she asks herself, "Are any of them females? Are any of them queer?" She told me, "We have a lot of talent here who break barriers. But do we have the ears to hear them?"

In 2020, a twelve-foot mural of Gina appeared on East Cesar Chavez Street. The artist, Levi Ponce, invited her to take a look. "I was in shock," she said. "It was right after the world had shut down, so it was one of the only times I went out. Pretty wild."

"Austin is an incredible place with a lot of wonderful attributes, but it's also a frightening place," Tam Hawkins, the head of the local Black Chamber of Commerce, told me. "We have such income disparities—that's the frightening part." In the past decade, the proportion of Black residents in Austin has declined, from eight per cent to seven per cent, whereas the Asian proportion has grown. The percentage of Latino residents has also dropped, from thirty-five per cent to thirty-three per cent.

Austin's original sin was the 1928 Master Plan, which pushed Black and Latino residents into neighborhoods on the east side. The city withheld sewer systems and paved roads from the freedmen communities on the west side, with enduring consequences. "We did a project called Taste of Black Austin, about the history of Black food entrepreneurs," Hawkins said. "We discovered that there were more Black-owned restaurants here in 1863 than there were in 2018."

Because of gentrification, East Austin is now a melting pot—a place of art studios and food trucks where people of all backgrounds wait in line for beet-tartare tostadas. At the same time, much of the character of the east side has been sacrificed. A defining moment in this cultural turf battle occurred in 2015, when a piñata shop was unceremoniously bulldozed by its landlord and replaced by a short-lived café for cat-lovers. Some lively local traditions—like weekend gatherings at Fiesta Gardens with customized lowriders and jacked-up trucks—have drawn complaints from newcomers who resent the Tejano music and hip-hop blaring from stereos.

Hawkins told me that she herself is one of five remaining Black owners of commercial property in East Austin. "There's nothing sinister about the desire to buy, develop, and earn income," she said. "What's sinister is that certain ethnicities aren't part of that process." Hawkins understands the logic that pushes people to the suburbs: "Why would I spend $1.6 million on a two-thousand-square-foot house when I could go, let's say, to Leander and pay nine hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars for a four-thousand-square-foot house and send my kids to public school as opposed to a private one?" In her opinion, better, swifter transportation to and from the suburbs—thus relieving market pressure in the city—would go a long way toward solving Austin's housing crisis.

Peniel Joseph, a Black historian at U.T., told me, "The city doesn't really own up to its history of racial segregation." The only realms where races converge, Joseph said, are sports and music. Otherwise, "things really diverge in terms of resources and access to education." He commended U.T. for developing various equity initiatives, especially a campaign called You Belong Here, which is meant to attract and retain faculty and students of color. But, he said, "you need resources if you’re thinking about how to bend the wealth gap, the education gap, and the residential-segregation gap." He continued, "How do you impact things like voter suppression or differential treatment in the criminal-justice system?"

Tech workers have changed the racial character of the city, Joseph said. "If we just had a demographically proportional number of Black folks moving here, you would find there's a Black Austin that has a robust upper middle class—tech leaders, entrepreneurs, lawyers, doctors, professors," he said. "But those folks are staying in Houston."

I observed, "And the biggest growth factor in Austin is an industry that is famously white and Asian."

"That's a recipe for Black cultural disaster," Joseph said.

The east-west divide in Austin was on stark display during last year's mayoral race. Kirk Watson is a white liberal Democrat who served as mayor from 1997 to 2001, then spent thirteen years in the State Senate. Watson's opponent was Celia Israel, who has called herself a "left-handed liberal lesbian Latina." She served in the State House from 2014 to 2023, where she was a founding member of the L.G.B.T.Q. caucus and a banner-carrier for the Democrats’ left flank. The candidates’ platforms were similar, but their identities were not. West Austin was solidly for Watson, who picked up independents and conservatives. East Austin was just as solidly progressive. Only nine hundred and forty-two votes carried Watson over the top. The difference in their supporters was not so much ethnic as generational.

Watson told me that many of the problems Austin now faces were already evident in his first term as mayor—he cited transportation and affordable housing. What has changed is the scale. "We’re now a big city," he said. "And we have to act like it."

I took a tour of the west side of Austin with Laura Gottesman, a real-estate agent. "I’ve worked with a lot of people from other cities that aren't used to doing business our way," she told me, adding, "In Austin, your word is your bond. A handshake is the real deal. It's a small town in the sense we all know each other, our paths will cross, and you don't burn bridges."

We drove around Clarksville, one of the freedmen communities that was depleted by the Master Plan and is now almost entirely white. When Roberta and I first moved to Austin, Clarksville was a hippie enclave, but it has long since moved on from patchouli and tie-dyed T-shirts. "The price per foot in this neighborhood is outrageous," Gottesman remarked.

John Mackey used to live in Clarksville. Emerging from the counterculture of the seventies, he was a vegetarian with long hair and a beard who viewed corporations as evil. In 1978, he and his girlfriend, Renee Lawson, started a little natural-foods store, Safer Way, that refused to stock meat, seafood, coffee, and anything containing highly refined sugars. It was a bust. Two years later, he merged with another natural-foods store in Clarksville, creating the first Whole Foods Market. This time, he was less doctrinaire about what he wouldn't sell.

Then came the Memorial Day Flood of 1981. Anyone who was in Austin that day will tell you stories. We were on high ground in Travis Heights, but the rain was so relentless that it caved in part of our roof, which dumped onto our piano. Eleven inches fell in three hours. Thirteen people died. Whole Foods was at the bottom of a hill on North Lamar Boulevard. Back then, car dealerships lined the street, and when the downpour subsided locals were left with the dazzling sight of Volkswagens and Subarus tangled up in trees. Whole Foods, which had no flood insurance, was eight feet underwater.

That would’ve been the end of the story were it not for the customers and the neighbors who showed up with mops and rags, cleaning out the destroyed inventory. This went on for weeks. The staff worked for free. Suppliers produced goods on credit. A month later, Whole Foods reopened. Mackey realized that his business would never have survived if it hadn't found a place in the hearts of the community. It's a well-known parable in Austin, but it also marks a transition from the counterculture to what Mackey calls "conscious capitalism"—a system in which, as he sees it, heroic entrepreneurs (like him) enhance everyone's quality of life with their imagination, creativity, and passion.

Many of the well-off newcomers to Austin share this philosophy. "I struggle with entitlement," Gottesman said. "I struggle with people who come here wanting to write their own rules. In Austin, nobody really cares who you are—but you’ll be respected if you contribute."

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If you live long enough in a place, it becomes haunted by ghosts: memories of events and friends long gone still inhabit spaces that have been levelled and covered over by the unstoppable newness. It's a form of double vision: you see things that are no longer there. That was on my mind as we drove a few blocks south, to Baylor Street, where a handful of mansions built by the old aristocracy—places where Black servants from Clarksville would have worked—have been handsomely renovated. The late Bill Wittliff, who was a dear friend, used to have an office in an old house on Baylor Street. Best known as the screenwriter for "The Perfect Storm" and the television adaptation of "Lonesome Dove," he was a giant in the filmmaking scene in Austin and a mentor to young directors and screenwriters. His office was where a struggling writer named William Sydney Porter was said to have once lived. Porter had a day job as a teller at the First National Bank, and in 1894 he was accused of embezzling $854.08, which led to a five-year prison sentence. Behind bars, he decided to take the pen name O. Henry, and wrote some of the most enduring short stories in the American canon.

Speaking of ghosts, I recently went by a medical clinic on Cameron Road and instantly realized that I’d been there before. It had long ago been one of Old Austin's weirder redoubts: the headquarters of American Atheists, founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who leaped to fame as a plaintiff in the 1963 Supreme Court case that ended mandatory prayer and Bible reading in public schools. Life called her "the most hated woman in America," a title she relished. She spoke on college campuses and appeared on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show." She turned over bingo tables in a church and sued the Pope. She claimed to have "an alphabet of degrees—B.A., M.A., LL.B., M.P.S.W., Ph.D., J.D." She was loud and arrogant and pompous, and almost single-handedly gave atheism a worse name than it already had.

In 1989, I wrote about O’Hair for Texas Monthly. When I arrived at the headquarters for our first interview, I was told, "Madalyn is napping. Would you like to take a look?" My guide led me to O’Hair's office. Through a window, half a dozen admirers were watching the "first lady of atheism" sleeping on a couch, in a flower-print dress. "It's a little like Lenin's tomb," my guide said, echoing my thoughts. O’Hair awakened, entirely unperturbed by the audience, and launched into a tirade about the government's monopolistic control of information through the post office.

By the time I wrote about O’Hair, her public life had narrowed to a weekly show on Austin's public-access channel, put together by her son and her granddaughter. Atheism was a family business. When I dropped in on a taping, she glowered and said, "You’re really dogging us, aren't you?" She got even angrier as I dug into her background, exposing the manifold lies she’d told about her degrees and accomplishments.

After the article appeared, there was a knock on our door. A constable handed me a document that said, "YOU HAVE BEEN SUED." It was already on the news. Friends were calling. They were annoyingly giddy. A Jungian scholar congratulated me, saying that O’Hair was an eruption of my unconscious. The local newspaper called it a libel suit, but the actual claim was that I’d used O’Hair's "famousness" without permission—an odd line of attack for a champion of free speech. She never followed up, and the case was dropped from the docket. In 1995, O’Hair, her son, and her granddaughter disappeared, and several hundred thousand dollars were withdrawn from one of the organization's accounts. Five years later, their dismembered bodies were discovered in a shallow grave on a ranch in South Texas. (I had nothing to do with it.)

Austin public-access TV also provided an early forum for the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who one time carved a jack-o’-lantern on air while ranting about Austin police officers using infrared cameras. Listening to Jones is like hearing Tony Soprano recite "Finnegans Wake" on amphetamines. When Linklater made "Waking Life," he cast Jones as a raving madman driving around town with a P.A. system—an unintentional foreshadowing of what was to come. Back then, Jones seemed like another harmless Austin crank with a colorful ability to invent conspiracies on the fly—"this hyper guy that we’d all kind of make fun of," Linklater has recalled.

I once spoke about Jones with the podcaster Joe Rogan—yet another Californian import. In 2020, he moved to Austin from Los Angeles, buying a lakeside estate. The following year, he invited me on his show. Rogan is five feet eight, but his shoulders are about as wide as he is high. He's dauntingly muscular and tattooed, but despite his formidable physical presentation he's friendly and amusing. The experience of being on his podcast is like having a curious fellow pull up a barstool next to you; three hours later, you’ve unloaded your life story.

Before the interview, we got our nostrils swabbed for a mandatory COVID test—which was interesting, given that Rogan had been strongly criticized for giving air time to vaccine skeptics. I mentioned that I had watched an interview he’d done with Alex Jones.

"What’d you think of him?" he asked.

"I think he's a sociopath."

"He's not," Rogan said. "He's a head-injury case. I was a cage fighter. I’ve known a lot of guys with head injuries." He had asked Jones if he’d ever had a serious concussion. Jones had replied, "I’ve been piledrived," meaning that he was turned upside down and his head was pounded into the concrete. He was thirteen or fourteen years old. Rogan had pressed him about how that might have changed his personality, but Jones was evasive. Jones did say, "I had brain damage—there's no doubt."

Is Jones's story true, or yet another thing that he has confabulated in his strange mind? I met him at a party fifteen years ago. I had never heard of him. My book about 9/11, "The Looming Tower," had recently come out, and Jones wanted to offer his own theories about how it was a setup job. He backed off when it was apparent that I knew considerably more about the tragedy than he did, but after that conspiracists who called themselves 9/11 Truthers began showing up at my speeches, trying to get me to admit that the government was in on the attack. They even insinuated that I was a part of the conspiracy. Much of their dogma issued directly from Alex Jones's damaged imagination.

Everywhere in town, you see new apartments and condos and houses under construction, but Austin can't keep pace with the boom. The university has been buying up properties for subsidized faculty housing, as N.Y.U. does in Manhattan, because professors have been priced out of the market. Students, meanwhile, have been stranded by rent hikes and a scarcity of campus housing. The pressure goes all the way down to tract homes at the bottom of the market. People who can't afford to live anywhere in Austin either leave or wind up on the street.

In 2019, the staunchly progressive city council decided to "decriminalize homelessness" by lifting a ban on public camping. The plan's architect, Councilman Greg Casar, a Democrat who had spearheaded the defunding of the police—and who is now a thirty-three-year-old congressman representing the east side—was accused by opponents of trying to make homelessness "more visible" in order to advance the cause of free housing. Immediately, tent cities popped up under freeways and in public parks.

I like to run around Lady Bird Lake, and its shoreline became clogged with tents and tarps and cardboard shanties. Admittedly, it was an ideal campsite, but runners reported being attacked by people perceived to be mentally unstable. In 2020, the city cut back on the park patrol, and huge piles of trash accumulated along the shore and spilled into the lake.

Austinites were shocked and conflicted. A bipartisan pac, Save Austin Now, got a measure on the ballot to reinstitute the camping ban. It passed, by a landslide. But the question remained: Where should the homeless go? It was an agonizing dilemma, especially after the pandemic had taken hold. Governor Abbott ordered the Department of Transportation to clean out the encampments below overpasses, but that only brought more tents and cardboard shelters into parks and onto sidewalks. Defiant campers pitched tents around City Hall. Mackenzie Kelly, a council member, tweeted, "I’ve been harassed and screamed at with obscenities walking out of city hall. One of the men had a metal pipe and at least one knife. I do not feel safe." Eventually, police began enforcing the ban, and the campers moved back into the parkland woods and the undeveloped tracts where they had once lived. But the homeless problem lingered, along with a lot of ill will. Austin had been thrust into the same political battle that has been fought for decades in San Francisco, without meaningful solutions. In Austin, the issue stirred to life a conservative constituency that few realized was present in the city.

I recalled a protest held in 1988, when the city tried to enforce the camping ban. A group of homeless men "kidnapped" a gosling named Homer (actually, they’d bought him at a country store, for sixteen dollars and eighty-seven cents) and threatened to eat him if the city didn't propose various reforms, including affordable-housing measures. Roger Swanner, one of the goosenappers, told the Austin American-Statesman, "We just want the people of this city to realize that we’re human beings and should be treated that way." To keep Homer out of police custody, they launched a Styrofoam barge into the lake, complete with a makeshift cabin. It reminded me of Huck Finn and Jim floating down the Mississippi. Homer the Goose became a celebrity. He got to meet Willie Nelson. He led parades down Congress Avenue. He was detained during a housing protest. The city council ultimately agreed to meet with the homeless delegation, to little effect. In 2004, a handsome shelter opened downtown, but it had about a hundred beds—far fewer than needed. Homer ended his days in an animal sanctuary, but he succeeded in making homelessness an issue in a characteristically Austin fashion. The politics of the city weren't as brutal then, but they were just as feckless where homelessness was concerned.

Texas was the first state to pass a law, based on a model bill issued by Joe Lonsdale's Cicero Institute, that makes camping in public places a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a five-hundred-dollar fine, and prohibits state funds from going to any city that doesn't enforce the ban. It's designed to keep homeless people out of public view.

In 1998, Alan Graham, a former real-estate developer, took aim at the problem, as an act of Christian charity. Two years earlier, he had been on a Catholic men's retreat and was inspired to create Mobile Loaves & Fishes, which delivered food to homeless Austinites. Then, in 2014, he built Community First! Village, in eastern Travis County. The development currently provides housing for four hundred people. An official head count in 2021 found nearly thirty-two hundred Austinites experiencing homelessness, including people living in shelters. A more recent head count in San Francisco, a smaller city, tallied nearly eight thousand—the great majority unsheltered.

Graham took me around Community First! Village in a golf cart. "We focus exclusively on chronic homelessness," he told me. To qualify for residence, a person must have been on the street for at least a year; the average time is ten years. Residents live in manufactured housing, R.V.s, or micro-homes—one-bedroom houses without kitchens or bathrooms. (Communal facilities are provided.) Graham's creation has evolved into one of the most consequential social innovations in the country. He and his wife live in the middle of the village, in a manufactured house with an attached porch and some treasured junk out front: an old Coca-Cola sign, a rusted wagon wheel, the rim of a hubcap from a Stutz Bearcat.

Graham, who is sixty-seven, has a ruddy face, glasses, a sideways grin, and a glistening white beard. He wears a silver San Damiano cross, which he bought on a pilgrimage to Assisi, and a blue gimme cap advertising goodness. He studied physics at U.T. before dropping out to become a real-estate developer and a "serial entrepreneur." He saw his business crushed by the 1986 oil bust, which pummelled real estate in Texas.

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Graham handed me a sketch that he’d made bearing the legend "Homelessness exists at the intersection of many broken systems and layers of trauma." These include foster care, mental-health issues, substance abuse, and criminal justice, but the main route—"the interstate highway of homelessness," Graham explained—is a "catastrophic loss of family." Community First! Village aims to replace those broken family ties with a caring social structure.

We drove past a greenhouse where, Graham explained, plants are fertilized by "fish poop" from an adjoining aquarium. An outdoor garden had a pavilion in the center. "That was built to house an eight-hundred-and-fifty-pound pumpkin we will grow next year," he said. "We’re trying to create the greatest show on earth here!" An amphitheatre, built with funds donated by the Alamo Drafthouse—a cinema chain founded in Austin—is used for movies, talent shows, and karaoke.

Graham has a gift for recruiting Austinites to assist with his effort. The micro-houses, for example, were designed and built by local architects and contractors. The land was donated by benefactors. The development today occupies fifty-one acres, but it will have tripled in size by the end of 2023: it plans to add enough houses to shelter fourteen hundred more people, allowing it to accommodate nearly two-thirds of Austin's chronically homeless population. This is the result of a single individual's imagination and persistence, along with the support of citizens who see the effort making a difference. "We launched a hundred-and-fifty-million-dollar capital campaign," Graham said. "We’ve already raised a hundred and thirty-six."

Residents pay rent, an average of three hundred dollars a month. Graham noted that "seventy to eighty per cent are receiving some form of government assistance"—Social Security, disability, retirement income, veterans’ benefits—and that paying jobs in the village are available, including gardening, housekeeping, and janitorial services. He took me into an "entrepreneur hub," where several residents were assembling jewelry designed by Kendra Scott, an Austin businesswoman listed by Forbes as one of the richest women in America. The community recently developed its own line of jewelry for an Austin hotel.

"We have a number of drug addicts and alcoholics," Graham said. He doesn't try to reform them, though he does keep an eye out for people trying to "game the system" by, say, stealing or hustling drugs. Nearly everyone has mental or physical problems. "The average age here is fifty-six, and the average age of death is fifty-nine," Graham said. "We had a fellow die this morning." One of the most meaningful amenities that Community First! Village provides is a memorial garden, where the ashes of those who have passed are placed in a burial column, with their names inscribed in granite. A great fear among many who live on the street is that they will die anonymously, unmissed and unmourned. Nearly three hundred people died on the streets of Austin in 2022.

"The concept around Community First! is that, if you want to mitigate this pandemic of homelessness, the whole community is going to have to get involved," Graham said. "The government should only play a subsidiary role. We have abdicated that responsibility almost entirely to the government, and that's a failed model."

In 1876, the state constitution set aside a million acres of public land to support a university system. A tract of land in West Texas was chosen and eventually swelled to a couple of million acres. That's not as high-minded as it seems; the land was deemed so worthless that nobody bothered to survey it. Along came an oilman named Frank T. Pickrell, who, in the early nineteen-twenties, decided to drill a well on that land. At the time, the oil play was all on the east side of the state. Pickrell chose the site not because of a geologist's report but because it was close to the railroad. He went to New York to reassure investors, including a group of Catholic women who had taken the plunge. They handed Pickrell a red rose that had been blessed by a priest, and directed him to climb the derrick and scatter the petals while christening the well Santa Rita, for the patron saint of impossible causes. He did as they suggested. The well tapped into the Permian Basin, the largest oil field in American history. "That changed everything," J. B. Milliken, the chancellor of the U.T. system, told me. The system now has the nation's largest public-university endowment—sixty-six billion dollars. The Santa Rita No. 1 rig sits on the edge of the Austin campus, near the football stadium.

Milliken likes to quote the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's recipe for building a great city: "Create a great university and wait two hundred years." The tech industry originated in the Bay Area and Boston in large part because of great private universities such as Stanford, M.I.T., and Harvard. U.T. has a different mandate. "Public universities exist to serve the people of the state, so they tend to be more outwardly facing and more integrated into every part of the community," Milliken told me. "U.T.-Austin has a strategic plan to be the most impactful university in the world."

Michael Dell echoed this. "If you find great companies, I guarantee you there's a great university nearby," he said. I observed that this came from a man who had dropped out of U.T. after two semesters. "You’re absolutely correct," he conceded. "But that doesn't mean that it doesn't graduate a lot of talented people. And they’re the required ingredient for success." Dell, who is fifty-seven, has the unfurrowed brow and ready smile of a man who sees a clear road ahead. The Bloomberg Billionaires Index ranks him as the world's twenty-fifth-richest man. His parents had wanted him to be a doctor; instead, in Austin, he helped fund the Dell Children's Medical Center, the Dell Pediatric Research Institute, and the Dell Medical School.

I asked him if he had intended to stay in Austin when he dropped out of school. "I never for a nanosecond thought about going somewhere else," he said, though he wasn't exactly a perfect fit with the city back then. "I used to ride my bike to Whole Foods," he said. That was about as far as he went with the Austin counterculture. "I wasn't smoking joints down in Hippie Hollow," a clothing-optional lakeside park. "I was a"—he traced a square in the air.

I expressed concern about the rate of growth that is propelling the city into God knows what. Dell reminded me that, in each of the four decades he's lived in Austin, the city has seen exponential growth. He was fine with that. "I tend to be more of a pro-change guy," he said. "It's what we do in the tech world." He grinned. "If you’re not comfortable with that, you’re gonna have a really hard time."

Elon Musk has made Austin the centerpiece of his new Texas empire. In addition to the Gigafactory Texas—said to be the second-largest building in the world by volume, after the Boeing Everett Factory, in Washington State—Musk's other businesses in and around Austin include the tunnel-drilling Boring Company; Neuralink, which is working on a computer-brain interface; and SpaceX, which is seeking to colonize Mars. These are huge additions to the Austin-area economy.

I had been worried about the weirdness-eradicating influence of wealth and technology on Austin, but as I learned more about Musk's presence in the city I realized that weirdness has actually taken a giant step forward. Musk has nine living children (one died in infancy), and a real-estate agent told me that he has been relocating them to Austin. (When Musk was e-mailed about this, and about living with a friend in town, he replied with two crying-laughing emojis.) In 2018, Musk and the Canadian songwriter Grimes, whose music was described in this magazine, by my colleague Kelefa Sanneh, as "irreducibly weird but insistently pop," began dating. They had a boy, X Æ A-12, and a daughter, Exa Dark Sideræl. Shortly after their daughter was born, Grimes tweeted that she and Musk had broken up. She then reportedly became entangled with another new Austinite, Chelsea Manning, the whistle-blower and trans activist freshly free from serving seven years in military prison. The relationship is said to have ended within months. Grimes pleaded with her "fellow Texans" to sign a petition to ease building regulations in order to keep Austin from becoming another San Francisco. She tweeted, "I couldn't afford to buy a house that fits my kids in Austin (at the moment) without help from their dad which is insane."

On Thanksgiving weekend last year, I rode out to the Circuit of the Americas, Austin's decade-old Formula 1 track, to meet two crypto bros who’d come up with a genius idea to call attention to their enterprise. They commissioned a gigantic statue of Musk's head, attached to the body of a goat (for "greatest of all time") that was clinging to a rocket that could actually shoot flames. The statue had cost six hundred thousand dollars to make. The bros loaded their gleaming metallic art work on a flatbed trailer, like a parade float, and drove it to Austin, hoping to present it as a tribute to Musk—and to be rewarded with his embrace. It was a "kamikaze mission," Ashley Sansalone, one of the brains behind the project, told me. He described Musk as "the most relevant person in the world."

It was an overcast fall day. I could hear the whine of race cars shifting gears. I estimated that about sixty folks were sitting around, eating hot dogs at picnic tables, as they waited for the organizers to decide when a proper posse had assembled. A woman was filming the event for her YouTube channel. Just as the light started to fade, the trailer with the giant statue moved toward the edge of the parking lot and people in the crowd clambered into their cars. Two yellow buses squeezed in behind the trailer. I spotted only one Tesla in the motorcade, which was mostly F-150s and Mustangs. After a few false starts, the procession headed onto Route 130 for the nine-mile trip to the Gigafactory. There was, of course, no chance that Musk was awaiting them. He was busy dismantling Twitter.

The metal Musk head crowned what looked like some Egyptian sarcophagus. We rode past former farmland that now lay uncultivated as its owners waited for the developers to appear, with their giant machines, to build more tract houses, followed by strip malls, schools, and fast-food restaurants. In this pregnant interim, the wintry yellow grassland looked naked. A cloud of starlings swirled like a black tornado and settled into the scrub. Many of the cars ahead and behind had their emergency lights flashing. I imagined that drivers coming the other way would wonder if we were part of a funeral cortège for some beloved member of the community.

In the distance was the Austin skyline, vast and cold and depressingly homogenous in the silvered light. I have seen it when the sun hits it just right and the mirrored surfaces catch fire—it's beautiful then, but not the city I had imagined it would become. I once knew the place so well, but every day it grows more unknowable and unlimited, and I feel more like a resident than like a citizen. But it remains a part of my psyche. It's home.

We turned onto Tesla Road, which was lined with newly planted trees and mounds of leftover rubble. One day, Musk has promised, he will turn the twenty-one-hundred-acre plot into an "ecological paradise." We passed signs warning, "must have tesla id card." Then we beheld the Gigafactory—sleek, flat-topped, endless, signalling Austin's future as a megacity. We came to the gate, where guards had very efficiently established a barricade. One by one, we turned back toward the highway, where we each went our separate ways. ♦

An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the designation of land for establishing the Texas university system.