Austinites have been complaining about the city ‘losing its weird’ since 1884

Being a “boomtown” is not a new status for ATX.

On the left, a very grainy photo of the Texas Capitol in 1925. On the right, a modern, black-and-white photo of the Capitol building.

The Texas Capitol pictured side-by-side published in 1925 and in modern time.

Photo via the Austin History Center and Creative Commons. Graphic by ATXtoday.

If you live in Austin, you’ve probably heard it before: “Austin has lost its weird.”

Longtime residents might tell you Austin died along with the closure of the Armadillo World Headquarters, or the end of the pseudo red-light district that used to be South Congress, or the steady decline in affordability for the musicians of the Live Music Capital of the World.

People have been complaining about Austin changing for more than a hundred years. An Austinite living in 1884 might tell you that construction on the new Driskill hotel has left the old town behind. The truth is, Austin has never stopped changing.

In all the historic reports, two things stayed constant: Austin’s reputation as a Central Texas paradise and mentions of change around the city.

Let’s start with the block on the old Pecan and Brazos streets. Although described as “ragged-looking” in 1884, it was full of landmarks and fond memories. On top of 30-to-40-year-old houses in the city center, the Driskill hotel was erected where it still stands today.

Decades later when the business sector was booming downtown, a 1910 report from the Austin American-Statesman archives remarked that housing prices were rising, likely due to Congress Avenue recently being paved. Wealthy men moved to Austin to “invest their wealth and spend their declining years,” and by then, the city was on a steady path of growth.

“There is no boom,” the 1910 report said. “There has been nothing the least sporadic in all the revival.” By 1911, Austin had a public library to match the literacy spreading in the South.

A view of the Capitol from Congress Avenue, which is wider than today, in 1916.

A view of the Capitol from Congress Avenue in 1916.

Photo by the Austin History Center via Austonia

Reports in 1915 say that “never had any city a brighter outlook” with newly paved streets, sanitary systems, and streetlights. By 1926, Austin had 55,000 residents who were reeling at living in “a much bigger town than we realize.” Reports dubbed Austin a “center of culture,” so now it must cope with the “demands of a growing town.”

Fast forward 10 years, and Austin had grown so much, “Rip Van Winkle would have rubbed his eyes in amazement as he observed the changes that have taken place.” With infrastructure rivaling “cities many times larger than Austin,” the buildings in the center of town, at this point around 20 years old, had been “modernized.” Meanwhile, South Congress had been widened and paved to combat traffic congestion.

After a year of “unprecedented growth” for the city, Austinites grew comfortable with the city’s newfound title as the “center of a booming Central Texas area” in 1947. Congress Avenue was flanked with “new storefronts.” Oltorf Street, Lamar Boulevard, and Barton Springs Road were buzzing. At the same time, concern begins to grow that Austin was being lost, “with the new area’s birth, an old one is dying.”

Austin’s “spectacular period of growth and change” continued through 1955, and with the demolition of housing in the downtown business district, residents grew more concerned about holding on to “something of value” from the past. Reports from the time recognized that “it would be impossible to save all the landmarks in busy, expanding Austin.”

Less than 10 years later, President Lyndon Baines Johnson took office in the White House, bringing Austin to the forefront of world news. A first-time visitor and British reporter said Austin “may change the Texas image” with its “surviving repository of Southern taste, gentility, class consciousness and poverty.”

Two women, with their backs to the camera, operating phone lines at Motorola in 1979.

Motorola workers in 1979.

Photo by the Austin History Center via Austonia

By 1979, it is “incontestable that change did occur” over the past 10 years. Austin grew from 81.39 square miles to 124.61 square miles, from 160 to 360 traffic lights, and became “a major center of computer technology manufacturing.” Between the good and the bad, Austinites took respite in knowing the old Scholz Garten was still around on game day.

While Austin American Statesman news records from the 1980s are sparse, but a jump to 1999 shows that coverage didn’t change too much. Locals say the old Austin is long gone, dying with “the last night of the Armadillo World Headquarters,” or that it peaked in the mid-70s.

As a 1999 report put it, “the only thing that can come out of this worship of the past is disappointment.” Besides, “the perfect Austin has always been a fictional creation.”

So next time you hear someone complaining about Austin’s changing character, remember, they’ve been saying that since 1884.