Life in Austin: Weird, wired and waiting for Apple
Walking distance from the pink dome of the Texas Capitol building, there were whiskey samples, tamales and Nerf guns.
The Virtual Reality crowd talked Augmented Reality. The millennials in YETI shirts and the grayhaired post-hippies in psychedelic vests racked up points in a 3D shootout on Space Pirate Trainer. And then there was Tim Porter, the guy with the hologram-creating Merge Cube. Using an app he developed, Porter pulled out his phone and put his 4-year-old daughter’s stuffed penguin into the cube, virtually speaking.
Austinites have a name for all this: a Tuesday night.
It was just another event at the Capital Factory, Austin’s techie community center and startup hub – this time, a virtual reality holiday party. Located in an office and hotel complex downtown, the Capital Factory has helped a number of Austinites quit their day jobs to become tech entrepreneurs. The shared work space features a “Star Wars”-themed floor with Luke and Leia restrooms, local craft beer on tap and a conference room hidden, Hardy Boys-style, behind a bookcase that swings open when you press the right book (“The Plains of Passage”).
“It doesn’t matter what you want to do, there are five Meetups at night that will support it,” said Porter, 34, the founder and chief technology officer at Underminer Studios. “It’s a maker community.”
For decades, Austin was defined by the bureaucracy of state government, the academia of the University of Texas and the funkiness of its hippie-cowboy, Willie Nelson-inspired music and arts scene. Today, the tech culture and economy have transformed Texas’ capital city and surrounding suburbs, creating jobs, worsening traffic, raising prices and changing the region’s politics, tempo and brand.
None of this is entirely new – people have been calling the Austin area’s tech scene “Silicon Hills” since the late 1980s and early 1990s. But the slogan and the hype have now dramatically caught up.
Apple’s recent announcement that it will build a $1 billion campus in the Austin area that could eventually employ up to 15,000 people – expanding its current 6,000-worker presence and making it the largest private employer in the region – has given the city’s rapidly expanding tech community a morale boost, a moment in the national spotlight, and also a point of debate.
Apple’s planned expansion has raised a host of unanswered questions about traffic, gentrification, affordability and competition for jobs.
Austin consistently ranks high on the lists of cities with the worst traffic in the United States. And a recent housing market analysis found a shortage of 48,000 rental units affordable to households earning less than $25,000 per year. Supplies for middle-income families are also increasingly strained.
“I think in the last 10 years, it’s been a real struggle for Austin to keep its identity and keep its soul, as downtown is being razed and converted into condos and high-rises, and you have people like Google and Facebook and Apple taking over the town with these buildings,” said Omar Gallaga, who covered the city’s tech culture for the Austin American-Statesman for more than 20 years.
“If you have all the artists and the creative people that make it interesting move away because they can’t afford to live there, then it becomes a different place.”
On any given day, some of the state’s far-right lawmakers may be rubbing elbows downtown with 20-something entrepreneurs headed to work on motorized scooters – or perhaps, not long ago, passing by Professor Dumpster, otherwise known as Jeff Wilson, the co-founder of the startup Kasita, who lived in a 33-square-foot dumpster for a year as part of an experiment in minimalist living.
Austin is still weird. It’s just more wired now, too.
“We don’t want to become Silicon Valley – we want to be Austin,” said Joshua Baer, founder and chief executive of the Capital Factory, launched in 2009 to mentor, finance and support startups and entrepreneurs. “What makes Austin really different, to me, is the culture clash. But it’s not a clash. It’s the culture collaboration.”
There are now more than 138,000 tech-related jobs in the Austin metropolitan region, about 14 percent of the total jobs in the area.