Life in Austin: Weird, wired and wait­ing for Ap­ple

Belleville News-Democrat (Sunday) - - News - BY MANNY FER­NAN­DEZ

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.