Back in Chicago; Part of My Soul is Still Down South in Austin

My wife and I drove back from Austin, Texas to Chicago.  It takes a couple of days unless you are a truck driver.  I went to Austin to get out of the cold.  It was warm there, and sunny.

People have asked me the differences between the two places.  They are very different.

First, just in terms of size.  Austin is significantly smaller than Chicago.  Going from one end of it to the other is possible on a bike-if you can handle the hills!  Even though Austin is smaller, it’s as diverse.

Austin is a government town.  One of my friends put it this way. Austin is a 9-5 town.  The rest of the state isn’t government focused-so they are hard core capitalists.  Austin is also a university town.  That gives one section of the town a different feel.  It feels more like Madison, Wisconsin than Champaign, IL.

Because it’s west of the Mississippi, water is an issue.  In Chicago we barely think about water because of Lake Michigan.  In Austin, it’s top of everyone’s mind.  How they will get water to all the new inhabitants will be a big political/social issue in the next few years.

Yes, Austin is liberal. But it’s a different kind of liberal than Chicago.  I only saw one Hillary sign in Austin.  Everyone is for Bernie-and it’s not the age of the people.  Homeowners had Bernie signs out.  They aren’t machine/crony capitalist liberals.  But, Austin is changing.  There are two Republicans on the city council, and there are a fair amount of Republicans moving there.  Austin felt more libertarian than hard core liberal.

Just like Chicago, politicians are fighting things like Uber, Airbnb, and other technology companies that threaten entrenched incumbents.  It will be interesting to see how that works out.  Austin has embraced the food truck culture though.  They are everywhere.

Government just isn’t as important in Texas as it is in Illinois.  It mostly stays out of the way.  No one in Austin talks about it like they do in Chicago.  In Chicago, it’s top of mind because it’s in your way and dominates so many things that people try to do.  Not so in Austin.

I never noticed crime in Austin.  I didn’t hear about shootings or violence.  I didn’t see a large police presence on the street.  The attitude toward the police wasn’t adversarial.

Looking far down the road, it will be interesting to see what Austin does with taxes.  Texas like every state except Indiana has defined benefit pensions.  Because they have a huge influx of people right now, it’s easy to pay them.  There is also a lot of economic opportunity in Texas compared to other states.  But, there will come a time when it will start to hurt.  The legislature only meets every two years.  It’s Republican dominated and I would suggest they change their public pension structure to mimic Indiana’s.

The startup scene in Austin is smaller than Chicago.  It’s where Chicago was back in 2010 if I tried to make an exact comparison.  However, there are a lot of tech workers there because companies have set up shop there.  That means there is talent sitting inside Facebook, Rackspace, and Dell.  As people move there, it will continue to grow.

In many cases, the easiest way to set up a startup community is leverage indigenous assets.  In Chicago, it’s easier to set up a fintech focused startup because investors get it and customers are right there.  Austin doesn’t have that core competency, so startups come from all business verticals.

The community in Austin is not closed.  There isn’t a real hierarchy.  I had friends that moved from Chicago to Austin that said it was really simple to navigate and people were a lot more open.  I didn’t try very hard to network in the community when I was there so I can’t really speak to that, but culturally and historically Chicago has been a closed business network.

Both communities lack seed capital. Both lack a lot of VC capital.  Interestingly, Dallas has a lot of money but it finds its way into real estate and private equity.  San Antonio is a military town and Houston is an oil/gas town.  They have the same conundrum Chicago does.

Austin has some very pretty physical features.  Hill country west of town is pretty spectacular if you haven’t seen it.  I can see why Californians are drawn to it because parts of it look like parts of California. East of town is wetter, and has more rolling hills.  I rode my bike as much as I could while I was there and it gave you a work out.

When it comes to the way you live, Austin is different than Chicago.  In Chicago, the Loop and Lake are a huge focus.  The closer you are to downtown means the shorter trip to cultural activities and good restaurants.  Not so in Austin.  It can be anywhere.  The hipsters hang out on South Congress and the tourists hang out on 6th.  But, we found a lot of cool places in other neighborhoods and drove out to places west and east of Austin that had some fun spots.

In Austin, if you don’t have a car, you are screwed.  People drive everywhere.  It’s not really a walkable city like Chicago.  There really isn’t any accessible public transportation that can get you anywhere quickly.  I didn’t see a lot of scooters, and that surprised me a little.  Biking is very challenging if you aren’t in shape.  I see more bikes on the road in Chicago than I do in Austin.

The pace of life is slower in Austin than Chicago.  There is energy there, but it’s different.  More laid back.  Austin is noticeably younger than Chicago.  More young families.  I cannot speak for schools because I didn’t investigate that at all.  I do know that just like Chicago, it’s awfully hard to get a school choice movement started in Texas and that’s a shame.

As far as cost of living, Austin is similar to Chicago.  Gas prices are cheaper, sales taxes are cheaper.  Property taxes are actually higher, but Chicago is catching up!  There is no income tax.  Cost per square foot depending on where you live is higher-but the weather is a heckuva lot better so you don’t need as big a footprint.  People told me a few years ago, it was possible to pick up a decent house in some neighborhoods for $500,000 or less.  That’s impossible now.  We were walking and saw a nice house and someone told us it just sold for $1.8M.  Developers are tearing down homes and putting up new ones.  Because of the influx of residents, they can sell them.  If you drive from Austin to Dripping Springs, you see development after development being put in.  Very suburban feeling.  This is going to change the face of Austin.

If you are thinking of moving there, I’d probably find a place and rent for 6 months to see how you like it.  I did buy a pair of cowboy boots and when it gets cold here, it’s on my list of places to go.



I was reprimanded by a friend for not talking about the BBQ in Austin.  If you are doing beef, there is no place like this part of Texas.  My several trips to La Barbeque were worth it.  Best smoked beef rib I have ever had in my life, and the brisket there is pretty amazing.  The pork BBQ at La Barbeque was the best I had.  But, my recommendation is not to order pork at all in Texas.

Austin also has a very good local alcohol scene.  They have very good local vodka’s if you like that, and a very good local bourbon.  There are also a lot of microbrews that were very good there.

Of course, the Tex-Mex and all the south of the border food was really great.  The food scene in Austin isn’t as deep or doesn’t have the variety of Chicago.  But, it’s coming.  We ate at a couple of very good restaurants and ate outside.  The farm to table movement is there, but not with full force yet.

Whole Foods started there, and is a typical Whole Foods experience.  But, they have competition.  I found that I liked Central Market on the north side better.  They have lardo in the meat case……

Those are two reasons to bike around Austin.  Helps the weight stay off.

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