Ode To Historic Austin, A City Rich in Culture
by Chrisy Wink
There are a myriad of reasons for people to come to Austin, whether to live or to visit. Throughout the years, as the city developed, so did the reasons multiply: educational, musical, and technological opportunity as well as political, ethnic, and personal diversity. The reasons abound, though there are some that have never changed; those original reasons that lured in the first settlers and still attract people today. The temperate weather, the fertile landscape of the Hill Country, and the plentiful fresh waters springing from the network of aquifers beneath the city gives Austin an appeal that has not diminished since the earliest times. Native Americans from the Tonkawa, Comanche, and Lipan Apache tribes hunted plentiful buffalo across the rolling hills and camped along the banks of what is now known as Barton Springs. Likewise, the Spanish found value in the land, building their mission along the edge of those same springs.
Among the first Anglo settlers to move into the area, it was Mirabeau B. Lamar, Vice President of the Republic of Texas, who saw a grander potential. As he stood upon the ground that day in 1838, not far from where our capitol now stands, he declared, “This should be the seat of future government.” Upon his election as President of the Republic of Texas, he set out to make his declaration a reality. The fledgling settlement, then named Waterloo, was nominated and subsequently established as the capital of the Republic. Shortly afterwards, Lamar renamed the city in honor of Stephen F. Austin, “the father of Texas,” in recognition of his efforts to colonize the area and negotiate boundary treaties with the native people.
Construction of the capitol building began almost immediately, and although there were decades of work still left to complete the structure, government in its entirety arrived from Houston in oxcarts in October 1839. Years passed as the population inflated and Austin grew into a bustling capital city. Residents saw the secession of Texas into the Union in 1845, the development of new landmarks including the Governor’s Mansion and the Driskill Hotel, and the foundation laid down for a “university of the first class.” Edwin Waller, elected as the city’s first mayor in 1840, engineered a grid plan for the streets of the city, most of which is still in-tact as modern downtown Austin. The original grid designated all north-south streets to be named after the rivers of Texas (with the one exception being Congress Avenue). All east-west streets were named after trees native to the region, with Pecan Street (now 6th Street) being the major east-west thoroughfare. It wasn’t until 1888 that our beloved state capitol, made of local Texas Sunset Red granite, opened its doors for the first time. The building was lauded as the “7th largest building in the world,” larger in square footage than all other state capitols and surpassing the national Capitol in height by 14 feet.
In the winter of 1871, Austin acquired its first connection to the railroad, triggering a decade-long growth spurt. With the railroad came more people, more trade, and more commercial and educational opportunity. Although the original Forty Acres were set aside for would become the University of Texas, it wasn’t until 1882 that construction was started on the university. In the meantime, Austin opened its public school system in 1881 and became host to multiple other universities, including St. Edwards and Tillotson Collegiate and Normal Institute. Today, Austin is seen, among other things, as the educational center of Texas.
As the heavy industrialization of Austin in the late 1800s and early 1900s gave way to more modern times, a new industry took hold: technology. The 1950s saw the first of the city’s think tanks and research labs. Tracor Industries moved to northwest Austin in the 1960s, and many others tagged along, including IBM, Texas Instruments, Samsung, 3M, and Motorola – so many that, in the 1990s, Austin adopted the unofficial nickname of “Silicon Hills.” The University of Texas produced many a bright techno-centric mind, including Michael Dell, who established his own Fortune 500 company in the suburbs of Austin. The technology industry continued to be a major influence into the late 1990s and early 2000s with the dot-com boom and subsequent bust. Although the fall was far, Austin is still seen as a hub in the industry.
It was in the 1970s that the city began to truly establish itself as a non-traditional, free-thinking, liberal society. As political parties realigned and strong political leadership established itself, Austin became a blend of downtown liberalism and suburban conservatism, with a heavy dash of libertarianism. A strongly determined and vocal majority brought to the forefront the issue of preserving the natural environment and historical neighborhoods of the area, distinguishing Austin as a place of constant vigilance in the preservation of quality of life. These same political movements continue today: Austin purists clash with development companies as the appearance of downtown changes dramatically, with emphasis being placed on downtown living and development.
The 1970s also brought with it a musical revolution. Although it was the jazz and blues clubs that sprung up east of downtown in the 1920s-1940s that established Austin’s musical heritage, it was the country and western musicians who, 30 years later, sought refuge from the corporate overtaking of Nashville and brought the city’s underground music scene to life. These influential musicians found a home in Austin at a time of political and cultural upheaval. Austin became a breeding ground for the alternative music industry, and anti-establishment musicians flocked to the city where they could play to a receptive audience. Not surprisingly, this tradition continues today: Austin has become a city where national acts and struggling musicians alike can come and receive recognition in the form of appreciative audiences.
From the beginning, Austin has been a cultural, ethnic, political, and professional melting pot. Germans, Swedes, and Mexicans were prominent settlers in early years, with Mexican immigration growing more prominent in the mid-1900s. Educators and politicians have historically inhabited the city in large numbers, with the additional influx of writers, musicians, artists, business professionals, entrepreneurs, and more adding to the eclectic mix every day. With the population of Austin at least doubling in size every 20 years, it is to be expected that people from all walks of life will come and leave their imprint on the city. Whether it’s the strong economy, the educational, business, or musical opportunity, the lovely environment, or the alternative culture, each has their own reasons for coming. But the overall attraction is the same: Austin is a beautiful place to be.