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Will industry cause Austin-like Detroit-to become the next modern urban ruin?

2010 December 9

A couple of weeks ago, the fine people from the National Trust for Historic Preservation were in town to conduct some man- (and woman)-on-the-street interviews of Austinites. They wanted to know what made Austin’s heart beat.

I was all set up to spend a day with the crew when I contracted some rare form of sinus crushing malaria, leaving me incapacitated for several weeks (I’m still coughing occasionally, holy moly). Anyway, weeks later and the project is edited and up on the webbers for your viewing pleasure!

Austin in one word?

Last week I described Austin as “Texas but also Not Texas“, which is five words and therefore cheating.  After spending the last several minutes attempting to reducing that to one, I’ll just let a whole bunch of folks do it for me.

Voices of East Austin

This video is a little bit about change. Very early in the video, a person mentions that most people talk about how “things used to be.” But isn’t that how it is everywhere? Isn’t that how it’s always been? I have a letter from a woman written leading up to the war of 1812 who lamented about how America had lost its innocence and given in to the unspeakable evils of industry. It’s always been like this.

WIlliam Livingstone House in Detroit

WIlliam Livingstone House in Detroit built in 1893. Now demolished. Photo by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

Austinites get frustrated by big business and corporate interest in the Austin “brand,”-and rightfully so. Who wants to give up that sense of community? But that is also just the nature of things-and it’s not all together awful, either.

There is a belief that the best way to know whether or not something works is to look at whether or not big business is investing in it. While Austin tries to resist that investment, it should also remember that it probably means that Austin is doing a lot of things right in a time when most places are doing everything wrong. Old American cities like Detroit, cities that are now dangerously close to having true American “ruins,” teach us why it is important to not only keep a watchful eye over change, but also to embrace it.

Austin as a City of Preservationists

75 years ago, people would have wanted to be in Detroit in the same way that people want to be in Austin now. Jobs were plentiful, people were inspired and creating. It was a lovely place to build a home.  And somehow, I don’t get the feeling that anyone ever stopped by and asked: Do you consider yourself a preservationist?

Austin has the benefit of thriving in a time after we know that these things make a big difference. But will we make a big difference, is the burning question.

Are you a preservationist?

If you’re interested, you can check out an entire playlist of videos with more great/funny/heartfelt answers from fellow Austinites by visiting the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s YouTube page.

A big thanks to Jason Clement for sending the material along.

For more photos of beautiful ruins in Detroit, check out this Time magazine slideshow, this site from photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, and this flickr set from Detroit Derek.


Will Austin become the next urban ruin?

What can we do to preserve our city’s heritage and still maintain growth?


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13 Responses leave one →
  1. December 9, 2010

    I could see Austin becoming the next suburban ruin, but I don’t see us having much of a downtown to ruin yet. And if you watch “Slackers” you can see what Austin with a ruined downtown looks like.
    That said, all the current urban decay is coming about because of the loss of industry, something Austin has almost none of. I don’t think we’ve had a city fall into ruin because of a loss of knowledge workers. It will be interesting to see if that happens in the next 100 years.

  2. December 9, 2010


    Thanks for reading!

    The sentiment that Austin doesn’t have a downtown has been a little confusing to me since I’ve gotten here. This seems mostly to come about (I’d guess) because Central Austin is fairly genteel in appearance as opposed to, say, Dallas, or another more modern urban metropolitan area.

    I guess I’d need to have a more concrete definition of what a downtown is supposed to be in order to qualify for myself whether or no Austin has one. But I’d put my money on Austin having a fairly decent “downtown”. I come from a town in the rust belt that’s tallest building is 8 stories high, and I can say with some confidence that in order to have ruins in ones city center, there is no need for a powerful economic district, prestigious corporations or towering buildings.

    As to your second point — totally agreed that it will be interesting to see. I would guess that it will probably be the case that technology jobs are more flexible than industrial jobs as companies can adapt more quickly. But still, for every Apple Inc. there is a Hewlett Packard — massive, top heavy corporations struggling to keep pace. And I would suppose the argument can be made that the “knowledge workers” of the early 20th century were mostly employed by places like Chrysler and Ford Motors, so, time will tell.

    • December 9, 2010

      Hey Matt,

      Yeah, I was comparing to somewhere like Detroit. Even compared to Houston or Dallas (which for their population both have relatively small urban cores ringed by suburbs), Austin’s downtown is tiny. Compared to Detroit we’re like a one stop light town.
      But it’s true that there’s always the possibility to decay. Austin’s a success story, though. Check out this picture of what downtown used to look like. If you’d visited in the late eigties/early nineties you might have thought you were in the Rust Belt:

      • December 9, 2010

        Hi Tim! It’s funny you mention slackers-whenever I see that movie, I always think Austin looks so small and dusty. I don’t remember it ever feeling that way. You know how the TV adds a few pounds? Maybe film made it looked like our city had dropped a few sizes :)

      • December 9, 2010

        Love the pic! Thanks for sharing!

  3. December 9, 2010

    Not sure why Detroit is even involved in this conversation. Our economic powerhouses are in industries which are either impossible or difficult to offshore. Education, Government, High-tech. There are basically no parallels, and to take the most extreme example of economic misfortune and attempt to compare it to the Austin economy (best in the nation) is absurd.

    People always grouse about change. Don’t forget it was a lack of positive change that got Detroit where it is. Change is an absolutely inevitable fact of life and I wish every successive generation of Austinites would recognize that and stop bitching.

    • December 9, 2010

      Hi Sam,

      Thanks for stopping by! A few things:

      1) High-tech and educational industries are most certainly capable of being sent offshore. Especially high-tech jobs. I’m a bit flummoxed at how it could even be suggested otherwise.

      2) Austin’s economy isn’t the best in the nation and it’s not particularly close.

      Furthermore, a major portion of the post which you’re replying to covered the degree to which change is a positive thing and ought to be embraced. I don’t see anyone ‘bitching’. In fact, I wrote many of the things which you just stated. See the following:

      “Austinites get frustrated by big business and corporate interest in the Austin “brand,”–and rightfully so. Who wants to give up that sense of community? But that is also just the nature of things–and it’s not all together awful, either.

      There is a belief that the best way to know whether or not something works is to look at whether or not big business is investing in it. While Austin tries to resist that investment, it should also remember that it probably means that Austin is doing a lot of things right in a time when most places are doing everything wrong. Old American cities like Detroit, cities that are now dangerously close to having true American “ruins,” teach us why it is important to not only keep a watchful eye over change, but also to embrace it.”

      I appreciate that you’re a bit defensive about hyperbole when it comes to Austin. It is a wonderful place and we want to protect it. But I fear that in the urgency with which you seem to have come to Austin’s defense you’ve either: a) not actually read my post b) used a lot of hyperbole yourself or c) both.

  4. December 9, 2010

    I am not sure why Detroit would be a subject of comparison.

    There will never be a Detroit-like situation in Austin because Austin’s economy is far more balanced. Even if all the high tech went away tomorrow, Austin would still have the relative stability of state government as an employment base.

    The other reason that the two are incomparable - Austin has never gotten nearly as large as Detroit, and has never boomed like Detroit. People think Austin is a boomtown, and it is, but it is not growing like Houston did in the 1970′s or Detroit in the 1920′s. We’re only talking about a metro area of 1.7 million, which is still very much a mid-sized metro area.

    What Austin does have to worry about is the fact that there is not enough new construction in an urban form to supplement the prewar bungalows that are already largely bought up and gentrified. There is no place for me here - I am too poor to buy an old house in Hyde Park (or even East Austin) but there are no condos or apartments (mid-rise or high-rise) that I could afford either. I am left with two options - the suburbs or the substandard apartment complexes that make up places like East Riverside or Wells Branch.

    What I don’t understand is why more young urban pioneer types, or even your standard hipsters, don’t look harder at Houston or Dallas. There is SO much potential in the urban fabric of these cities that it’s ridiculous. You want a real loft? Go to Houston or Dallas. You want an old funky house to fix up that you can afford? Go to Houston or Dallas. You want light rail (something Austin couldn’t conjure up if it tried)? Go to Houston or Dallas.

    The only thing that’s missing is a “cool factor” that comes from hipsters identifying it as the next great thing.

    • December 9, 2010


      Thanks for reading!

      Government jobs tend to insulate areas from shapeshifting in the national economy (this is why places like Austin and D.C. suffered less from 2008) but not necessarily from themselves. And then, even still, government jobs actually only account for a small percentage of work in any given area. If you factor in other public sector jobs, such as working at state schools and so on, then the number is inflated, but it’s difficult if not impossible to predict what impact a struggling local economy would have on something like education. If other cities are any suggestion suggestion, than “government jobs” is not a reliable pillar when the local economy is struggling.

      I think Detroit-to-Austin should be softly compared. In fact, I think it’s important to do so. The two major areas of contention with it seem to be:

      1) Austin has never been as populous as Detroit was at its peak
      2) Austin’s industry is more diversified

      I think there are both fair points to a degree, but also not as plain as you might suggest. Of major metropolitan areas, Detroit’s metro area was #1 at its height in population growth for a two year period, but generally #3. Austin is currently #2. Detroit’s economy was much better diversified than some suggest, as well. By the mid 1920s, Detroit employed 140,000 wood manufacturing workers and 96,000 textile workers, equivalent to over 10 percent of the total population and a much larger chunk of their work force. While Detroit was dominated by the automotive industry, it would be very similar in a percentage comparison if say, all of the computer industry jobs disappeared from Austin tomorrow.

      But leaning on Detroit sort of misses the point. We could have just as easily gone with a city comparable in population at it’s height and in work force like Buffalo, NY. About 1.7 million in the metro area at their height, roughly 25% of the workforce is categorized as “government” work, and so on. Buffalo was on the brinks of bankruptcy in 2003 and had its city finances taken over by the State. Or, for a more even apt comparison than Buffalo, one could take Columbus, OH.

      And, I guess I might consider myself a “young urban pioneer type”, though certainly not a hipster, and the reason we chose Austin over Dallas and Houston when moving had several facets, but one big facet for us was that Dallas and Houston are obnoxiously big for us — but that’s just us.

      Where I am from, there is none of this “City A just *wishes* it had what City B has* type talk. I think that it’s a good thing. I think that spirit of competition is what makes Austin, Dallas, Houston — all of them, fine paces to live for one reason or another. I just wish that it didn’t take such a vitriolic tone, so that if a person lives in Austin they must be a poorly misguided, tree-hugging liberal socialist with little comprehension of the inevitability of their own gentrification, or if a person lives in Dallas they must be a pithy, high-brow, elitist, socialite fascist with little regard for sustainability or progress.

      And finally, Marie and I chose to pay more to live further away from Austin’s downtown. We’re probably an exception to the rule.

    • December 9, 2010

      @Matthew R: I see what you did there. You’re trying to keep the hipsters from moving to Austin. Good job, mate! :)

      In terms of cost of living, having moved back after spending a brief stint in the SF Bay area, I can tell you: Ausitn is hella cheap for what you get. No state income tax. You can get a relatively nice house for $300K in Austin city proper. In SF, jenky, super fixer-upper homes sold for about $900K. Not that I’m saying Austin is uper affordable-it’s just those consumerist things like owning a home are more within reach.

  5. Dave permalink
    December 9, 2010

    as a native detroiter but current austinite, i can, with authority, claim that this thread is full of fail.

    • December 9, 2010

      Gosh, Dave. You really added to the conversation. Thanks for stopping by! You win troll of the day award!! U R HELLA COOL!

    • December 10, 2010


      Sorry that you have not appreciated the discussion. That happens occasionally - you’re not always going to agree with or enjoy what is going on. Next time, try to add something to fix it — don’t be so juvenile, and we all might be inclined to listen!

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