Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Discover (or rediscover) what makes Austin stand out.

What makes Austinites so nostalgic?

A mural depicting a frog underneath text that says, "Hi, how are you."
Patricia Lim
KUT News
One recent sign of the changing times in Austin: the demolition of the building around the famous "Hi, How Are You" mural last spring.

Austin has a well-known tendency to wax nostalgic about the past — but “the past” often seems like a moving target. Ask around, and you’ll get different answers for when “Old Austin” actually was.

“The old joke is, ‘Austin was great 10 minutes before you arrived,’” said Randy Lewis, chair of the American Studies Department at UT Austin. “You could say that to someone in 1970, 1980, now. And the spirit's the same, like, ‘Oh, you just missed the Golden Age.’”

Lewis first came to Austin as a UT undergrad in the ‘80s. He left when he was 25 before returning in 2009 as a professor.

 Newspaper clip that says, “Austin has already changed so much since I’ve lived here, and it’s only been three years,” said John Buckley, a graduate student in the School of Social Work at UT.
"Book provides 1930s views of city," The Daily Texan via NewspaperArchive, Jan. 30, 2007

He has enough years in the city to claim “Old Austin.” Or at least one version of it.

“I got here in 1985, and it was like everybody was in a band or they were writing plays … and you could live in Hyde Park and get a nice room like I did for $200 a month,” he said. “People went to UT for 10 years just because they liked taking classes, because it was so cheap and Austin was so cheap.”

I don’t have that kind of history. I’m a newcomer — a year and a half and counting — but even a newcomer can sense people’s longing for the way Austin used to be.

"And it can't be denied — Austin has changed. The city, in its rolling hills setting, has been termed 'Silicon Hills' — the new, mini Silicon Valley. Additionally, Austin has become the destination point for the exodus out of California, yet those arriving from the West Coast have begun to transform the city into the place they were trying to escape."
"Two Guys, Some Land and an Aquifer," The Daily Texan via NewspaperArchive, July 10, 2000

What makes Austinites so nostalgic, and how long has the city been this way? For answers, I reached out to Lewis, who’s also the founder of The End of Austin, a blog that has chronicled Austin’s changing landscape and culture since 2011. I also looked through the newspapers of years past to see what people had to say.

"Every day, another 50 people move to Austin. They come for reasons we all recognize: economic hope, environmental security, a quality of life that’s the envy of many larger cities. But at the current rate of growth, Austin faces a future of increasing uncertainty. By the year 2020, it is estimated that our population will double to 1.6 million — jeopardizing the very qualities that make our community what it is today."
"Is This Our Future?", The Daily Texan via NewspaperArchive, March 28, 1996

Lewis has a couple different theories on why Austinites seem particularly sentimental. The first is simple: Lots of people came when they were young, and some of the nostalgia is just the bittersweet feeling of growing into adulthood.

“I think it's a lot to do with the university — people coming of age here, being 18 when they show up, also coming from maybe a small town in Texas. And you find that Austin is this exciting, more cosmopolitan place,” he said. “That kind of bond is really intense.”

“I sit here gazing at a nasty brown layer of air that spreads across the horizon. No longer is there any question in my mind about whether the quality of life in Austin is deteriorating. Clearly the surging growth this city has had for the past 15 years is responsible.”
"'Business as usual': Sierra Club official laments declining quality of life," Austin American-Statesman via ProQuest, Jan. 15, 1980
“Shouldn’t those of us who live in Austin — and love it — pause a moment to soberly ask ourselves just what are we, as a city, aiming at? What really is our goal? To be another Houston or Dallas? Or are we really mostly concerned about continuing our record as an almost ideal place in which to live, and enjoy living? Is just bigness our goal? All over this nation we see clear examples of size bringing not better living but mostly just more problems, higher taxes and higher crime rates.”
"Austin's Goal?", Austin American-Statesman via ProQuest, Sept. 10, 1972

Over the course of a lifetime, things inevitably change. But that’s not the whole story in Austin.

The city hasn’t just changed — it’s changed fast, especially in the past two decades, Lewis said. From 2000 to 2022, the population of the Austin-Round Rock area nearly doubled from 1.27 million to 2.42 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. For comparison, the total U.S. population grew by about 18% in the same time period.

With population growth comes development. New homes, restaurants and stores replace old ones. Local businesses and longtime residents get priced out.

That leads us to another culprit: the pro-growth, pro-change force of capitalism.

“Capitalism has changed Austin in this really fast way, and a lot of people have been standing on the sidelines watching, feeling disempowered or disenfranchised from the real decisions about the way the neighborhood is going to look,” Lewis said. “You don't get to choose.”

Nostalgia is a way for people to process that feeling of losing control.

"There are so many people around here now that we can’t find a secluded picnic place any more. Have you been in Barton’s on Sunday?", attributed to Woodrow Wilson, 904 Wayside Drive
"Austin Joins the 'Big Five' -- and 131,964 Austinites Like It Fine," Sunday American-Statesman via NewspaperArchive, June 11, 1950

But of course, people have been missing “Old Austin” for longer than the past 20 years.

“People told me that when I got here,” Lewis said. “I was 18 and they were like, ‘Oh, Austin was so great. It was so much better in 1970.’”

So, at least part of it is timeless. Maybe nostalgia is embedded in Austin’s personality as much as Barton Springs, live music or “keeping it weird.” (Ironically, that slogan has been around since only 2000.)

“That's part of the Austin story, I think, is to imagine that something beautiful just happened, and now we're squandering it,” Lewis said.

"The business district today, so rapid has been Austin’s growth, is spreading further afield, invading older residential districts and creating conditions of undesirable residence."
"Obsolescent and Decaying Structures Mark Wake of Austin's Growth: Problem Needs Remedy," The Austin Statesman via ProQuest, Feb. 16, 1940

I asked Lewis whether he thinks nostalgia is useful for Austinites. Does it help or hurt people to constantly look back on the past?

“It is a form of grief,” he said. “It's also sort of a bonding thing, too.”

"Austin has changed a great deal since I knew it thirty years ago, and claims now a population of 40,000. The soldiers having been moved away makes it seem rather dull, and there are many vacant offices over the stores. The rooming houses are not crowded notwithstanding that the legislature is in session. Economy of fuel is the watchword, and hot water is not so easy to get as two years ago."
"Editor Visits States Capitol & San Antonio," Quanah Tribune-Chief via NewspaperArchive, Feb. 27, 1919
Thus one by one the old land marks leave us and but few of the original houses of Austin remain. A few years hence the citizen of thirty years ago will be a comparative stranger in the home of his youth with no familiar objects to greet his eye save the eternal hills on which the capitol city sits enthroned as a queen in her royal beauty and the sparkling colorado at her feet," attributed to Old Citizen.
"Passing Away," The Austin Daily Statesman via ProQuest, Oct. 5, 1884

But there’s danger in romanticizing the past too much. Not everyone would agree things were better in “the good ol’ days,” and the further back you go, the dicier that concept gets.

“A lot of the Golden Age stuff is really also highly racialized,” Lewis said. “Austin was not a great place in 1968 to be a person of color or to be queer.”

In the end, he didn’t have a straightforward answer about what nostalgia does for us.

Just another question.

“Is it a good thing to carry that around?”

What era of Austin do you miss? Tell us in the form below. If you don't see a form, try refreshing the page.

Chelsey Zhu is the digital producer at KUT. Got a tip? You can email her at
Related Content