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Chill. Austin’s not Dallas or Houston.

Michael Barnes
mbarnes@statesman.com

When will Austin lose its unholy fear of becoming Dallas?

Every time a sleek tower sprouts up — or an upscale shop or eatery opens — Austinites whip out the D-Word.

“That’s not Austin!” they yelp. “That’s Big D!”

As a Republic of Austin blogger recently quipped, our city’s anxiety starts with a sense that we are slipping into “gloss without substance.”

An easy way to quash that anxiety: Get off the couch and meet the people who actually occupy those towers, shops and eateries.

They are Austinites, too, people who have lived here forever, or arrived more recently to join our open, smart, kind, fun and fit culture.

Sure, some Austinites, like our friends to the north, put too much energy into money, status and influence.

Yet seven nights a week, while pounding the pavement for this social beat, I find Austin’s ambient chatter tends toward the books just read, the bands just heard, the ideas just encountered, the characters just met or the causes just engaged.

Not the expensive outfit, car or house just purchased.

To be fair, Dallas also encompasses the entire range of human activity and interests. It’s more than Neiman Marcus, Cowboys Stadium, Highland Park and Southern Methodist University.

The city does itself no favors, however, in the substance department when it encourages a revival of the “Dallas” soap opera. Or when somebody shouts the lyrics of the 1956 alphabetical song: “And that spells Dallas/Where ev’ry home’s a palace/Because the settlers settle for no less.”

Furthermore, anyone who thinks that downtown Austin — with its condos, boutiques and fine dining — is turning into an enclave for the elite hasn’t been there lately. I dare anyone to walk the length of Congress Avenue at noon on a workday or the full stretch of Sixth Street at midnight on a weekend and not encounter the whole, gorgeous circus of humanity.

For every new, gleaming spire that rises, too, 100 funky food trailers set up shop. Aspects of Old Austin proliferate as fast as fresh versions of New Austin. Just not always on the same corners.

Bottom line without any rancor: People move to Dallas to make money. They move here to live.

Not Houston either, folks

In the 1980s, the Austin hobgoblin was “Houstonization.”

With each new subdivision, freeway or shopping center, a horror of unzoned Houston was unleashed.

Those critics had a point. Austin sprawled. Along with that came traffic, pollution, freeway uglification, diminished open spaces and social dislocation.

Not that there is anything inherently wrong with suburbs. These days, when I explore Austin’s outer rings, I almost inevitably encounter gracious people, spacious homes and — if the area was developed after the 1980s — great gobs of green space.

Worse off are the inner suburbs, thrown up cheaply during the 1970s and early ’80s. They became instant slums, long before urban gentrification got underway in the late 1990s.

Recently, an agent provocateur — writing as an online travel expert — ranked Austin the No. 1 most overrated destination. He recommended that tourists try Houston instead. His main point appeared to be that Austinites looked stressed, while Houstonians have loads of fun.

After I picked myself off the floor laughing, I recalled that, during my almost 30 years living in Houston, I also reveled in sharing the hidden treasures of my hometown.

Note the word “hidden.”

In Austin, almost all our attractions are legible to any arriving tourist. In Houston, the car is king. You see most of it at the pace of pedestrian, however, because, no matter what studies show, Houston’s freeway congestion is much, much worse than ours.

And while I’ve always praised the bigger city’s high-end arts, pro sports and culinary diversity during my almost 30 years living down the road in Austin — you added right, I’m almost 60 — I’m no fool. Austin’s grassroots culture, college sports and culinary creativity are far more satisfying to me in the long run.

One of the funniest aspects of the Huffington Post provocation was citing Uchi, an outpost of Austin, as a shining example of Houston’s superior cuisine.

Look, I love visiting that vast, incoherent city where my extended family and old friends still live. And Austin has a lot to learn from Houston and Dallas. Their leaders often take no-nonsense approaches to problem-solving, while we agree about solutions like two cats in a gutter.

I could have stayed in Houston and subsisted more cheaply, as long as I didn’t mind driving all the time. I moved to Austin to live.