The issue of cross-city comparisons was on my mind for two reasons. First, Joel Kotkin wrote an article last fall in Forbes, America’s Next Great Metropolis Is Taking Shape In Texas, that friends are sharing on Facebook. Second, I’m someone who has lived in both cities (around downtown Austin and the Hawthorne neighborhood in Southeast Portland). I still travel between Texas and Oregon, and it’s pretty interesting how people react when they find out that I live in Texas or that I’m from Oregon in the other locale. Kind of a wary curiosity about my opinions (in Austin one is careful to mention one’s California days lest the wrath of the native be triggered).
First thing, though the video above is kind of silly and not too serious, I do want to address one thing. Texas is not more arid than Oregon. I’m actually originally from eastern Oregon, so I have to remind people that 2/3 of the state is quite dry, whether it be semi-arid or arid. Inspection of the above map shows that a much larger portion of Oregon is extremely arid than Texas. Also, Portland gets 41 inches per year. Austin? 37. The difference is that Portland’s is frontal precipitation that is dispersed over much of the year in drizzles and overcast skies, while Austin is subject to more convective bursts. Where there are 145 sunny days in Portland per year (remember there is summer drought), there are 230 such days in Austin.
Austin still has a lower cost of living, mostly because of housing. Due to its rapid population growth, Austin’s transportation infrastructure and supply of health professionals is far inferior to Portland. But, the population growth is obviously due to an economic dynamism which Portland can’t match; unless you work at Intel it seems most educated young people in Portland are retired and working as a barista on the side (this is an exaggeration, but you get the point).
I’d say Austin’s food is definitely better and cheaper. For beer, I will give the nod to Portland, which has a more well developed scene for microbrews. The same with coffee. It’s hard to compare outdoor amenities. The Pacific Northwest has real trees. The rest of the country has bushes. Austin is near the Texas hill country, but Oregon has hills, mountains, and gorges. It has Crater Lake. But because of the warm weather you can go swimming and enjoy the outdoors the whole year without much
preparation in Austin. The Colorado river in Austin is less geologically impressive than the Willamette, but there’s a lot more recreational activity because it’s warm and dry so much of the year.
A major difference between Portland and Austin is the university scene (or lack thereof). Portland State University has about half the student body of UT Austin, but its prominence within the city (and nationally) is far less than that simple quantitative measure. UT is located right north of downtown, so it’s an integral part of the Austin scene. In contrast, though PSU is located just south of downtown Portland, it is a much lower key presence. UT Austin is the flagship campus of the state university system of Texas. In contrast, PSU did not initially offer doctoral programs, and is a Research 2, a opposed to a Research 1, institution. Its roots were as a commuter school, and it still has many non-traditional students. In contrast UT Austin students are some of the most academically talented kids from all over Texas, which does not have large elite private universities, like California (Stanford and USC are both much larger than Rice).
Finally, the arts & entertainment scene. This is really about taste obviously. Portland has a more artisanal arts scene, if that makes sense. More off the wall, homegrown, and organically and haphazardly presented. I didn’t really take advantage of it much when I lived in Portland, but honestly I’m not big into the arts scene here in Austin. But I’ve gone to shows now and then. It’s hard not to in Austin, which is crawling with musicians, and where live music is blasting up and down 6th street. But as Austin has gotten more popular and well known, it has also gotten more commercial and commoditized. National acts like Taylor Swift an Adele swing through town, and SxSW and ACL are huge draws. It’s easy to take it for granted, and honestly now it’s just part of the background furniture of my life.
Note: I don’t have much to say about the fact that Austin is the capital of Texas. For me the main consequence of this fact is that perhaps this is one of the major reasons that the flagship university of the state system was located here (though usually it doesn’t work out like that). The Capitol is downtown, and there’s some political stuff going on there. But it’s pretty sealed off from the rest of the town. In contrast, Sacramento, probably is more affected by being the capital of California, since the city is less distinctive. And Albany is totally overshadowed by being the capital (I am naming three cities where I have actually lived at some point).