Life After Brooklyn: Austin edition


Photo: Jeffrey Zeldmar

After more than 11 years of living in Brooklyn, last month I moved to Austin, Texas, a city which up until now I’d only visited for events like the Texas Book Festival and SXSW. I know that Austin is a blast when you show up for a big festival, when it seems like the whole city is filled with artists and you can find a good time simply by rolling up to any random music venue or taco truck. But I also know that it’s easy to romanticize a vacation town, and I don’t want to be the Austin equivalent of the tourist who goes on an open air bus tour of St. Mark’s and decides to move to New York. What’s it like not just to vacation but to live in Austin? In other words: what have I gotten myself into?

Fortunately, I am by no means the first New Yorker to make this move. In fact, it feels like the majority of people I’ve run into since getting to Austin are East Coast transplants. And I get sort of embarrassed every time I tell an Austinite that I moved here from Brooklyn, since I expect the response to be, “Oh, great, another one of you.” So I spoke with some of the former Brooklynites who beat me here and asked them what this move was like for them, and how the two cities stack up. I talked to Jenny Davis, a playwright who used to work at the Berkeley-Carroll School; Jack McFadden, former co-owner of the Bell House and now a Senior Talent Buyer at Austin City Limits Live and 3TEN; Erica Lies, a writer and comedian; Tamara Russell, who works for a large tech company; and Jolène Bouchon, a content strategist for a software design consulting company. Here’s what I learned.

Why did you move to Austin?

Jenny: I’m a playwright, so New York was a more obvious fit for me, but my husband is from Austin and it’s where we met when I was at grad school here. Because I have to get on planes a lot, this place is convenient. I can get up at a relatively normal hour, get on a plane, and be in LA for a meeting by noon. Plus, this is the land of milk and honey, by which I mean chips and queso.

Jack: I really never imagined NOT living in Brooklyn, but having a second kid made us start considering other destinations. My wife’s two sisters and mother live in Austin, and she went to school here, so it was a pretty easy decision.

“I love renting a boat or stealing a friend’s boat and driving up the river to the Pennybacker Bridge,” says Jack McFadden. Photo: Jack McFadden

Erica: I moved here for graduate school, but that was maybe just an excuse to get out of New York, which was exhausting me.

Tamara: I wanted a chance to buy home (which I did under three years), and plus there is always something happening around town. Jolene: After having a child, I felt like I needed to decompress from New York. If you have a kid in NYC, you go to work and then you come home and go right back to work. I felt like I could never get a break. My husband grew up in Austin, and this place is thriving, it has a great tech scene, and we believed we could make a living here.

How long did it take until you felt at home?

Jenny: A couple of years. The city had changed a lot since I was here for grad school. I left in ’09 and came back in ’16, and it’s really gone nuts since the recession.

Jack: It’s still a work in progress. I still very much feel like an outsider even though I work at a high profile venue, but I’ve embraced certain everyday quirks of this place. The way people communicate, the small town “everybody knows everybody” of it all. It’s a lot to process when you are stuck in your NYC ways.

Erica: Six months to a year? I had my grad school friends and then after I finished, I made comedy buddies pretty quickly, but it did take me a bit to find my “tribe” if you will.

How would you compare your living quarters in Austin to those in Brooklyn?


Jenny: We had it pretty good in Brooklyn. We had the whole top floor of a brownstone and the rent was cheap. It was a sweet deal. Our place here is a few hundred square feet bigger, but it’s not huge. It’s a three bedroom, one bathroom, and we have a yard. Not a crazy upgrade in terms of space, but appropriate for the fact that now we’re a family of four. The price of real estate is more comparable than you’d think. People move here from NYC and think they’re going to get more bang for their buck than they do.

Jack: Most of my life in NYC was in small apartments, but the last two in Park Slope were quite nice and big. Our current house in downtown Austin is ten minutes from my work, 2000+ square feet, and a third of an acre, so there’s lots of like, but also lots to maintain. There’s plenty of privacy for the four of us and places to hide, patios, screened in porches, a two-car garage… I can’t walk out the front door and get a good cup of coffee or a pint, but… that’s the trade-off.

Erica: I got lucky in both places. In Brooklyn, I had a great landlord. My rent was cheap and my place was huge—the entire top floor of a two-story walk up. We’d go up on the roof and you could see the entire Manhattan skyline. When I got to Austin, I first lived with a friend in a duplex on the east side that somehow was even less expensive than my incredibly cheap Brooklyn rent. It was big, and right next door to a coffee shop and across the street from my favorite restaurant. In 2010, I moved in with my boyfriend and our place was more expensive but even nicer. High ceilings, hardwood floors, so much natural light, jasmine growing on the front porch. We’ve been in the same place for more than eight years. That’s how much I love it.

Tamara: When we first moved here, we found a great spot in an apartment complex with lots of green space, friendly neighbors, community events for residents, and an awesome pool for less than what we would have paid for in Brooklyn.

Jolène Bouchon and family. Photo: Jolène Bouchon

Jolène: The housing market here is just as tough here as it is in NYC. It was just as hard if not harder to find a place to buy here. When we were trying to buy a home, we lost something like seven bids. We were down to the wire, because we needed to buy a place before my son started school. The irony is that our house here is half the size of our house in Brooklyn. We have this tiny bungalow, so we’ve moved to Texas and downsized! But we do have a quarter acre of land, which of course we didn’t have back in NYC.

What are the living costs in Austin compared to Brooklyn?

Jenny: Here, you’re going to pay for a car, so transportation costs get you a bit. There are definitely ways here to cut your expenses, and as you discover the cheap stuff, then living here gets progressively less expensive. A day at Barton Springs is three dollars, and a walk on the Greenbelt is free… but, you know, a walk through Central Park is free, too.

Jack: When I moved here in 2011, everything was vastly cheaper, even the best restaurants in town. With property taxes and living like we still live in NYC though, they can get back to NYC’s level quickly if you aren’t careful about budgeting. The other thing is having two cars, a mortgage, etc. and more space to store things. Two growing kids and their newly acquired habits and babysitters don’t help either.

Photo: Erica Lies (center) and a friend, hard at work

Erica: Austin is cheaper, but it’s getting significantly more expensive. I’d say restaurant costs are comparable, and that surprised me.

Tamara: When I moved with my family, we were able to live comfortably on one income until my partner found a job almost a year later. We definitely could not have done that in Brooklyn. We relied on the bus and Uber getting around town the first year before we purchased our first car.

Jolène: Going out to eat and housing costs are comparable, but for what you pay for housing you can get more. And we have more flexibility. Our son goes to a good public school, getting in there was not insane, childcare costs are lower. We’ve been able to pay off bills here, which we wouldn’t have been able to do in NYC. But depending on your line of work, even if your costs are lower, your wages may be lower too. I know a lot of people who have never here been able to make as much as they were making in NYC.

How did you make friends?

Jenny Davis.

Jenny: Some of this is the parenting answer. We had a kid, so, we didn’t! No, but seriously, we had a lot of friends when we got here because we’d both lived here before. That’s a good thing, because we both work from home, and if you’re a freelancer and have a family, then when the eff do you leave your house? It’s not like Brooklyn, where you can just bump into people on the street.

Jack: Thanks to working in the music industry job since I was 18, I knew quite a few people who already lived here. And surprisingly we have an amazing ‘village’ of parents. If you put yourself out there, your people kinda find you as well.

Erica: Most of my friends were either 1) also from West Virginia, 2) from grad school, or 3) on a comedy team with me. I’ve also been a story producer for the stage show Mortified for a long time, and a couple people I worked with on that have become good friends. So, I guess I’ve made most of my friends through being a professional theater nerd.

Tamara: This was the difficult part for me because I work remotely and didn’t know anyone out here. Luckily, we lived at awesome apartment complex that fosters a sense of community. The property managers organized events, and Sundays at the pool was the place to be as soon a someone lit the grill! So that was how I became close friends with a lot of our neighbors. Also, I had signed up for various meetup groups to explore the city and meet different people.

What’s the feel of Austin like compared to Brooklyn?

Jenny: I always jokingly call it Brooklyn with a tan! In general, it’s a hip city; it’s a place where you can wander around in your pajamas or in designer clothes and nobody bats an eye.

Jack: I’d describe Austin as laid back, gossipy, old-school, sometimes passive-aggressive. I hope that didn’t sound bad! More outdoors-y for sure. Austin is hipper than you’d think, and in the last five years, the entire food-drink-media everything has just blown up in a great way. It’s a real city.

Erica: Austin is the complete opposite of Brooklyn. I used to say that all the things that are awesome in Brooklyn (exploring, walking, CULTURAL DIVERSITY, a sense of history, the subway, bagels, angry New Yorkers) do not exist in Austin, but neither do the things that really suck (the subway at rush hour, the cold, those damn slush puddles at corners, train service advisories!, angry New Yorkers). And likewise, the great things Austin has aren’t as present in Brooklyn (warmth, outdoor patios in February, space, the ability to be friends with people who live in different parts of the city, pools literally everywhere). But what sucks about Austin isn’t such an issue in Brooklyn (the overwhelming whiteness, obnoxious tech bros, a different festival every weekend that shuts down half the city, people are flakier, etc.). One thing both places have, though, is horrendous traffic.

Tamara: Austin feels like living in downtown Brooklyn or Williamsburg, but with better weather all year round. There is something always happening in Austin, so it was an easy transition moving from NYC out here.

Jolene: I had very strong feelings about living in New York. I both loved and hated it. I have much more neutral feelings about being here. I love Austin because it allows me to have the life that I want to. I can actually hear myself think. At this point in my life, I need that more than I need the NYC culture.

How diverse is Austin compared to NYC?

Jolène: The one thing here that bugs the shit out of me is the utter lack of diversity. I miss all the languages, all the cultures, the great palette of humanity that you get in NYC.

Jenny: You definitely notice that there’s less diversity here and more segregation than in NYC. It’s glaring, and it bums the hell out of me. The idea that my kids are going to grow up without that sort of diversity being normal is tough. And as a bleeding heart liberal it’s a little weird to talk politics here. Austin is a blue dot in a red state, but it’s a very white blue dot.

Tamara: In comparison to NYC, there is definitely a lack of diversity and it is noticeable if you are looking through the lens of a person of color. It was something I was very concerned about right before we moved. After living here for some time, I find that African Americans are sprinkled throughout Austin. When we first moved out here we would always wonder where did other Black people live and frequent in Austin. In the South Lamar area where we use to live it was extremely rare to spot another Black person around. I’m sure they lived in the neighborhood but we rarely saw any. It wasn’t until we ventured up Round Rock for the first time to IKEA and the outlet mall that we saw an abundance of people who looked like us. This a probably the result of gentrification of the Eastside of Austin where there has been a dramatic decline in African Americans living in Travis County for the past few years. I think the rising cost of rent and property taxes is forcing people of color to move up north in the suburbs of round rock, Pflugerville, Leander area where it is more affordable. It is pretty much the same thing that took place in Brooklyn is happening here. I would love to see more African Americans and other people of color move here because it is a great city to live and raise a family. Overall, my experience has been very positive living In Austin despite the lack of diversity.

What is your favorite pastime there? What was your favorite pastime in Brooklyn?

Jenny: In New York, it was going to theater, running around Prospect Park, walking around the city and poking my head into shops. Here, my favorite activities are going to Barton Springs, cooking, reading plays. I go out and see plays less here, but there’s a lot of theater that I’d like to see that I miss because I have two young kids.

Jack: My favorite pastime is sitting on the back porch with a good bottle of wine and spinning records for our friends. I guess the only thing that’s changed from the Brooklyn years is that I can do this nearly every day of the year here.

Erica: I really loved riding my bike in Brooklyn and have never gotten used to riding it here. And I loved just loved walking around by myself and exploring. I used to walk and walk and walk all over New York. Here my favorite pastimes are hanging out with my husband and dog, and writing and teaching comedy. It’s easier in Austin to have a full-time job and still spend a lot of time making art.

Tamara Russell and her family, kayaking in Austin. Photo: Tamara Russell

Tamara: I love being outdoors: hiking at the Barton Creek Greenbelt, walking around Zilker Park, or kayaking along the river. In Brooklyn, it was different because the winter months are so long and drawn out, I didn’t want to go anywhere. When it warmed up I would frequent Prospect Park, and I loved to hang out in downtown Brooklyn, near the promenade and Pier 1.

Jolène: In NYC, just walking around. Saturdays in Fort Greene were the world’s most perfect day: you’d stop in the farmers market, see everyone you knew, get coffee. Here I do a lot of porch drinking and eating on patios. So it’s still outdoor socializing.

How’s the food scene in Austin versus Brooklyn?

Jenny: Both cities have such a foodie culture that you can wind up spending a lot on food. Sometimes we’ll take NYC friends to restaurants here and they’ll be like, “Them’s New York prices!” If you want to eat out inexpensively, you need to find the places that have been here forever that aren’t on any Eater 38 maps.

Jack McFadden’s kiddos at classic Tex Mex spot Matt’s El Rancho. Photo: Jack McFadden

Jack: The food scene is trying harder, for sure. It’s AMAZING to count how many new places have opened since we’ve moved here. It’s good to know that you can get a breakfast taco on the cheap, a really good one, and then also experience almost any kind of cuisine you want.

Erica: I used to complain a lot about the food in Austin, because there was almost no deviating from Tex Mex. But in the last five or six years, it’s really changed, and there’s a lot more variety now. People still go on and on about the barbecue and breakfast tacos here, but there’s another important thing folks should know: we also have the best ramen in the country and some insane-amazing ice cream places, including the best vegan ice cream you can imagine in Sweet Ritual.

Tamara: This is where Brooklyn beats Austin. There is way more variety in food choices in NYC. Don’t get me wrong, Austin does have great food scene—I am just tired of Tex Mex, and everyone turning everything into a taco.

Would you say you’ve changed since moving to Austin? In what ways?

Jenny: I think I’m more willing to operate at my own pace, as opposed to a pace that I’m allowing people around me to set for me. When I lived in New York, forget fear of missing out, I was always missing out on multiple things at any moment. Here, it’s easier to let go of things and find the pace that works for you.

Jack: I’ve had to make special efforts not to get fat. In NYC, you take it for granted that you’ll walk eight or ten miles a day. Here, we drive, so I had to make sure I don’t shovel queso in my mouth EVERY day (I take a day off) and sit around on my ass. I’m more outdoorsy now. Also, I listen to A TON more country music. It’s just the way it is.

Erica: I’m less East Coast prickly now, probably. I’m a lot more patient now. And also probably more sincere?

Tamara: Austin has allowed me to let my guard down. In NYC, you tend to put your headphones on with or without music just so you don’t have to engage with people. You always expect a sales pitch of some kind. Here, I have less anxiety. In Austin, you can go grab a beer and enjoy life.

Jolène: My blood pressure is a lot lower now. I can hear myself think. I’m calmer, I have more patience, and I think that makes me a better mother. I have more time. I have a big garden and I can go out there and hear the birds sing and that’s what I need.

What surprised you most about your move?

Jenny: What bummed me out (though wasn’t a huge surprise because we’d been tracking it) was that housing was more expensive than I’d thought it would be. And our second summer in, it surprised me how much the heat really started to grind into me. The first summer it was kind of a novelty, and the second summer it just felt like too much.

Jack: I was by surprised how much I missed Brooklyn and the way people communicate with each other. But, that said, the thing I’ve embraced—which I hadn’t expected—is the driving (even though I complain about traffic). I love getting everyone in the car on the weekend, cranking a great playlist, and driving out to a state park or just exploring.

Erica: I was surprised by how much property crime there is here. I know far more people here that have had cars broken into as well as their homes (my house has been broken into twice, my husband’s car twice, and I was quasi-mugged once). Maybe I just didn’t know as many folks in Brooklyn with broken car windows because most of my friends didn’t have cars? I also didn’t realize that I wouldn’t really get catcalled here. Not because people are more respectful here, but just because there are fewer people walking. Another thing was: I expected that places would be too far apart to walk a lot, but hadn’t expected that often places I could physically see would be still too far away to walk to, especially in the heat.

Jolène: Austin is not as pretty as I was used to, having grown up in New Orleans and then living in Brooklyn. I’d never lived in a house that was less than a hundred years old. The whole newness of the city is a little weird to me.

Tamara: It’s amazed me how friendly people are without some ulterior motive. People will just start talking with you just because. They’ll buy you a drink without expecting anything in return except to be in good company.

We asked these NYC transplants to share their favorite things to do in Austin. Check out their picks for the best BBQ, natural springs, Tex Mex and more.

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