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August 17, 2017

Lessons from Adelaide’s (big) sister Austin

When viewed from abroad, Adelaide is no further away than Sydney or Melbourne – it's all just Australia. From her current vantage in Austin, Texas, editor Farrin Foster considers the impact of this reality on Adelaide's identity.

  • Words: Farrin Foster

Uber is less than ideal in a great many ways, but it has some irresistible (only if you’re weak-willed like me, I suppose) good points for a journalist working overseas:

Firstly, in Austin, Texas – where I am working from currently – you can choose Uber Pool, where the option to let strangers hop in on your ride means most trips only cost about $5.

Secondly, when you’re taking four or five Ubers a day, you get to have a lot of conversations with locals and as I’ve mentioned previously these can be the most insightful chats you have, even when each day is filled with interviews.

Today, we were sailing over Colorado River with Uber driver Eric at the wheel, when Jono VDK – the photographer I am working in Austin alongside – asked how Houston and Dallas compared with Austin.

“Ah, it’s all pretty much the same,” says Eric, “sure – Austin’s a little weirder, but it’s all Texas, you know.”

It’s a surprising answer. To my mind, Austin is pretty well defined by how unlike the rest of Texas it is. It’s progressive rather than conservative, metropolitan rather than rural in its cultural affiliations and symbols, and openly welcoming of newcomers.

I had always thought that the “Keep Austin Weird” slogan was meant as a call to keep the city as a shining light of forward thinking in an otherwise backward state.

But upon hearing Eric’s comment I realised I was probably wrong. The rest of Texas is not the background against which Austin wants to be seen as outlier. Instead, Austin wants to stay weird instead of turning into another standard grey metropolis of the ilk you find anywhere around the world – something the city is in danger of given Austin’s rapid population increase.

Austin’s comfort, its confidence and its charm are rooted in Texan culture, Texan history and the Texas “way”.

Apart from their beguiling propensity for using “y’all” (in a recent interview I counted it five times in one sentence), there’re deeper things to inform Austin’s identity – a sense of hospitality, a ready embrace of music and dancing, a hearty respect for food and the people who produce it.

These things that make Austin so popular as a city are rooted in Texas tradition, and they’ve helped Austin rise up to become the enormously successful proposition it is today.

Adelaide – Austin’s sister city – by way of contrast, has little to build on when regarding the broader Australian identity. Looking over state lines in Australia I find a country equally muddled about who and what it is. Our politicians are even struggling to define which country they wholeheartedly belong to.

It feels like Adelaide struggles to define itself because it is part of this confused country. Instead of drawing strength from what’s around us we snipe at Melbourne and Sydney – making a point of not being them, or alternatively not being enough like them.

Maybe once Australia gets its own identity sorted out – when we can tell people what is actually Australian rather than defaulting to identifying what is (shudder) un-Australian – Adelaide will be able to find itself too.

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