Throughout my recent stay in Texas, residents would often ask which of its major cities I liked the most–Austin, Dallas, Houston or San Antonio. They were curious about this, given that I was an outsider living for a month each in all four. They also wanted to know because this is a hot topic in Texas; the four cities have become some of America’s most economically dynamic places, and have ongoing rivalries for food, sports, and cultural cache.
To this point, the question was always less about which city had the best economy, and more about quality of life and street cred–where would I actually want to live? Here’s my breakdown of the pros and cons of each, although, as an urban affairs writer and zoning dork, my judgement will inevitably revolve around each city’s land-use policies.
If I wanted to give the safe answer, I’d probably say San Antonio. While residents in the other Texas cities flay each other for being pretentious, vapid, over-consumptive, or some combo of the three (Dallas is even hated by neighboring Fort Worth) everyone seems to like San Antonio.
“Many Texans view San Antonio as their second home,” said San Antonio Spurs owner and Texas-bred billionaire Red McCombs.
The reasons, he said, were historical. San Antonio is the oldest of the four cities, and home to many landmark events in Texas history, including the fight for independence from Mexico. A slower pace of economic development has helped it maintain this old-world charm. The city mixes historic Spanish, German, Mexican and southwestern architectural motifs amid charming public spaces like the River Walk. It also has less traffic, fewer skyscrapers, a greater family orientation, a more stable population, and less glitz and glam than the other Texas cities.
This isn’t to say the Mexican-American Capital is a backwater. On many metrics–job growth, wage growth, population growth, and overall economic performance–it is catching up with, and in some cases surpassing, the other cities. This is apparent in the built fabric, with its mix of new downtown condos and large master-planned communities; and in the demographics, which is increasingly rich and international, thanks to an inward flood of professional-class Mexicans fleeing violence in their homeland.
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