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Per My SA; Priced out of Austin, artists and musicians are fleeing for small-town Texas life in Elgin

Priced out of Austin, artists and musicians are fleeing for small-town Texas life in Elgin

March 14, 2022

On a side-note, Robert Mann, pictured in the TOP LEFT is a graduate of North Central Austin's  McCallum High School and band member of such early 90's, 2000's bands ie.; COLORCAST & RECOVER. Robert Mann is a casual friend I've known off and on as a Local Austinite, & simultaneous NYC dweller decades. Robert is an easy going, approachable soul and as you'll read a 3x time dad and family man. --GVM

Before he quit bartending at Geraldine’s, the restaurant inside Austin’s swanky Hotel Van Zandt, Bob Mann started getting annoyed at the conversations he’d overhear. Located on Rainey Street, once a quiet residential street and now a bustling party zone, Mann would catch snippets of investment talk as he shook up espresso martinis. 

“There’d be real estate conventions going on, and I’d hear them talking about how much money they're gonna make,” Mann says. “And I'm just like … everyone's cashing in on my city.”

Mann sits in his kitchen in Elgin, Texas, as two of his three children nap on a recent weekday afternoon. The musician, born and raised in Austin, has made his peace with being priced out of the city more than two years ago. But that doesn’t mean he’s happy with the changes going on, especially now that he spends time in traffic on his way to picking up shifts at a dive bar on 290 or picking his children up from daycare in Austin.

“As far as Austin itself, I just kind of …” Mann trails off. “Yeah, I'm not talking to it right now.”

Elgin City Limits

Mann joins a recent trend of young artists and musicians defecting from Austin to nearby towns like Elgin, Bastrop, and Lockhart in the wake of rapidly increasing city living costs. A December 2021 report showed that Austin home prices increased 28% year-over-year, compared with a 10% bump nationwide. For a city that bills itself as a place for creatives — the Live Music Capital of the World no less — it’s impossible for those artists to compete with transplants making all-cash offers or invoking bidding wars.

"It's completely unattainable," says Caleb Dawson, who moved to Elgin in 2016 while still drumming in Roky Erickson’s band. "I don’t think for young artists, or even old artists, that it’s possible to own a home in Austin at this point."

In 2015, UNESCO named Austin the first — and still only — city in America as a City of Media Arts for its fostering of "a rich and diverse cultural ecosystem." While the urge to "save" the arts through city-funded programs and philanthropic efforts still exists, the artists that comprised that ecosystem have begun, in recent years, to break free from Austin. Put simply, many feel like being able to live and thrive as an artist inside city limits is a bygone dream.

Elgin has become a refuge for musicians like Mann and Dawson. Twenty years ago they would have happily lived the sleepy Austin dream, now they welcome Elgin's rural landscape and comparatively cheap home prices. Call it Elgin City Limits. The young artists and musicians who live here praise the open space, the slower lifestyle, and the small, close-knit community that for decades made Austin so special.

As for the cultural fabric of America's 11th largest city by population, Dawson says that it hasn't so much changed completely as evolved, leaving behind an echo of what it once was.

"It still has the illusion of old Austin," he says. "Some of that vibe is still there, but it's becoming less of a place that people flock to from your big hubs like L.A., San Francisco, New York ... and it’s just becoming one of those cities."

Building a Future

It’s ironic that Dawson, and fellow bandmate/Elgin resident Ryan Lee, did time in Erickson’s band shortly before his death in May 2019. The leader of The 13th Floor Elevators pioneered — along with the genre of psychedelic rock — the notion of maintaining a music career in Austin, away from big city life.

That’s because, when Easter Everywhere was released in 1967, Erickson and his LSD-dropping cohorts lived in an Austin wholly alien to the one of today. Before Austin City Limits and South by Southwest, Austin was a place where musicians not only could live, but actively flocked to because of the ability to live cheaply while chasing a dream.

After Lee graduated from Texas State a few years ago, he didn’t even consider moving to Austin, despite playing guitar in multiple bands that gigged around town. 

“I was detecting a little bit of the old Austin energy in here among a lot of people who are younger, who might have lived in Austin 15 or 20 years ago,” he says.

Lee lives in a trailer behind a house belonging to his bandmates, married couple Rockyanne Bullwinkel and Jimmy Wildcat. Bullwinkel leads a band called Blue Jean Queen, which counts Dawson and Mann among its members. Together, Wildcat and Lee are building a recording studio on the land and moving all the gear from their East Austin location, Sweetheart Studios.

Lee and Wildcat both say they imagine their Elgin studio as a Big Pink-type of spot, referring to the house outside of New York City where the Band and Bob Dylan recorded seminal albums. 

“It's just far enough away,” Lee says, “but just close enough to Austin for it to be a destination.”

That’s already happening, even before the studio is finished. Wildcat says that they have an intermediary setup in their garage in Elgin, one that is more sparse than Sweetheart. Regardless, most bands are actually requesting to come out to the country to record.

“I could be using the Austin location more,” he says, “but all my clients who have worked out here prefer this even though it's a more minimal studio and less space. They just love getting out of town and feeling a bit more relaxed.”

Wildcat and Bullwinkel lived in Austin for more than a decade before leaving for Elgin. They looked at homes in Bastrop and Copeland before settling on Elgin, where they already had musician friends. Bullwinkel didn’t realize how much she needed wide open space until they moved.

“I realized I wasn’t sleeping very well,” she says. “In Austin, there was an apartment complex across from us constantly shining a light in our bedroom. It was like daylight. It’s dark out here.”

Lee, their backyard tenant and studio partner is a bit more mobile — trailer and all — but he’s grown tired of his cramped living space and is looking for land in Elgin or nearby Bastrop. Regardless of which town he lands in, he’s planting roots outside of Austin.

“I plan on making something for myself here,” Lee says.

Elgin Forever

For their part, Dawson and Mann are trying to open a dive bar in the center of town. The two found a historic building for sale recently, but the city sold it to another group. Both say they hope that their window isn’t closing, as more and more people move to Elgin after being priced out of Austin. Dawson is encouraging his Elgin friends to open businesses while they still have the chance.

“In just a few years, downtown Elgin is going to be overrun by venture capitalists from San Francisco buying downtown spaces and opening coffee shops,” he says. “That’s all fine and good. And more than that, it’s inevitable. But for now it’s still a tangible goal for people like us to be opening businesses. It’s a good investment for us and it’ll also let us preserve what we love about this town, and eventually, for however long it may last, make it kind of what Austin used to be.”

The statistics show sharp migration into the town. Between 1990 and 2000, the population of Elgin grew by fewer than 1,000 residents, according to the Elgin Economic Development Corporation. Since then, Elgin’s population has more than doubled to more than 10,000. Conservative estimates by the EEDC put Elgin’s population at 19,000-plus by 2025. Its “exponential growth” forecast, the most aggressive trend, suggests that more than 40,000 people could call the town home in just three years.

Even more stark is the upward trend in home prices. Zillow estimates that the average Elgin home costs $314,410 to purchase. In the last year, that’s an increase of 40.1%. That’s just short of the Austin increase, which Zillow puts at 41.2%.

That’s why Dawson started a bid to join the Elgin City Parks Planning Committee. He’s been going to meetings where talk has centered on incoming development, both residential and commercial. Between numerous new subdivisions and talks of a semiconductor factory and Elon Musk spreading Tesla eastward from Austin, residents new and old fear rising property taxes and an influx of tech money. Sound familiar?

Dawson says part of his five-to-10-year goal is to be mayor of Elgin so that he can prevent the town from losing the character that attracted him there.

“I’ll start with the parks planning committee, move on to city council, and so forth,” he says. “I’d like to be in a position to really foster something cool here and prevent it from becoming some cookie-cutter hellhole.”

Bullwinkel puts it another way: “I would hate houses to get torn down and replaced with tall-and-skinnies,” she says, a plague on Austin’s Eastside. She and Wildcat have no plans to leave Elgin.

“We love it here. I love our house,” Bullwinkel says. “I love our friends here. I want to stay.”

Lee and Dawson might pursue larger areas of land to build on outside of Elgin, especially as prices continue to rise, but their business efforts are focused right where they currently live. None foresee waking up in Austin ever again, save for crashing on a friend’s couch after a late gig.

Mann, whose parents have lived in Austin for decades, can’t even picture it.

“I'd have to hit the lottery. But then I’d probably sooner buy a house in New York before I bought a house in Austin,” he says. “Yeah, I'd rather just stay here.”


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