Tulsans have been saying it to new acquaintances for years. We’ve been using it as a selling point, as evidence, as defense, expectation, and hope. If you live in Tulsa you’ve either said it or had it said to you. I’ve said it: “They say that Tulsa’s the next Austin.”
And this claim isn’t completely unsubstantiated. In fact, they did say it. Here’s proof: National Georaphic’s Intelligent Traveler in 2012, and again in 2014. And they’re “Intelligent” capital I, so I felt confident citing the elusive “they.” I admit, I had never been to Austin, but I had heard that it was cool and weird. I watched a couple episodes of Real World Austin and they went to cool, weird bars. I watched the film Boyhood, in which the main character (boy) spends time in Austin where he meets cool, weird people and goes to cool, weird concerts, and makes cool, weird art. So I thought, “Yeah, Austin is cool and weird, and, yeah, Tulsa could be/should be/is/ the next Austin.” Credible, right?
Since January, I have begun splitting time between Tulsa and Austin, where I am training to be a yoga teacher. (Cool, weird, right?) The program at Breath & Body Yoga requires my physical and spiritual presence in Austin for about 10 days out of the month, January-April. Therefore, I now have some first-hand experience and grounded thoughts on the claim in question. As I am now a 30% yoga teacher and have almost two months under my belt as a Tulsan/Austinite, I feel as though I can speak with authority on three points of comparison: yoga, Whole Foods, and public art.
I never said this was going to be a comprehensive study.
Yoga: Austin is a veritable mecca for yoga in the central United States. A quick Google search shows at least 50 studios in the metropolitan area. I would not be surprised to learn that there are more yoga studios than auto mechanic shops, or veterinarians, or digits in pi. And while this index may at first seem silly to dwell on, it is actually a good marker of a city’s culture.
A myriad number of yoga studios points to a healthy demand for yoga. Yoga attracts a certain type of person. The typical yogi is health-conscious, young-ish, active, outdoorsy, and, more often than not, progressively minded. This holds true for what I’ve seen of Austin. I’m struck by its outdoorsy culture – on a sunny day there’s an exodus of runners from the University of Texas campus to Ladybird Lake (Colorado River?). People with dogs are everywhere. There are more rollerbladers out than at a 6th grade birthday party. Add to this evidence the prevalence of health food restaurants like JuiceLand (JuiceHEAVEN) and the number of locally produced kombucha brands (three immediately come to mind), and it’s a fact that Austin is fit, active, and outside.
Tulsa’s population is almost half of Austin’s 885,000. Tulsa has around five popular studios. Some simple math shows that Tulsa should have around 25 studios to be the “next Austin” in terms of yoga. Some more simple math shows that Tulsa is about 20 studios shy of that marker. However, yoga is definitely growing in Tulsa. Studios are attracting more students and a yoga teacher training program will graduate its first class of instructors this spring.
Whole Foods: I’m with contemporary artist Rirkrit Tiravaniia when he said, “When I visit new places, I like to see markets.” In this case, it’s a national chain, but still.
I’m not proud of the amount of time that I’ve spent at the 6th Street Whole Foods in Austin. It’s a block away from the friend’s studio apartment that I’ve invaded and is entirely too convenient. This Whole Foods is more than a grocery; it is a social scene. Kind traffic cops direct the parking garage. Inside there is the choice to sip at either a wine or beer bar. The prepared food portion of the grocery store, which amounts to about half the store’s footprint, at lunchtime is like a high-class cafeteria of young professionals. Where did all these twenty-something and thirty-something people come from? They’re here in droves. They’re young and, you bet, they’re hungry. They’re also probably going for a run later.
Public art: Here’s a huge dividing factor – celebration and encouragement of public art. Here, Austin is leaps and bounds ahead of Tulsa. Hope Outdoor Gallery is a constantly changing graffiti gallery – a fortress of concrete walls built into the side of a hill that overlooks 6th street and downtown Austin. Here, anyone, any artist, can come and paint. The product is an alive, morphing space that celebrates the weird, the artistic, the eccentric, the inane, the serious, the anarchist, the activist, the depressor, and the optimist. It is a declaration of Austin’s spirit. There’s an “anything goes” vibe. There’s talent and inspiration and pride. Tulsa, while it celebrates art, doesn’t foster this sort of renegade spirit. Maybe it’s there, but it’s not rebellious enough to claim such a visible space, and Tulsa hasn’t made a point to stir its creativity.
In sum, for Tulsa to be “the next Austin,” as they say, it needs a boost in these three areas: a culture of health and activity, a population of young people, and a movement of free-spirited public art. However, and encouragingly, Tulsa is making advancements in some of these areas as I write. Last year the George Kaiser Family Foundation made the largest gift to a public park in United States history, with a $350 million plan for a riverside park complete with playground, lake for kayaking, running/biking trails, and concert venues. The city council, with the help of the university, is improving the area surrounding the University of Tulsa in efforts to attract businesses and retain graduates. And, in April of this year, downtown Tulsa will see its first temporary public art installation, with the covering of a building in blinking LED lights, simulating a firefly’s glow.
As I sit here in Tulsa in a generic Starbucks trying not to listen into the meeting between a high school senior and his college application coach, I realize that we aren’t quite there. Neither his perfectly tied tie or cleanly parted hair speak to hipster “Austin cool” or “Austin weird.” As they discuss extra-curriculars and service hours, I have a hard time picturing the kid tagging a cement wall with paint-stained hands. But, who knows, maybe give him a few years. Maybe he’ll have a beard and big, rebel, ideas.
Austin is Austin now, and Tulsa is Tulsa now. Is Tulsa the next Austin? Austin certainly presents pieces worthy of emulation. It’s a good big brother to have. So, Tulsa will dig, and build, and glow. Yes, Austin is cooler and werider in ways. Perhaps we shouldn’t compare, but if we do, Tulsa has it’s own cool. And it’s growing. It’s percolating. It’s about to go to college.