downtown from Day in Life video by Mikon Haaksman 2Denton is often compared to Austin.  Our music scene, creative university influence, thriving arts culture, and our diverse population are some of the more common correlations we hear at the Convention & Visitors Bureau.  Some of the more articulate analogies clarify similarities and differences with just a phrase.  These are a couple of our favorites:

“Denton is everything Austin used to be.”  A travel writer working on a story about Denton more than a decade ago coined this phrase.  She was enthralled with the emerging entertainment district downtown and the organic, unscripted “realness” she found in Denton.  We’ve not forgotten her parting advice to not let the Denton she experienced be swallowed by big city fervor.

Another favorite phrase was coined by a Dentonite.  In conversation about the great things going on in our city, the Austin parallel arose.  I do not exaggerate when I say this likening between our cities occurs a great deal.  Someone in the group astutely observed that, “Denton is everything Austin wishes it still was.”

Business takes me to Austin fairly often.  In fact, I was there this past week.  I make it a point to observe every city I visit and relate its sense of place to Denton’s.  Because of this ongoing Denton-Austin analogy, my radar is especially sensitive when there.  Austin has many wonderful attributes.  It’s a nice city to visit.  But, when talking specifically about sense of place, I find the comparison with Denton to be vastly different.  To be sure, there are pockets here and there where the Denton-like aura is alive and well in Austin.  But if you skip those pockets, our cities have little resemblance in my opinion.

And I hope it stays that way.  Traffic in Austin is its primary drawback for me.  I spent 45 minutes driving two miles!  With the exception of a rare pass-through in the middle of the night, Austin delivers stressful, snarled driving conditions without fail.  A consequence of progress?  Perhaps.  It’s a common big-city malady.  But Austin seems to suffer more severely than most, I think.

Besides the traffic, however, is the glaringly absent nostalgic Austin sense of place.  Outside the “keep it weird” mainstays, the city is just another city, its character swallowed up in big-city sameness.

This column is not picking on Austin.  My aim is to make us think about our own destiny.  Our county is growing at a faster rate right now than most in the U.S.  Are we going to lose ourselves in the exponential population explosion?  Will some other city in the not-too-distant future say about itself, “we are everything Denton wishes it still was,” as our original, independent identity is lost or relegated to a pocket called Downtown?

Every Dentonite knows that the city’s heartbeat emanates from our vibrant downtown. We are smaller than some cities, but with nearly 120,000 residents, Denton is not small.  Yet our character and sense of place remain intact, tangible everywhere, not just downtown, on campus or in a pocket.  If this absolutely unique anomaly is to survive the inevitable surge already underway here, it will not be an accident or stroke of good luck.  It will be intentional and deliberate.

Don’t misunderstand me.  Growth is good.  Stunted and stagnant places die.  Expansion, advancement and prosperity lead to healthful economy and excellent quality of life.  We all want this for our corner of the world, our Denton.

Country singer Miranda Lambert has a song called “The House that Built Me.”  In the chorus, she laments: “You leave home, you move on And you do the best you can I got lost in this whole world And forgot who I am.”

Perhaps Denton is everything Austin wishes it still was.  The important thing is, we know who we are and we value our sense of place.  Visitors come here to experience it.  Newcomers move here to dwell in it.  Dentonites return because it is not replicated anywhere else in the world.

Big things are coming our way.  The I-35 expansion, convention center, Hickory Street development, new business, all phenomenally good, needed, game-changers for us.  But without our essence, we become just another big city.  We must purpose to stick together,  not get lost and never forget who we are.  We are not Austin or anyone else.  We are Denton.  Original.  Independent.

Keep Denton Denton.