Why Creatives Are Moving to Austin, NOLA, and Other Southern Cities

Supportive local initiatives and tight-knit creative communities are increasingly attracting young architects and designers to America’s Southern cities.

Courtesy Flickr

Supportive local initiatives and tight-knit creative communities are increasingly attracting young architects and designers to America’s Southern cities—places like Asheville, Austin, Nashville, and New Orleans.

Cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco have borne witness to something of an exodus in the past five years. Creatively inclined residents are flocking to the country’s midsize cities, particularly in the South. But aside from the obvious attraction of a comparatively low cost of living, what is drawing people to places like Asheville, Austin, Nashville, and New Orleans? And can these smaller cities sustain such rapid growth?

New Orleans


Courtesy Flickr

Austin has always been known for doing things differently. Though thoroughly Texan at heart, it’s always been the quirky black-sheep sibling to other cities in the state. After all, few places would be so fiercely proud of a slogan that implores its residents to keep their city “weird,” and it’s this passion for the unconventional that’s attracting so many entrepreneurs, designers, and other creatives.

“Austin is very much still discovering and defining itself,” says architect Michael Hsu who founded his practice in 2005. “To a young designer it feels like an opportunity, because we’re away from the social and cultural hierarchies that you might find in New York, LA, and Chicago. Austin rewards creativity and supports those who take risks.”

Such pioneering mindsets have earned it the nickname “Silicon Hills,” stemming from its reputation as a tech hub, particularly for young start-ups. Established brands like Apple, Facebook, and Google all have local outposts, but the city also provides an excellent testing ground for new companies and initiatives—Whole Foods started here in 1980, while, more recently, Car2Go used the city for its pilot program in 2009 before launching across the country.

And then, of course, there’s Austin’s reputation as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” buoyed by the success of its South by Southwest and Austin City Limits festivals. Pair that with the South Congress district—a hip yet eclectic strip of boutiques, music joints, food locales, and a few oddball stores—in the city’s southeast, as well as the offbeat-cool stable of hotels by lawyer-turned-hotelier Liz Lambert’s Bunkhouse Group, and there’s plenty to lure visitors.

But while the city might seem like a much cheaper alternative to, say, New York or San Francisco, Austin—one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the United States—faces affordability issues that threaten its status as a haven for creatives. It’s not only housing that’s becoming increasingly inaccessible, but also independent music venues,  cultural hubs, and studio spaces. So much so that the creative pioneers that Austin prides itself on might soon no longer be able to afford to pursue their professions in the city.  Speak to almost anyone in town and there’s one chief concern when it comes to Austin’s growth: keeping Austin, Austin.

“It’s like as soon as development happens and a city grows, the first people to go are the artists, because they have the least amount of money for studio space,” Hsu says. A recent project by his firm, Michael Hsu Office of Architecture, is Canopy, which converted a concrete warehouse into an arts community that provides space for makers, artists, and other creatives as well as art galleries and a café. That project already has a substantial waiting list, while another—Springdale General in East Austin, which will also provide a campus of affordable maker studios, creative office space, and workshops—is in the works.

Mayor Steve Adler also recently introduced the Austin Music and Creative Ecosystem Omnibus Resolution. The initiative hopes to address the urban issues that are pushing many creatives out of Austin by preserving music venues with land trusts, streamlining the permitting process with entertainment licenses, and codifying entertainment districts.

The  arts and community space Canopy by Michael Hsu Office of Architecture

Courtesy Jody Horton

“I equate our current land development code, which came out of the ’80s, as trying to drive 150 miles an hour down the freeway in an old Ford,” says Hsu. “It’s definitely time to build a better development vehicle for what is a better sort of Austin. But it’s hard for us as architects to change the development patterns of a city without a true sort of planning and leadership.”

In a bid to reclaim more space for creatives, the City of Austin’s new CodeNEXT initiative—part of its 30-year Imagine Austin strategy—will revise the Land Development Code, which was written 30 years ago (and revised 200 times since) and dictates the ways in which land throughout the city can be used. The initiative aims to not only make the city more walkable, but also preserve the identities of its neighborhoods.
Though bike use is increasing, bike lanes are limited and public transit is a challenge, particularly since the recent outlawing of ride-sharing companies such as Uber. There are rumblings of plans to extend the light-rail network, which currently serves only a small urban swath, but any real progress seems far-off. Robert Hoang, director of marketing for San Antonio–based architects Lake Flato, adds that there’s also a need for Austin to establish a stronger architectural identity. “As a creative destination and a current ‘it’ city, the architectural character and defining civic and urban park space is lacking,” he says. “There are plenty of high-rises going up, and park development, but nothing like Millennium Park or the Broad Museum.”

Still, there is one crucial reason why a regional architectural powerhouse like Lake Flato, which has worked on numerous projects in Austin including Bunkhouse Group’s Hotel San Jose on South Congress, chose the city as the location for its second office. “Austin is a remarkable place, with a very authentic spirit,” says cofounder David Lake. “Authenticity in place making is so critical when a city is expected to double its population by 2040.”

AUSTIN: New Talent

Courtesy Luisa Gil Fandiño

“I’m always looking for textile seduction in my pieces,” says textile designer Luisa Gil Fandiño. “I like how people are driven to touch the pieces and react to the texture.” She uses algorithms to create works that are highly technical yet pleasing to the eye.  Tapping into her industrial design background—and her passion for geometry, tessellations, and fractals—Gil’s designs evoke the organic structures often found in nature, particularly the landscapes of Colombia, where she is originally from.

Gil spent time in London and Chicago before finally moving in 2012 to Austin, where she produces textiles under the brand Fandindo. “Most of the people you run into in Austin moved here to make something happen,” she says. “In London and Chicago I always felt more like a spectator, but here you can be part of the conversation—as long as you work for it.”


Courtesy Flickr

It’s not uncommon for people planning a visit to Nashville to be posed a particular question: “So, you like country music?” It’s a typical misconception—though Nashville is indeed the home of country music, its music scene, and the city’s appeal in general, extend far beyond cowboy hats and pedal steel.

“I think when Jack White moved here in 2006, it changed a lot of people’s perceptions about the city,” says creative consultant Libby Callaway, who left her job as fashion editor at the New York Post to move to Nashville in 2004. “One of the coolest, most enigmatic creative guys in the music industry wanted to be based here—there’s something to that, and it kind of changed people’s attitudes.”

While music may have been the catalyst, that creativity quickly spread to other industries within the city, giving rise to a tight-knit community of makers, designers, and craftspeople. With that also came a refreshed culinary scene with original takes on Southern fare purveyed in equally imaginative spaces that have elevated Nashville’s prominence on the national food map.

“It’s almost comical to watch the reaction of people making their first trip to Nashville,” says commercial real estate broker and developer Elliott Kyle, who has helped a lot of the city’s most exciting hospitality projects get off the ground. “The individual neighborhoods, the aesthetics, the offerings—it’s a much more sophisticated and forward-thinking market than people expect to see.” Enticed by this renaissance, bigger brands are now making themselves at home. Warby Parker recently opened a headquarters and showroom there, and NYC-based cocktail bar Attaboy will also soon open an outpost in East Nashville. And after a lengthy dearth of imaginative high-end hotels, several are slated for completion in the coming year or two.

Architect Nick Dryden recalls that when he first arrived in Nashville 20 years ago, the city center was like a ghost town. He estimates it had only about 150 residents—today it’s nearing around 10,000. When he first struck out on his own in 2000, he was involved in the initial planning stages of the Gulch, a former railroad yard on the fringe of downtown that is now a thriving LEED-certified residential and commercial development. Since then, the focus of his firm DAAD has been more on the neighborhood scale, helping to design some of the city’s most beloved bars, restaurants, and boutique retail locations.

As Nashville has grown at an inordinate pace and become somewhat notorious for demolishing buildings, Dryden has found himself to be an unwitting preservationist. Many of his projects now center on the adaptive reuse of small “landmark jewels” throughout the city. Among them is the second outpost of local coffee haunt Barista Parlor (the ad hoc workspace of choice for many of the city’s creatives), which took up residence in what was once the Golden Sound recording studio. For that space, Dryden and his team worked closely with the city’s network of makers, as they try to do on many of their projects. “A lot of our work lately has some narrative that speaks to the history of Nashville,” he says. “Especially now that things are getting knocked down, there’s much more value and emphasis on seeking out those projects, so that we’re at least stabilizing some valuable fabric of Nashville.”

The second of three iterations of the beloved Nashville coffee brand Barista Parlor occupies the former Golden Sound recording studio in the Gulch district. The design for the café features work by local makers including Hazelwood Laboratories, Holler Design, Aaron Rosburg, and Sideshow Sign Co.

Courtesy Caroline Allison/DAAD

There are also other growing pains for the city as it scrambles to keep up with its prolonged growth spurt. For big-city transplants accustomed to an efficient public-transit system, Nashville can be a rude shock. Not only is the bus service limited, but—oddly for a city renowned for its live music culture—much of its schedule ceases in the early evening, eliminating it as an option for late-night revelers. A 2013 study estimated that the average number of rides on public transport per capita in Nashville was 9.9—compared with 229.8 in New York City.

The upside, if there is one, is that the lack of public transit has given rise to the popularity of ride-sharing services such as Lyft and Uber, which, though their rates are considerably lower than in bigger cities, provide a valuable second income for the many songwriters, musicians, and other creatives struggling to make their way. And increasingly more brave souls are attempting to live without a car in the city, though the lack of sufficient bike lanes—and, in some neighborhoods, sidewalks—makes it a challenge.

Yet such drawbacks aren’t proving to be deterrents to prospective Nashville residents—an estimated 60–100 people move there every day. For creative professionals in particular, the city offers a less cutthroat environment in which to pursue their passion. “People who are moving in and setting up shop don’t always trust that the existing community wants to help them as much as they truly do,” says Callaway. “But everybody here is really out for the next guy, because right now it benefits us in the long run to support our neighbors and to support these small businesses that are growing.”

The bar and restaurant Old Glory in Nashville’s Edgehill Village makes use of a space that was originally a 1920s boiler room.

Courtesy Andrea Behrends
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The interior of Barista Parlor Golden Sound in The Gulch district.

Courtesy Caroline Allison/DAAD

Fort Houston

Courtesy Andrea Behrends

At the heart of Nashville’s maker community, in the city’s up-and-coming Wedgewood Houston neighborhood, is the Fort Houston makerspace. Founders Ryan Schemmel and Josh Cooper (who moved back to Nashville after living in Brooklyn) opened the 10,000-square-foot space in 2011 to provide support to Nashville’s makers. The building (which was once the oldest sock mill in the South) includes a full-scale wood shop, print shop, metal shop, 3D printer, and darkroom. “Nashville has always been a city based on creativity and innovation,” says Schemmel. “There aren’t a lot of 9-to-5ers in this town when it comes to the creative economy. It’s just a really great city to start something new.”


Courtesy Flickr

When a city endures a natural disaster as catastrophic as Hurricane Katrina, it’s tough to find a silver lining. But amid all the devastation, New Orleans was forced to reset, not only structurally but politically, challenging its old guard mentality. And while the change has been gradual, it has created opportunities for out-of-towners willing to invest in the city from a financial perspective, but also, more importantly (and thanks to its relative affordability), in terms of young, fresh talents looking to make something of themselves.

Things certainly happen a lot slower in New Orleans, and migrants need to resign themselves to the fact that they’ll spend a good portion of each year with a constant sheen of sweat on their brows. But the city’s rich artistic history and compelling, often mercurial personality make it all the more appealing to creatives. Thanks to increased regulations that have helped make business fairer and curtail the corruption the Big Easy has been known for, New Orleans is making it easier for those starting out or seeking new independence.

Architect Ariana Rinderknecht moved to New Orleans in 2012 from New York, where she had spent eight years with AvroKO. She initially took on a role with local firm Eskew + Dumez + Ripple, but she and her partner recently struck out on their own to form WAAR Design Office, which is currently working on a multifamily residential project, and will soon start on a boutique hotel. Such a step, she says, would never have been possible in New York. “I will always be a New Yorker,” she says. “But I just wanted to have my own office. I’m an architect, I want to build things, and it’s infeasible in New York to do all of those things unless you’re wealthy.”

Caroline Farouki, an interior designer who also happens to be an AvroKO alumnus, moved to New Orleans with her husband, Sabri (an architect whose pedigree includes SHoP, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and, most recently, Bjarke Ingels Group), a year ago. Similarly to Rinderknecht, the move gave the couple the chance to open their own practice, Farouki Farouki.

Caroline, who grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana, says that in addition to the lure of affordability and the chance to be closer to family with their young son, the couple were enticed by the opportunity to be part of a relatively nascent industry in New Orleans. “We knew there was a good amount of creative energy and experimentation in New Orleans and yet there wasn’t an architecture and interior design firm that we would necessarily want to work for. Nothing here was similar to AvroKO or Bjarke Ingels Group, so we felt like there was room for us.”

Though the firm has quickly won several interior design projects, particularly in the hospitality sphere, Sabri says that architectural work has been less forthcoming. “With the scale of work that I’m accustomed to doing, I think it takes longer to earn clients’ trust, but we knew that would take a little bit more time.” They’ve also come across the challenge of having to compete in a market where fees are substantially lower than in big cities, and where contemporary design isn’t always favored.

“I think people here are really rooted in traditional architecture,” says Caroline. “It would be more fun if people really see the pleasure in having some diversity in design and opening up to different styles. But whenever we see things that really need improvement, we have to remind ourselves that it just means that there’s room to grow.”


True to the spirit of the brand, which is known for cultivating a design-inclined clientele, its public spaces—including a music venue,  gallery, Stumptown Coffee Roasters café, and pool deck—have already become popular gathering places for locals.

Courtesy Fran Parente/Ace Hotel Group

Still, the New Orleans hospitality industry in particular is becoming more discerning and open to new concepts. As a sure sign of the city’s evolution, this past March an Ace Hotel made itself at home in an Art Deco building on Carondelet Street in the Warehouse District. True to the spirit of the brand, which is known for cultivating a creatively inclined clientele, its public spaces, which include a music venue,  gallery, Stumptown outpost, and pool deck, have already become a gathering place for young locals.

“We’ve always been in love with New Orleans—it’s got such a storied history and an unconventional beauty,” says Kelly Sawdon, partner and chief brand officer of Ace Hotel Group. “There are musicians, artisans, and makers who have been spinning magic into the city long before we came along. We were just excited to take part, and to share that spirit with others.”

Michael Glenboski

Courtesy William Widmer

When Michael Glenboski moved to New Orleans from Brooklyn nine years ago, he was in search of a lifestyle that would allow him to pursue the artistic side projects he was passionate about. While working on architectural projects in the city (including the Ace Hotel with Eskew + Dumez + Ripple), he has also become a fierce proponent of Airlift, an artist-driven initiative that highlights the city’s underground art scene through projects such as The Music Box Roving Village (pictured above). Though there’s ample opportunity and  great freedom for creatives in the city, he says, finding funding is sometimes another story. “In New York, people will write big checks without really having to be asked. Here, it’s a struggle because there are a lot of creative groups and not a lot of patrons. While we have the space and can make things happen on our own, we still struggle to do so strictly because we have such a small, local audience.”


Courtesy ExploreAsheville.com

The rustic life has long been a draw for creatives, but even more so in recent years when reconnection with nature has become almost a trend in itself. It makes sense, then, that a small city in the embrace of the Blue Ridge Mountains has become a magnet for the creatively inclined. With a population nearing 90,000, Asheville is significantly smaller than other Southern cities known for their creative communities, but for some people that’s precisely the point. Larger metropolises are easily accessible (a few hours) from its mountain perch, allowing its residents to retreat into nature while still maintaining the urban connection they crave.

But this influx isn’t a new phenomenon. There’s a long tradition of craft, textile, and related economic development in this region dating back to Black Mountain College, which trained artists like Ruth Asawa and Cy Twombly, and the nearby Penland School of Crafts, founded by weaver Lucy Morgan, who played a significant role in the Craft Revival movement of the early 20th century.

True to its legacy, Asheville is still a city of transplants, home to a prospering community of artists, makers, furniture designers, and architects drawn not only to its picturesque location, but to the open-minded spirit it embodies. “Asheville has the Southern charm with some progressive leanings, which is attractive to artists,” says Marilyn Zapf, assistant director and curator at the Center for Craft, Creativity & Design (CCCD). “There’s an intellectual and artistic community that you can just jump right into.”

Zapf herself moved from London about three years ago and says that the culture shock hasn’t been as significant as one might expect. “Asheville is really well connected, and I feel like I can find my people here—people who have a more worldly outlook. In that way it doesn’t feel small.” She adds that the thriving culinary and craft-beer scenes (the latter is quickly becoming one of the most dynamic in the country) add to the city’s charms.

For the past 20 years, the CCCD has dedicated its efforts to advancing the craft conversation in the region and fostering a new generation of creatives, thinkers, and critics through scholarships, research, and programs. Along with the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and the City of Asheville, the center is currently working with national nonprofit real estate developer Artspace on a local low-income arts housing and studio space development for artists and makers in the city. While the cost of living is comparatively low in Asheville, housing prices are rising rapidly—largely due to its popularity as a vacation destination for nearby cities such as Raleigh and Charlotte. The old factories and historical buildings in the River Arts District are home to an extensive gathering of working studios, but even these are proving cost prohibitive to those starting out.

To ease the burden even further, the CCCD is also in the midst of renovating its current location in downtown Asheville in conjunction with founding academic partner Warren Wilson College and UNC Asheville. The Hive AVL will be a creative campus for making, learning, and enterprise that includes Benchspace Gallery & Workshop and Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, as well as a creative-sector coworking space, conference facility, and makerspace.

Embodying the collaborative ideals of Asheville’s creative community, architect Brandon Pass runs his practice from a small open studio space he shares with other artists. “Whatever you want to do, you do it,” he says of the location, which also includes a storefront. Pass moved with his wife to Asheville in 2010 after living in New York and Chicago (where he worked for Studio Gang). At the time they hadn’t envisioned it being a long-term move, but they quickly found that the lifestyle suited them well, especially when it came to raising a family.

Brandon Pass designed this 2,000-square-foot three-bedroom, three-bathroom house built in the Sandy Mush area of Leicester, North Carolina, using a passive strategy.

Courtesy Brandon Pass Architecture

Not only has the city offered him a certain creative freedom as a practicing architect, but Pass says he has been fortunate to develop a client base that is open to his modern style—something he hopes to see more of in the region. “I’d like to see the city stop reproducing styles of old. There’s a very over-stylized bungalow or ‘mountain rustic’ aesthetic here. The old traditional buildings are gorgeous, but when we try to re-create them with cheaper materials, we’re not really paying attention to the social factors that ultimately led to those designs.”

In general, Asheville is at a crucial point in its growth from small to midsize city where such decisions will have a long-term impact. In addition to building aesthetic, it faces the challenge of expanding without damaging the landscape that makes it so appealing. The city is also in need of a more organized approach to urban planning, particularly to accommodate urban sprawl, as well as making the city more pedestrian friendly.

Zapf adds that as more people begin to migrate to Asheville from bigger cities, it will become increasingly important to maintain the supportive, collaborative spirit its creative community is known for. “Now that there are more resources coming to the city, I think it’s easy for people to kind of want to get greedy. It’s important to maintain the focus on the arts and not lose sight of what made Asheville such a unique place in the first place and why everyone wanted to move here.”

Iron and Ash Furniture

Courtesy Olivia Siegel

Originally from outside Detroit, Brandon Skupski came to Asheville for a temporary job six years ago. “What made me stay was the strong sense of community,” he says, “and the fact that it’s an urban environment with real access to the natural world.” At the time he had made a career of designing and building canopy tours, but after attending a small professional crafts program at a community college just outside of Asheville, he became a furniture designer in 2011. Working solely with regional hardwoods sourced from the Appalachians, he crafts modern furniture pieces under the name Iron and Ash. For Skupski, the local creative community couldn’t be more supportive.  “Asheville is a city built on local businesses,” he says. “Everyone in town understands the importance of these businesses, including the arts and crafts, in maintaining, sustaining, and furthering the unique lifestyle and aesthetic that makes Asheville a place we all want to live in.”

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