Austin, Texas: a quiet oasis in a state filled with superlatives

One of Austin's many hidden charms is that its citizens don't speak in Texas-size superlatives about the quiet little capital city. Oh, you may hear that the University of Texas has the second-largest (behind Harvard) endowment among United States colleges, but the folks in Dallas and Houston talk infinitely more about the biggest, the highest, the best.

When Austinites lapse into superlatives, they are unlikely to venture beyond the contention that theirs is simply the most livable town in Texas. Unfortunately, the distinction has lately been threatened by a building boom brought on by the influx of computer, aerospace, and other high-technology companies, a boom that caused a Fort Worth newspaper to investigate the ''Houstonization'' of Austin the week I was in town.

Sure enough, I found the downtown skyline rearing heavenward and the main north-south boulevard, Congress, in disrepair, and yet it was also clear immediately that Austin was still the friendly little central Texas oasis it always was. This was underscored for me on the warm November night I arrived as I sat down in a cafe on Sixth Street, Another Raw Deal, and lit into a heaping plate of chicken-fried steak, salad with ranch dressing, and home fries.

''Oh, Austin's growing,'' said the proprietor, Robert Vennell, to the only patron at the counter. ''It's like the joke says, 'How do you get 13 Yankees in a VW? Tell 'em it's going to Austin.' ''

In other words, Austin has jobs and opportunity - its unemployment figure is barely over 3 percent - but as Mr. Vennell pointed out it has also taken on modern urban ills such as the polluting of a surrounding chain of lakes by a condo development. Still, he added: ''Anyone who's ever spent time in Austin will always come back to live. It's the quality of life - that and an energy you will only find in L.A. and New York. It's why some people call this the Third Coast.''

What makes Austin particularly intriguing, what makes it more than just an expanding and pretty city, is that this is a series of oases within an oasis. At the center is the seat of state government, the 1888 Capitol, a towering but not overwhelming limestone building that looks down from a grassy hill shaded with pecan trees and live oaks. Grackles strut across the lawn, and old-timers in Texas Ranger hats sit beneath the gnarled trees. Inside, the Capitol draws crowds of tourists and high school students to its gleaming, wedding-cake rotunda.

Of all the surrounding government buildings, the nondescript Texas Employment Commission merits my highest praise. Its cafeteria serves up - let's be careful of superlatives - one of the better breakfast bargains in town: biscuits covered in thick white gavy, huge crisp pancakes, pink Texas grapefruit, with hardly any combination over $2.

Just up the hill sprawls another oasis, the University of Texas campus, 100 years old last year. At times it may look more like a country club than an ambitious state university trying to reach the first echelon with California, Michigan, and Wisconsin. On sunny days, cafe chairs and umbrellas are set out on the Union terrace; well-dressed students stroll or wheel 10-speed bicycles among the clipped hedges, rosebushes, and magnolias.

On the edge of campus, looming like a giant piece of sculpture, is an ancient black oil rig called Santa Rita No. 1. Sixty years ago this machine brought up the first oil on a university-owned plot of west Texas, a plot that has provided a constant gush of funds ever since. For the record, UT has a permanent fund of

All these riches mean not only pretty new buildings and high faculty salaries but also a wealth of cultural attractions open to the public. At the Huntington Art Gallery on the ground floor of the Harry Ransom Center, I found myself almost alone one morning with a fabulous collection given the university by the author James Michener. Almost every illustrious 20th-century American painter was represented at least once: Luks, Henri, Benton, Soyer, Kuniyoshi, not to mention chairs and other objects by Eames and Frank Lloyd Wright.

On the fourth floor of the Academic Center is a display of the movie ''Gone With the Wind,'' left by David O. Selznick: costumes, sets, and films showing the screen tests of all the actresses who tried out for the part of Scarlett O'Hara - Paulette Goddard and Vivien Leigh to name two. Across the campus, the new Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum depicts the life of LBJ, the ups as well as the downs, the domestic triumphs along with the Vietnam quagmire.

Another side of Austin is the bright commercial stretch along Sixth Street with shops, restaurants, and galleries that are part of a downtown revival. The monumental limestone Driskill Hotel, a hundred years old and showing its age in recent years, will have its renovation project finished by June.

Are you ready for a few superlatives? Perhaps the best dining I did in Austin (not counting the Texas Employment Commission cafeteria for breakfast) was at San Miguel, a sienna-walled hacienda north of town that goes far beyond the lumpy taco to serve the spicy-but-substantial specialties of northern Mexico.

Another rare treat was a visit to Barton Springs, a natural pool perhaps 1, 000 feet long and 80 feet wide in Zilker Park, just southwest of town. It was 87 degrees that day - a record - and bathers flapped around in the spring-fed deeps or lolled on the green banks, shaded by oaks, pecans, and cottonwoods. Without qualification I'd call it the best swimming hole in Texas. I think the folks in Dallas and Houston might even agree.

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