NEW BRAUNFELS, Texas – In the not too distant past, motorists traveling on a stretch of Interstate 35 northeast of San Antonio encountered vast fields of wildflowers and cows grazing in grassy pastures.
Today the cattle are gone and have been replaced by clusters of elegant apartments, apartment buildings and large shops. And New Braunfels, America’s third fastest growing city, is in one of the fastest growing regions and at a crossroads.
“People found New Braunfels – it’s well known,” said the city’s mayor, Rusty Brockman. “And I think we will deal with this growth for a long time.”
New Braunfels, a once quaint town known for its German roots and Schlitterbahn water park, grew a whopping 56 percent over the past decade, adding about 32,500 residents.
It was mentioned by U.S. census officials last week as an example of a city that has seen significant growth outside of the metropolitan area – New Braunfels is between San Antonio and Austin, which have also grown rapidly over the past decade. There were two others in Texas, a fast-growing state: McKinney, outside of Dallas, and Conroe, which was surrounded by the sprawling metropolitan area of Houston.
In many ways, the story of New Braunfels’ expansion is the story of a changing America.
As the population booms and many newcomers come from major cities across Texas and states like California, Colorado, and New York, the city is also becoming more diverse. The Anglo population has dropped below 60 percent for the first time in decades, with Latinos making up about 35 percent of the population.
The sheer growth shows no sign of subsiding.
City officials have allocated at least $ 30 million to infrastructure initiatives, in addition to more than $ 600 million to local utility water and sanitation projects. And more money will be needed in the near future, Brockman said.
As a visible sign of the boom, more than 1,400 building permits were issued last year, a record for the city, said Jeff Jewell, the city’s director of economic and community development. More than 10,000 single-family homes have been added in the past 11 years, and property values have skyrocketed, with the average home value increasing 73 percent over the past decade, from $ 157,000 to $ 272,000.
But there was a time when life in New Braunfels was much quieter.
“I still remember well when there were only cows over there,” says Brittney Marbach, who at 25 no longer knows the city where she grew up. “A lot has changed. We are losing our small town atmosphere. “
German settlers, fascinated by the green spaces and the confluence of the Guadalupe and Comal rivers, founded the city in 1845. According to legend, the region reminded Prince Carl von Solms-Braunfels, the leader of the settlers, of his old home in Braunfels, Germany. So he decided to buy a piece of land and name it New Braunfels, near where the Native Americans thrived on the shore.
The city’s German roots are everywhere. The state’s oldest bakery, Naegelin’s Bakery, is still thriving downtown – an area local residents call the Circle – with a steady stream of customers, many of them newcomers and tourists looking for the store’s signature pastry, apple strudel , scream.
“The growth has been great for the business,” said Ross Granzin, who now owns the bakery, founded in 1868.
Other German landmarks include the neoclassical Plaza Bandstand and Gruene Hall, an iconic open-air dance floor that has featured in films and books and featured prominent musicians such as George Strait, Garth Brooks and Brandi Carlile.
At night, crowds still flock to beer gardens that have been around for decades, and now they are joined by newer bars and restaurants that look more like something you’d find in Austin or San Antonio.
New Braunfels residents have been drawn to the area for its affordable cost of living and the larger employers that have settled there, including several distribution centers and technology companies. Over the past decade, the average salary in Comal County, which includes much of New Braunfels, has risen from $ 65,000 to $ 90,000, one of the highest averages in the state.
“We went through the roof on every metric,” said Jonathan Packer, president of the Greater New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce. “There are many reasons people come here.”
The community has also become noticeably more diverse, with the presence of Latinos particularly evident on the west side of the city. Locals flock to restaurants like El Norteño for typical Mexican dishes like menudo, a spicy stew known colloquially as a hangover remedy. This week a server took orders wearing a red t-shirt that read “Menudo Para La Cruda” or “Menudo For the Hangover”.
The restaurant’s owner, Johnny Aguirre, said he had noticed younger Latinos migrating from the more traditional Hispanic enclaves to the city’s newer developments.
“The city is known for its German culture, but people come here for the Mexican flair,” said Aguirre. “The growth has been good for us. It was a non-stop business. “
But so much change – and so quickly – is also associated with challenges.
Nancy Classen, who grew up in the city and works at the Sophienburg Museum and Archives, said she was willing to be open to newcomers – as long as they didn’t try to change the city’s identity. A conservative bastion between progressive cities, New Braunfels is the largest city in Comal County, which overwhelmingly voted for Donald J. Trump in November.
“This is still a pretty conservative town,” said Ms. Classen. “They are fine as long as they don’t try to change us. This is not California. “
When Terri Jennings, 58, who runs a local vintage store, asks people where they’re from, many lean over the counter and whisper, “California,” like they’re telling a dark secret, she said with a smile. “I think they’re getting a bit of flak because people think westerners tend to be a little more liberal.”
Ms. Jennings, who has lived in town for seven years but has worked here since 16, has also learned to keep her liberal tendencies to herself. “I don’t want to argue about politics,” she said. “I understand why you are doing this.”
Caleb Harris, 36, said he moved to New Braunfels from Utah in 2013 when he anticipated the region had potential for expansion. He bought a lot in a settlement called Overlook at Creekside, north of the city center, as soon as the groundbreaking broke. “I knew it was going to be a good area,” said Harris.
It is also part of the demographic change in the region. Mr. Harris, who is white, is engaged to a black woman who is pregnant with her child. As people who identify as two or more races grow rapidly, not just in Texas but across the country, his son will be part of an increasingly diverse state.
In New Braunfels, just over 3 percent of residents identify as more than one race, according to census data, but that is a single percent increase in 2010. (The number of Americans who identify themselves as non-Hispanic and more than one Identified race grew from 6 million in the last decade to 13.5 million.)
Near the sprawling mixed-use complex Creekside, which used to be a cow pasture, Faith Caddy went for a walk with her two dogs, a husky-labrador mix named Odin and a red heeler named Luna. She recently moved to town from Colorado, a decision that made good business sense for her and her 9-month-old son.
Staying would have been too expensive, said Ms. Caddy, 24. “We can actually rent an apartment here and save to buy a house.”