There’s a very romantic American story that I love, that lots of artists who are young and starting out love, too, and it goes like this: Move to the Big City with nothing, make friends, make art, struggle, but make it. That’s the kind of story told in Patti Smith’s wonderful memoir, Just Kids.
The trouble with this story is that people remember the place (New York) but they don’t remember the conditions. Here’s Patti Smith herself on NYC nowadays:
It certainly isn’t the place I knew when I was young?—?we had no money, the city was bankrupt, it was filled with cockroaches, a lot of rats, it was a bit gritty, and it was cheap to live here, really cheap. You could have a bookstore job and a little apartment in the East Village. There were so many of us, so many like minds. You can’t do that now.
(Emphasis mine.) She continues:
I can’t speak for new generations because they probably have their way of negotiating all of this, but I can just say it doesn’t welcome people that have very little, that just want to get a little job and have a little practice place to play with their band. I mean, all of my band left New York because they couldn’t afford to live there. We lost our practice place. I lost my art studio because all of our spaces were taken by entrepreneurs with a lot of money. But it’s still a wonderful city, a great city, it’s just, I guess, if you’re scrappy you have to find a new way to get around in it.
In another talk, Smith suggested that young artists might be better off finding a new city:
New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling. But there’s always other cities. I don’t know?—?Detroit, Poughkeepsie, Newark. You have to find the new place because New York City has been taken away from you. It’s still a great city, but it has closed itself off from the poor and creative burgeoning society. So my advice is: Find a new city.
No, it’s not necessarily the most glamorous option. (I’m remembering a line from Anne Trubek’s piece about living a low-overhead in the Rust Belt: “I imagine that many would rather be in debt than live in Northeast Ohio.”)
People, many of them strangers thanks to retweets, had a range of responses, some saying ridiculous things like, “You live in Austin asshole you’re just old and broke and bitter and worried about young people taking your job” (???) to thoughtful, important replies like, “I’m trans, so I need to live somewhere progressive so I feel safe day-to-day and don’t feel like I’m going to get beat up for using the wrong restroom.”
I realize now when I said “young folks” I meant young artists and poets and other creative people who were like me about ten years ago: poor, or not wealthy, trying to figure out where to live, and wanting to do something weird and interesting that doesn’t necessarily fit into a traditional model. Not: get a job at a tech company, get big art world gallery shows, etc.
There’s lots of talk about how the internet is making it possible to live anywhere these days and do their own thing. But I think people my age and younger forget the fact that people made their own scenes even BEFORE the internet. That’s why I love books like Our Band Could Be Your Life, which show how people got together, did their own thing, and built their own networks and businesses, all with not much more than a Kinko’s, a telephone, and the US postal service.
The idea is that you live somewhere cheap, keep your overhead low, make whatever work you want to make, create your own scene. Nobody gets super-rich or super-famous, but dammit, they get to live their lives their own way, unbeholden to anybody.
That, to me, is one of the most inspiring American storylines. It’s not for everybody, and there are plenty of arguments against it, but I think it’s the one that’s the most realistically within reach for a lot of us.