After living in New York City for nearly 13 years as an artist, I have become acutely aware that the city has become a less welcoming place to artists. Much has been documented over the last few years of neighborhood gentrification, and how the city is losing its multi-cultural identity in favor of social elitism. The city is noticeably culpable; as it recognizes this fact by trying to create housing in Staten Island and the far reaches of the Bronx to house artists in commune type “projects” in a political effort to not lose those that make New York “vibrant”. This trend in the economic environment of the city has in turn affected the decline of the greater creative culture and has impaired its ability to foster its artistic capacity to create. In other words, the city has become less feasible place for artists, particular aspiring ones, to make it here.
Despite witnessing a trickling flow of friends and colleagues leave the city over the years for greener pastures, this realization was recently brought to the forefront of my thoughts while engaging in friendly conversation with a local real estate agent. He remarked that there is an incredible influx of international money into the city to buy property as investment opportunities. This has been happening for decades, of course, but even more so now at an increasing rate. A fascinating point of our conversation to share was that most buyers aren’t looking to inhabit the property they are purchasing. They may come for an infrequent stay, or a place for their children to use for a short time to attend school (please adopt me!), but mostly they are buying to sell again after it appreciates in value. No one can dispute this financial planning logic. However, the fact is that since many of the properties do sit vacant and are used so infrequently it does very little for the local economy.
Well, that isn’t entirely true. What it does is raise the cost of square footage, which affects the mortgage price and rent of its surrounding properties. A New York Times article from 2013 reports, “The average Manhattan apartment, at $3,973 a month, costs almost $2,800 more than the average rental nationwide.” No doubt it’s over $4K by now; which is great for property owners, but this increase in value also causes renters to pay more in order to stay next door to theses invisible neighbors, or alternatively to move away to a more affordable area. In short, this creates a place for only a higher strata of social class to afford to inhabit the area. Which, in turn, attracts high end commercial businesses to then eventually overtake middle/working class neighborhood establishments. This has a direct effect not only on social class, but also encumber the great number of multi-cultural and ethnically diverse artists who dwell in the five boroughs and beyond. Creating such hardship, does this mean the majority next generation of New York artists will come from an entitled class system? Will the 1%, and its ilk, become the creative class by default?
If artists can’t afford to live here, they can’t create here. More and more, it has become evident that New York is becoming a presenter of creativity, instead of home for creativity. Does that matter? For audiences, it may not. Presenters of the performing arts, such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and Lincoln Center Festival, among others, have proved that importing art is good business. But it should, because New York audiences, whether they realize it or not, are the other half of the creative process for local artists. And what a special thing it is for the audience (and artists alike) to be part of that creative dialogue when witnessing something spiritually divine, moving, and exciting! After all, everyone want to be part of something that matters.
Yet, it is of the most vital importance to artists. They need a place to be able to live affordably as they grow in their craft, and with luck, emerge. It isn’t enough to see what people are creating outside of their local culture. They need to be able to experience what others are creating around them, and have those around them experience their own work too. They need other artists and like-minded (as well as contrarian-minded) people to also be able to afford living there as well so they can work with them as collaborators, and mutually be shaped by the sharing of ideas, social and political vocabulary, and, of course, their work. Fundamentally, their work is grounded and inescapably influenced by their local community. For them to be able to artistically participate, they need to be able to purchase enough time to do so through their day jobs in order to be able to afford to work on their craft. In essence, New York City is an artist’s resource in the truest sense. They pull from it to be able to dwell and work. It is a cultural and social landscape that needs to allow them to simply exist to be who they are, and do what they do.
If artists can’t afford to live in New York, how can they succeed in creating work here? Unless, their parents foot the bill and/or the artist is independently wealthy, living and creating in Manhattan has simply become uneconomical to the artist. And, parts of Brooklyn, Queens, and Westchester, Long Island and New Jersey suburbs are growing to be equally infeasible to inhabit. It is not uncommon for many to take multiple buses and train to be able to get into “the city.” This gives new meaning to the lyric in New York, New York: “if I can make it there, I’m gonna make it anywhere.” Arriving is one thing, making ends meet while being able to make art in New York, New York is entirely something else. Not to mention that there is little draw or incentive to “make it” somewhere in a place where art is not manufactured, but imported.
Artists are resilient creatures. I frequently joke that it will be us and the cockroaches that would be the ones that would survive an apocalypse. Artists will always find a way to survive, and they will find a way to be able to express themselves through their art. However, how much financial pain are they willing to put up with for emotional gain? If they have to spend the majority of their time and money working other jobs to pay the bills instead of making art, there isn’t a good reason for them to invest themselves in New York.
As of this moment in time, I feel the New York artist is stuck in a conundrum. If we stay, where do we go? If we go, where do we go? One thing is for certain, where ever we are, we need to afford and be able to be afforded the opportunity to be who we are.
What are your thoughts?