Cities Need To Be More Livable For Everyone — Not Just Middle-Class Artists

New York is terribly expensive, have you heard? San Francisco too. And in the estimation of their local authorities, the most worrisome thing about the trend is the loss of the less-lucrative aspects of what Richard Florida rather famously termed the “creative class” — meaning, writers, artists, musicians, and sundry other creatively inclined folk who continue to disappoint their parents by failing to “Get A Real Job.” No one ever worries about the loss of the urban poor in the projects, though the artist Sarah Schulman argued quite convincingly that they should in her recent book The Gentrification of the Mind (much recommended). The confluence of different cultures, she writes, is the true generative source of art in a city. It’s not just about cheap rent for the artists themselves.

Schulman’s concern, however, is not quite the same worry that most writers themselves voice about this issue. Salon ran a representative essay last week, in which a writer lamented the loss of a “middle class” lifestyle in New York. It forced her family to move to Portland. This is not an unusual story among writers and “creative types” in New York. All those not married to corporate lawyers or investment bankers are always considering leaving for elsewhere. For a while Brooklyn was staunching the flow, but we seem to have reached peak Brooklyn, insofar as writers and artists are concerned. Rents there are as high as in Manhattan — and as a writer who lives in Queens and only narrowly escaped a steep rent hike in her most recent move, I can tell you: soon there’ll be nowhere local to flee.

I don’t mean to diminish the frustration that such rent-hiking, and the suburbification of Brooklyn, engender. As I say, I kind of feel it myself, as living in New York has grown ever more precarious even as I make what elsewhere would be considered a decent living. But the thing is, I often feel like a jerk advocating for my right to live and “create art” or whatever — I am the kind of person who still gets a mildly nauseous feeling every time she has to self-describe as a writer — when in truth I’m not sure it should be an urban-planning priority, per se.

It’s not so much that I don’t think art is important and vital and even crucial to our collective survival; it’s that I’m wary of the way the “collective” is defined here. It is my informed impression that whenever cities get on their high horse about preserving “creativity,” what they really mean is preserving the sort of store in Brooklyn (or, hell, Portland) that stamps a bird on everything and prices decent groceries out of the area.

The latest evidence comes in this article in the New York Times, which is ostensibly detailing Paris’ efforts to make itself into a center for literature again but also gives us a view of what literary Brooklyn’s future might be. Amid all the people quoted in the article lamenting its former vibrancy, not a one mentions the crucial matter of money. The festival’s organizers and proponents instead speak almost as though they were trying to conjure a spirit rather than do the relatively concrete task of revitalizing the city. As the Times writer notes:

The Écrivains du Monde festival may not, on its own, recreate the vibrant sense of literary experimentation and adventure of the first half of the 20th century, when Paris was home to the likes of Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, but it marks a new appreciation of the primacy of international writing, in a country that despite a complex relationship with outsiders, has always embraced their contribution to the arts.

“A new appreciation of the primacy of international writing” is the tip-off here. Festivals like this — Toronto’s International Festival of Authors, and even the Brooklyn Book Festival — have an at-best-tenuous connection to making the cities they occupy a better place to live and create. The point of these things, instead, is to reassure the people who still have the cash to live here that they’re still getting all the best benefits of “creativity” and “art.” And without corresponding pressure on the city to continue to provide affordable housing for everyone who lives in it — well, it looks uncomfortably like these cities are interested in “co-branding” themselves as artistic with none of the investment.

Caveat emptor: cities like New York have, actually, always been a bit too expensive for writers. Go through the letters of pretty much any of the great writers and you’ll find them complaining they cannot afford to remain where they are; even the great southern recluse Flannery O’Connor, before illness confined her to her mother’s farm, was shrugging to a correspondent, “I have no great desire to leave New York except that I will save a great deal of money this way & my publishing connections still being in a snarl, that is a great consideration.”

And that’s not even to mention that the noise and bustle of city life aren’t conducive to the long, contemplative work of making the art. Even the sort-of-richer, or at least celebrated-in-their-own-time writers liked to get out of the city; Faulkner lived in Mississippi, and Hemingway hung out in Cuba a lot. Artist retreats, like Yaddo, exist almost entirely for this reason.

But picturing people making art alone, without communities, is a rather depressing scenario, isn’t it? I have a friend who has a theory that the entire schematic of Brooklyn book events — the readings and tournaments and Powerhouse Arena launches — exist not so much because they are valuable as promotion but because they offer a cure for the overwhelming loneliness that is sitting in a room and producing something. And then there’s Schulman’s point, too: if you want a vibrant literature that actually looks like a decent cross section of the country, we can’t all live in our enclaves, alone. There does need to be a decent amount of cross-cultural interchange happening if writers are to write about it. And the only way to get that done is to keep our cities affordable and diverse — and no amount of fancy “literary” “festivals” are going to do that alone.