Photo: Tom Ellefsen
IT WAS PATTI SMITH who said, in a talk at Cooper Union in 2010, that “New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling.” Smith wrote in her memoir, Just Kids, about coming to New York as a “down and out” young woman, scraping by in a cheap apartment, creating a community of artists, and even at times paying rent with artwork.
But New York City has long since priced itself out of this lifestyle, with rent in Manhattan averaging $3,822 and in Brooklyn (the “less expensive” option) $3,035 per month. This means living in Brooklyn costs, on average, over $36,000 a year — higher than the salary of your average “young creative.” Our salary increases certainly have not kept pace with the cost of living.
When I was living in Brooklyn, I was paying $800 per month to split a three-bedroom with two other girls. We were living on the border of Lefferts Garden and Crown Heights, a quickly gentrifying neighborhood which, while it wasn’t bad, wasn’t exactly the bustling downtown area people expect when they hear “New York City.” When I initially moved to Brooklyn, I was looking for work as a writer / editor, which I found, sparingly. I was working as a writing assistant making $500-$600 a month, which is not much in general and is basically pennies in New York.
I can’t imagine that I’m alone in my experiences. Early creative work, what many call the “portfolio-building years,” inherently involves a lot of low-paying and non-paying jobs. We’re often seen as “apprentices” to our trade, despite our college educations and numerous internships. I’ve found that young creatives who desire to be financially independent from their families (which — despite what you may have heard — is most of them) do one of two things: They find a “real job,” a term I use skeptically, and attempt to pursue their passion in their free time; or they find a way to commodify their passion.
I was part of the former group, taking a job as a receptionist at a fertility clinic in midtown Manhattan. I ended up having a strong love / hate relationship with this job — I loved the patients and found myself getting very involved in their care, and I found the scientific aspects of the field absolutely fascinating. I learned a lot, both about medicine and about people, in my time there. However, this was not the reason I came to New York. I’m a creative, passionate, intelligent human being, and while I was able to inject this job with a bit of those qualities, it certainly didn’t force it out of me.
The “commodification” direction is one I saw many friends take — those who were interested in writing took jobs at social media companies as SEO bloggers, and those who wanted to work in film and TV found themselves working as assistants to talent agents. These jobs, while technically in the “creative industry,” probably utilized as little of my friends’ creative skills as my receptionist job did of mine. While this is probably the objectively better option, not everyone even has this opportunity — securing these competitive positions often requires years of unpaid internships and some degree of “connection,” leaving out those of us who had to work part-time or full-time jobs during college and were not able to devote our time to volunteer positions.
Unfortunately, both of these routes are problematic. Let’s explore.
For my friends who took on “creative” jobs, the lines between “personal” and “professional” time became increasingly blurred thanks to both long hours (some friends of mine work 12+ hour days as assistants to agents, publishers, and producers) and the now ubiquitous smartphone technology that has allowed people to be available via phone and email 24/7. Because of the high competition for these jobs, the concern of being fired was ever-present for my friends, forcing them to overlook these downfalls (not to mention the low pay).
Those with “day jobs” who hope to pursue passions on the side will also find it difficult to live a dual lifestyle. As a receptionist, I was working between eight and ten hours per day, plus making a commute of 45 minutes each way — a common situation, since the “centers of industry” such as midtown and downtown Manhattan are increasingly distant from the affordable areas of upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs. Yes, I was able to afford my rent, my Metrocard, and my school loans, but I certainly didn’t have much time or energy (or, realistically, money) to practice my craft or experiment artistically, which is so important for young artists.
When I first moved to New York, I kept up a blog in an attempt to continue honing my writing skills after graduation, but it soon became difficult to fit into my life. I was constantly “busy” but never “productive.” My writing fell by the wayside, and while I excelled professionally, I had all but given up on my passion.
And this, here, is what many people don’t discuss when they’re talking about young creatives. It may sound trite, but the personal identity of many young people who come to the city to flourish creatively is slowly crushed by the reality of affording the lifestyle. Social identity theory outlines the way humans self-identify with a group or organization they feel reflects their values and attributes. The identity you apply to yourself, in the United States and especially in a place like New York City, is unfortunately but inevitably tied up in your money-making methods. I am a doctor, I am a journalist, I am a receptionist. In New York, the question “What do you do?” is everywhere you turn.
The cost of living means money is also a constant on the minds of the majority of residents. How much you pay in rent is not a taboo question, but rather an extremely common topic of conversation (and probably the question asked next after “What do you do?”). New Yorkers are constantly discussing the latest “hidden gem” of a cheap salon, bar, or Chinese food restaurant. In a society so preoccupied with money, it makes sense that we would begin to identify others, as well as ourselves, by professions as opposed to personal interests.
In light of this, it’s easy to feel like a failure if your job (“receptionist”) does not match your ambition (“writer”). I often found myself feeling like an outcast because my job wasn’t exciting, because I wasn’t a “mover-and-shaker,” because I wasn’t fulfilling the role that many picture when they think of a “creative New Yorker” — a role that has all but vanished here. In a community where everyone asks about what you do and no one asks about what you love, it’s easy to become discouraged and uninspired. Many of us cease to think of ourselves as “artists” as our minds and our days are consumed with the tedium of the jobs we take on to afford living in New York. So what’s the point?
This is why I left New York City: not just because it’s not affordable, but because the lifestyle wasn’t benefiting me as a young creative. I’m not alone — a recent New York Times piece on the “goodbye letter to New York City” (one of which I suppose this may be) highlights a new dearth of young, creative thought in New York. “If you think you’ll find intellectual stimulation, you’re thinking of another era,” Andrew Sullivan is quoted as saying. “The conversations are invariably about money or property or schools. I’ve never been more bored by casual chat.”
David Byrne, in a piece for The Guardian, acknowledges that what people really come to New York for — ”the possibility of interaction and inspiration” — is on the decline, thanks to the very problems I discussed above. So if there’s no time or money for art, and there’s no more inspiration, it seems obvious that young artists should pack up and find somewhere new, as young artists have been doing for centuries.
I moved to the Catskills, an area that has long been a creative hotspot but has maintained a certain level of laid-backness (not to mentioned affordability). I’ve been here three months, and so far I’ve done more reading and writing than I did in the entirety of the two years I spent in New York. My fiancé and I have been getting by on (for me) editing and writing work and a bit of nannying and (for him) photography for some fantastic regional magazines; we’re actually able to survive on the low salaries of the early creative years in a way we never could in NYC. This has translated to more time for art, more time for experimentation, and more space to make mistakes (an always integral part of the artistic process).
What I’ve also found is that, because the lifestyle is less expensive, it’s also less focused on the “job,” leaving much more room to talk about passions, ideas, and new projects. People are less rushed, less stressed, and more willing to have real, genuine conversation. The calm, less distracting environment and the beautiful scenery don’t hurt, either.
I’m not advocating that everyone move to the mountains — it’s certainly not for everyone — but I am hoping that young creatives everywhere can start to open their minds and consider other home bases. New York City had its creative heyday, but cities are constantly evolving entities; perhaps it’s time to stake out some new real estate.
This post originally appeared at Luna Luna Magazine and is republished here with permission.