June 19, 2006


Canaries in the goldmine: The emerging arts in New York City.


Recently two developers walked into the Brooklyn apartment of my friend and told him he had nothing to worry about - they weren’t going to tear down the building he was living in for at least another year. My friend, a filmmaker, thinks he can’t possibly afford to stay in New York, and he’s not alone.

The canaries in New York City’s real estate gold mine – the emerging arts – are no longer talking about the next show they hope to land, they’re talking about the next city they think they can land in once their current lease runs out.

But for many that lease on life has already run out. Affordable habitat in the cultural ecosystem is becoming hard to find. For everyone.

Within the next few months, ten off-Broadway theaters will permanently close *.


The price of real estate has risen so far that, from a cultural point of view, in three to five years we’ll be experiencing a fundamentally different idea of what it means to live in New York City and be a New Yorker. City Hall must find ways to incentivize rebuilding the emerging arts infrastructure that’s evaporating in our white-hot real estate market, or it won’t be built.

The past:

For the last fifty years the emerging arts in New York City have attracted the one smartest kid from everywhere. These young cultural migrants scratched out a two or three-day-a-week freelance career, lived cheaply and brazenly and learned the street smarts that would one day transform their art or adopted industry. Not everyone who begins as an artist ends up with a career as an artist, and the result for New York City has been a significant contribution from the arts to the culture of aggressive and intelligent management that helped make New York the leader in the arts, finance and media industries.

The present:

In a New York too expensive to incubate young artists many of these best young minds will fly right past our exploding real-estate market and rezoned artistic neighborhoods to cultivate and grow cultural and economic opportunities in other, less expensive cities. It’s important to remember that these young artists have no loyalty to New York; they’re from places like Des Moines after all.

Many in New York City believe that the vital underground of emerging artists’ environments is here to stay ‘just because’. This is wrong. New York doesn’t have to be the cultural capital of the emerging arts, or of the financial or the media industries for that matter, New York needs to continue to earn its place and it can easily price itself out of that role **. London is only one of many capable cities who are very busy trying to beat us at our best industries.

The Future:

As more and more cities begin to understand the advantage they can place in their populations by proactively attracting the emerging arts and either establishing or buttressing their own creative economies, the bidding for our young cultural participants will begin.

Smart cities will soon make New York based artists offers they’d be foolish to refuse, and cities like (gasp!) Philadelphia, Berlin, Pittsburg or London will get the most adventurous of them – the ones our meritocracy would obviously miss the most – if we can’t find effective ways to continue pooling them here, in our city.

Maybe one can’t live and work speaking only English in a city like Berlin this year, but in 5 to 7 years it will be possible. English is fast becoming the lingua franca of cultural Europe and the danger for New York is that if cities like Berlin or Amsterdam can by policy one day show that they want our young artists more than we, they’ll get them if we can’t be either relevant in opportunity or affordable enough to pool them here. And we must pool them here. If we can’t find ways to continue incubating young artists in our city then our entire cultural ecosystem begins to calcify.

What we need to do:

The cost of real estate is crushing the emerging arts. We’re about to see a huge exodus of emerging artists leaving new York for other, less expensive cities. To even think about retaining them we have to incentivize the creation of opportunity at the emergent level. And we have to create lots of it.

If emerging artists and the best young cultural thinkers can’t see themselves possibly affording to live here then we’d better find ways to make them think they can’t possibly afford to live anywhere else.

In the end only one-thing matters: good artists and the best young cultural thinkers follow ideas, and ideas flourish when and where there is opportunity to realize them. .

No one can roll back the cost of real estate or prevent small performance spaces from becoming chic little clothing stores, but to create so much opportunity in this real estate climate that we remain an effective cultural capital and not simply a wonderful museum city where art isn’t made, there are a number of questions that must be asked.

What can our City government do?
What can the largest cultural institutions do?
What can the foundation and funding community do?
What can the business community do?
What can our next Governor do?
What can you, the audience, do?



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is Robert Elmes an alter ego of your's, Bunny, 'cause this sounds like what you've been screaming for years.

3:35 PM  
Blogger Aaron said...

Robert's right--in high school, I wanted to move to New York after college and do my thing there. But it's hideously expensive, so I settled a little closer to home in Chicago. It's ALSO hideously expensive, but more manageably hideous. :-) It's sad...I feel like I need to get to New York and see those places I loved once more before they're gone and the yuppies take over!

4:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Welcome to San Francisco circa 1998. This sounds eerily familiar to those of us who lived through the dotcom boom and bust here on the west coast. The cultural life of our city has not recovered due the fact of high rents driving emerging and some established artists out, and in one case, the largest of our rehearsal spaces being "re-developed" into the very expensive "live-work" condos that helped to force them out in the first place.

What's worse is how the city responds to the owners of these spaces complaints about noise from the clubs. It's no secret that the SOMA club district has been active for some 30+ years. It is galling to see that these carpetbaggers have the ear of the "authorities".

Just last week, a firemarshall (I know, I know, they're heroes now) threatened to shut down Trannyshack due to a noise complaint that led to a charge of overcrowding at The Stud. Fortunately cooler minds prevailed after a successful plea for some percentage of the patrons to leave club. The show went on, this time at any rate.

I applaud the call to the city to address the issue in New York and hope there is someone at city hall with the vision and courage to act on it.

4:15 PM  
Blogger Aaron said...

"Carpetbaggers"--what an awesome metaphor! I applaud YOU! :-) That's a perfect way to describe the "gentrifyers." Granted, I did buy a condo in my neighborhood, but I rented for several years before I did. I just wanted to get a home in my community before the prices got too high! I wasn't swooping around trying to find a great deal that I could around for a profit a few years from now, like so many of these folks are.

That's what breaks down communities--the lack of intention to BELONG to them.

3:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love to see how NYers and others in traditional artistic "destinations" are being undone by technology. Twenty years ago, there was no easy way to connect or exchange ideas with like-minded artists or others unless you lived with them. You *had* to leave Hole-in-the-Road and come to the big city.

But now you can live affordably in thousands of towns, including many college towns that promote the arts far more effectively and generously than do major cities, and all you need is high-speed Internet.

Provincial types will stick their noses in the air and explain patiently that you can't duplicate the *ambiance* of a happening urban scene, but it's time to get real: a lot of creative people don't want to waste so much energy getting through the day in an overpriced, under-livable city.

Although my business isn't artistic, my NY branch employed two would-be writers and one would-be actress until last winter, when I shut down the branch, fired the employees, and moved the operations to Chicago. Why? Compared to almost anywhere in the country, dealing with NY city and state is hell on earth for businesses. Taxes are ridiculous, city services are non-existent, and good luck finding employees who can deal with customers who *don't* live in NY. But I kept my Internet-based NY phone number so clients think I have a "presence" in NY.

Bottom-line: When you drive out small businesses and their owners through oppressive taxes and practices, you lose jobs as well as people who are committed to their neighborhoods. You're *lucky* at that point if gentrifiers come in, because no one else can live there. Basically, no one *has* to go to NY anymore, and many of the folks who would have contributed to the diversity and character of the city in previous generations are now happily staying put in Iowa City, Indianapolis, Spokane, etc.

12:46 AM  
Blogger Aaron said...

It's true...technology HAS made it easier for artists to collaborate now without physical proximity. Musicians can exchange MP3 files, and with Audition or Garageband, add their own tracks without ever coming into a studio together.

There's no substitute for physical community, however, but it doesn't have to be in NY anymore...

11:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree. I think art is an important asset to any city.

i was distracted reading this post though by that ugly pretentious made up word "incentivize" i mean come on the real word "incense" is much more easier to say.

sorry, but it bugged me.

3:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


3:07 AM  

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