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Tired, Poor, Huddled: New York City Is Better Than David Byrne Thinks

I was born on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the summer of 1982. My mom was a 30-year-old nurse at Sloan Kettering, and my dad was a 35-year-old lawyer at ABC. They did not expect to have twins and when, in 1986, their building went co-op and the board offered them cash to move out, they took it and got out of the city, where it was quickly becoming too expensive for them to live comfortably. I grew up lusting after Manhattan. My folks would bring me to the city regularly, and I’d buy records and gawk. When I got my license, I’d drive to the Lower East Side to see shows at ABC No Rio. I went to college in Washington, DC, and after I moved to Brooklyn. I spent all my money on rent. I didn’t like my job very much, and wanted super bad to work at a magazine, so I made fanzines to tide me over for two years while I harassed the people at FADER to hire me. They eventually did, and I’ve spent the last six years feverishly documenting emerging culture around the world, as well as seeing as much of it as possible firsthand in New York. I still spend all my money on rent.

I’ve spent the last two days thinking about why I was so bugged by David Byrne’s essay about the state of culture in New York City and its theoretical siege by the gilded class. For the most part, I agree with everything he wrote. He is right that the resources of space and time that historically made this city an attractive destination for creative people are no longer what they used to be, and that has had a brutal effect on both the work and spirit of talented artists and thinkers. As one former mayoral candidate succinctly put it, “the rent is too damn high.” Byrne writes that, “if young, emerging talent of all types can’t find a foothold in this city, then it will be a city closer to Hong Kong or Abu Dhabi than to the rich fertile place it has historically been.” But this isn’t going to happen. Yes, it sucks that there are empty apartments owned by oligarchs in Chelsea. But they don’t have anything to do with culture keeping New York City electric. Spawn of Patrick Bateman have always been here and will always be here and I’m not against antiheros keeping the proletariat going, but, honestly, as rosy as it is, I never think about them. Instead, reading Byrne’s essay, I thought of people and places that are surviving despite the challenges he lays out: 285 Kent, Issue Project Room, Roulette, the enormous Chinese restaurant in Queens that has shows, that weird room on Bleecker that has jazz concerts, Know More Games and the other galleries the size of a closet under the BQE in Carroll Gardens, The Hole on Bowery, Arca, Mr. Motherfucking Exquire, the guy who makes planters with faces on them and sells them on Lorimer, the place that sells zines in the subway. I thought of all the lost hours I spent in this stupid, awesome city trying to figure out how to write down what was in my head so I could show it to other people. I came here because of people like that and places like that, because of all the David Byrnes—past, present and future—willing to put in the work while living in cold water lofts and through the Bloomberg era.

I’m 31 and childless. I can (and do) spend all of my time participating in New York City culture. I’m lucky that my job enables that, too. A week ago, I interviewed Caroline Shaw, a composer who, at 30, is the youngest person to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. She’s a North Carolina native who, like me, moved to New York City after college to immerse herself in its broiling culture. After our interview, I walked with her back to her apartment in Hell's Kitchen. We talked about venues, and the shifting importance of places like Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. As a young person interested in classical music, Shaw often straddles two worlds, and we wondered if there will be enough people like her to fill the seats in these canonized spaces 50 years from now, or if maybe the canonized spaces themselves may change. The city shifts naturally, and someone or someplace that was once lionized may lose importance to something or someone else rising. That’s not good or bad—it’s evolution. Byrne lamenting the influx of big money isn’t bad, but it’s missing the point. Big money isn’t going to ruin the cultural heart of New York City. That heart is wily and shape-shifting. You can’t ignore the presence of the one percent, but you can push against it by making stuff, as he always has. What irked me is that Byrne’s letting them irk him. What this city needs is more artists, not a threat that one of its greatest ones is going to leave.

Tired, Poor, Huddled: New York City Is Better Than David Byrne Thinks