Hello to All This: Gentrification and Artistic Dreamworlds

Lizzy Shramko


New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling. But there are other cities. Detroit. Poughkeepsie. New York City has been taken away from you. So my advice is: Find a new city. 

Over three years ago, Patti Smith—a patron saint to New York City's storied art, music, and writing world of yesteryear—delivered the above words. It reads like an epigraph, one that should be chiseled into every newly restored Brooklyn brownstone. The statement was notably made in context with a conversation with Jonathan Lethem (who is emblematic of a very different New York City) and directed towards students at the prestigious art institution Cooper Union. Smith was speaking to these artists about writing, creating art, and the economic shifts that have rippled across the city and subsequently killed off artistic culture. 

While Patti’s directive to “find a new city” is a compelling one, it ignores an issue that seems more important. Why should these artists run away from home in the first place? Even if it seems like New York City is now out-of-reach to the troves of middle class, (usually) white bohemians with liberal arts degrees (who also frequently have basic knowledge of Photoshop), hasn't this very population of creative professionals contributed to the problem that causes their newfound inaccessibility? In contrast, New York City certainly remains relevant for the millions of New Yorkers who, born and bred in the city, still thrive and create art in their respective boroughs.

So maybe the question is not about how young and struggling artists might "find a new city" to invade. Instead, it's how they can build these communities at home.

This provides perspective  on the collection of essays Seal Press recently released that speaks to the XY parabola of creating art in New York City. Titled Goodbye to All Thatit is a collection that borrows nostalgia from Joan Didion’s defining essay of the same name. It features reflections on the city from women writers who followed in Didion’s footsteps, leaving home for the city that never sleeps.

While Didion’s essay was an eloquent soliloquy that spoke to the unique complexity of New York, she also used the city as an accessory to her writing—something that she could always walk away from. Or in other words: for Didion, her time in New York was always transitory. And each move she made, first to and then away from the city, required a freedom not afforded to most. Once Didion had outgrown the city, she was able to return safely to sunny California, with fond memories and probably better taste in coffee. 

The essays featured in Goodbye to All That are written by both native New Yorkers and transplants alike. But that mythological yearning that informs the way that non-New Yorkers, especially artists, are taught to see New York is on full display. It makes me ask: Why is it that this one city (which, yes, is powerful and dynamic and filled with creative energy) has become a necessary space to inhabit in order to produce meaningful work? Each of the writers speaks to their drive to experience this city. Some of the contributors knew at a young age this is where they had to live “to be” a writer. Others never left for fear of failure. But no matter what caused them to choose to live in the city, each of these writers come to the same conclusion. After getting out-priced, noticing how loud the city is, or just becoming aware of the extreme lack of space they have—something that women writers historically have not had enough of—they all decide to leave.

After reading Goodbye to All That alongside cultural theorist Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind, certain parallels become elevated here. Schulman’s work describes her experience living in NYC through the AIDS crisis. As she watched her friends and family die, she witnessed the literal displacement of bodies bring forth gentrification at phenomenal speeds. In comparison, one thing that becomes evident is this: many of the shifts that the transplanted writers in Goodbye to All That experienced are symptomatic of their own journey to the city. The disappearance of affordable housing—and of affordable food and affordable transportation—happens because these mobile bodies are able to foot the bill. At least, in the beginning. And hey, in exchange for the cultural prestige and the legitimacy that accompanies a move to New York, who wouldn’t eat ramen every night for dinner or couch surf for an indeterminate amount of time?  

As Schulman points out, the reason artists move to cities is “because they want to be part of the creation of new ways of thinking.”

In Minnesota, and the Twin Cities more specifically, these new ways of thinking are being explored in dynamic ways. In 2010 Minnesota spent more money per capita on the arts than any other state—double what New York spends. The Twin Cities is known for a thriving theatre scene and also one of the remaining independent book publishing hot spots in the country. But as the old adage goes: mo’ money, mo’ problems.

Minnesota has some of the highest racial disparities in the country, including the outstanding educational opportunity gap between white students and Black, Latino and Native students. Larger arts institutions, like the Walker, have a membership that is painfully white, a monolithic that is reflected in many of the independent galleries peppered across the two cities. So how do we prevent the Twin Cities from becoming the next New York? How do we challenge gentrification in the arts and streets? How do we cultivate artistic communities with resources, while simultaneously supporting emerging artists from diverse backgrounds?

To be clear: this is not just an argument of inclusion for inclusion’s sake. This is an argument of inclusion for art’s sake. A diversity of skills, points of view and visions contribute to artistic communities that imagine—and create—different, complicated and beautiful worlds. This diversity is precisely what built New York into the magnificent artistic space it was and is. 

And so, I return to Patti’s challenge to “find a new city,” and offer this in response: what if that search for newness is exactly what led us to this mess of gentrification, commercialization, and inaccessibility? What if our art was not predicated on displacement? What if instead of looking outward for cultural meccas to help us materialize our work—whether it is writing, painting, videos, or music—we built sustainable art communities exactly where we are? This is particularly relevant to people who aren’t normative and who are exiled from the communities that they were raised in. Whether you are gender-queer or a punk with green hair or black fashionista dude, NYC offers a refuge where your “weirdness” is not attacked (always) and is (at times) celebrated.

But what if we cultivated nurturing and challenging artistic communities that provided this refuge here at home?

It seems in Minnesota our particular challenge is to confront the gentrification of the artistic communities that exist and are being built (something that individuals and organizations are doing now in North Minneapolis, in St. Paul, and across the metro) and build dynamic artistic dreamworlds in the here and now. 

Let's just call it "smell ya later"

The (Fangirl) Guide to Literary Musicians