Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Feeling So Vibrant I Gotta Wear Shades...

I'm headed to China shortly and should have some fresh, China-related material to post soon, Great Firewall permitting.

In the meantime, I've been thinking about more mundane matters. Specifically, where the hell am I going to live?

I moved out of Venice Beach after 25 years last November. When I moved to Venice in 1987, one of its nicknames was "Slum By the Sea." It was a cheap place to live, a bohemian refuge, in part because it wasn't exactly safe. There was gang violence. A lot of people living on the streets, many of whom had mental health issues, substance abuse problems. I was very lucky during my years there, overall. I was nearly mugged once, another time followed by a creep in a truck who thought I might want to f*** him (and called me a "hippie c*** when I yelled that I had his license plate number and was calling the cops).

I lived in a building where weird shit happened, where cops where frequently called, where the SWAT team showed up once, where there were needles on the stairwells, where guys would steal a microwave from the 5th floor and knock on my door on the 1st floor at 8:00 AM and ask me if I wanted to buy it. I was at times the person who intervened, who waded into weird situations because, I don't know why. I just did. Weird domestic violence case with two incredibly drunk, naked people that I christened "Blue Velvet in Real Life"? Yeah, I was the person who walked through the door and told the little creep to stop hitting his girlfriend. I guess I was pretty dumb, except I figured, "they're both really loaded, and he's a skinny little dude, and he's naked, so it's not like he's gonna pull out a gun out of his butt."

Venice stories, I haz them.

During that time, I did a lot of stuff. I played in a band. I wrote screenplays and weird, unpublishable novels. And I held down a full-time job at a film studio. I started as a clerk and worked my way up to a position that I used to refer to as "mid-level studio bureaucrat." Eventually I bought a tiny house that I called "Shack by the Sea." I went through a lot in Venice, but ultimately, I was happy there, or my last few years were, anyway. It was a place that was rough at times but that encouraged creativity.

As I started doing better in my life, as I started making more money, established myself as a professional (albeit an eccentric, fringie one), Venice gentrified around me. By the time I left, Venice had become a very desirable, and very expensive, place to live.

Which, you know, has its plus sides. I liked being able to walk all over the place at night. Liked having groovy bistros and wine bars a few blocks away. Loved it when the Whole Foods moved in.

But ultimately, a novelist like me couldn't afford to live in a place like that.

So, I sold Shack By the Sea, and I've spent nearly a year ping-ponging around, exploring other places, trying to figure out where I wanted to be.

I thought, San Francisco. I love San Francisco. I mean, who doesn't? But talk about insanely expensive. It's gotten to the point where you literally cannot find an apartment for less than $2000.00 a month, and if you do (there's a huge rental housing shortage), it's a tiny studio. The gentrification there has become  a civic crisis, as long-time residents are priced out of the city that many of them were born in. This New Yorker piece may sound a little bitter and over-the-top, but from my experiences, it expresses how a lot of people are feeling; also, the clueless entitlement of the wealthy who look at the city as their personal playground.

I recently went to Albany to attend Bouchercon. Albany is an interesting city. It's a combination of grand civic buildings befitting the capital of the state, lovely, old row houses and homes built in the 19th and early 20th century, and de-industrialized blocks where industry fled and not much has come in to fill the vacuum.

I had a great time tromping all over the place in Albany, but it was sad to see these abandoned blocks with shells of beautiful buildings, with urban renewal projects that had failed.

After Albany, I went to New York for an event and for meetings with my publishing peeps. I decided to stay in Brooklyn, because I'd hardly spent any time there. I ended up in Williamsburg, which is just a bridge away from Manhattan. You can walk from Williamsburg to Manhattan in about 40 minutes, not that much longer than a subway ride. It's a beautiful walk across the bridge spanning the East River, into Manhattan. And Williamsburg, it's nice. Another community with industrial spaces that were colonized by artists and are now way too expensive for most artists to afford. Cute streets with bistros and bars and coffee houses. I liked it a lot. But I doubt that I could afford to live there.

Manhattan, of course, gentrified long ago, taken over by finance barons and Masters of the Universe. For a lot of folks, it's become a City Museum, not a living, breathing, creative place, but an Incredible Simulation! Walking on Manhattan's streets, it doesn't necessarily feel that way, at least not to me, but it's true that I could never afford to live there. And a life long Manhattan resident told me: "Parts of Manhattan, you used to walk on those streets and they were packed with people. They're empty now."

Because the people who own the co-ops, who rent the apartments, they're very wealthy, and they only live in Manhattan part-time.

So, where does that leave writers and artists? Queens? Vallejo? Detroit?

As a sidebar, I have to share an article I just read that inspired the title of this post. It's by the incredibly brilliant Thomas Frank, who wrote "What's The Matter With Kansas?" This piece is about the buzzword "Vibrant," and how encouraging artists and colorful creative types has basically become a substitute for addressing real, structural problems in the US economy. Instead, it's "let them eat art," where:
We build prosperity by mobilizing art-people as vibrancy shock troops and counting on them to . . . well . . . gentrify formerly bedraggled parts of town. Once that mission is accomplished, then other vibrancy multipliers kick in. The presence of hipsters is said to be inspirational to businesses; their doings make cities interesting and attractive to the class of professionals that everyone wants; their colorful japes help companies to hire quality employees, and so on. All a city really needs to prosper is group of art-school grads, some lofts for them to live in, and a couple of thrift stores to supply them with the ironic clothes they crave. Then we just step back and watch them work their magic....
...Vibrancy is a sort of performance that artists or musicians are expected to put on, either directly or indirectly, for the corporate class. These are the ones we aim to reassure of our city’s vibrancy, so that they never choose to move their millions (of dollars) to some more vibrant burg. An artist who keeps to herself, who works in her room all day, who wears unremarkable clothes and goes without tattoos— by definition she brings almost nothing to this project, adds little to the economic prospects of a given area. She inspires no one. She offers no lessons in creativity. She is not vibrant, not remunerative, not investment-grade. 
(I'm not doing this piece justice with these quotes. Just go read the whole thing)

I know that cities change and evolve and gentrify. Or decay. It's one of those life-cycle things. But what does it mean when a city like San Francisco, a city that has always been a refuge for the eccentric, for writers and artists, is no longer affordable for the people who were so essential to creating its character?

What happens when cities lose the qualities that made them what they are?


Bryn Greenwood said...

It's a dilemma, because of the way roots form even when we don't intend for them, too. On the one hand, the "vibrancy" that artists provide is mobile. We can pick up and take it anywhere. Choose our next Austin or our future San Francisco. On the other hand, so hard to leave a place that has become home. No easy answer to being priced out that home.

As for, "it's not like he's gonna pull out a gun out of his butt," those were innocent times, weren't they? I'm not sure I'd assume that nowadays...

Also, as a curiosity, my captcha word: thatwhor.

Other Lisa said...

Hahhah, yeah, I was kind of dumb. There were other times I rushed out of my apartment with a baseball bat. And then other OTHER times when I'd hear gunshots, I'd just ignore them. Ho hum.

Interestingly, I've returned to my real hometown, San Diego. And I'm really liking it here. Call it my "Dorothy" moment.

Anonymous said...

You CAN go home again---!

linda sheehan said...

I'm just reading this post today A native New Yorker,I've lived in all the boros except for the Bronx. (also have lived and traveled all over, and studied mandarin)
I recently moved back to my native (non hipster) Brooklyn neighborhood Bay Ridge. I now live 5 blocks away from the apt I lived in as a child!
I love it! It's a real neighborhood .The only change from my childhood is the increased diversity.
If you're ever thinking of moving to the NY area ,I'd recommend it.
Also have to put in a word for Queens-it's a great place and the most ethnically diverse county in the US!
Love your books-it's certainly not the China I remember from the 80's!

Other Lisa said...

Linda, very nice to hear from you! I do really enjoy NY when I get there. I love the neighborhoods, and that it's a walking city.

And, yes. My first time in China was 1979, and the changes are staggering, with some of the biggest in terms of transformed landscapes occurring over the last decade. If you haven't been back, I recommend it -- quite a jaw-dropper!