Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Feeling so vibrant I gotta wear shades...

I'll be going to China in a couple of weeks and should have some fresh, China-related material for all you Murderous Ones soon...

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?

Lisa...every other Wednesday...


  1. What a piece, Lisa. You've nailed a problem I've lived through in NYC, that's spread like plague to so many other cities including your SF and parts of LA. It's sapped away the energy that made them special in the first place. Virtually all that remain living in Manhattan are the very poor (essentially in "projects") and the very rich (by any national standard). Fuggedabout the super rich. That's an entirely different story.

    I lived in the East Village "back in the day," and actually owned a club there. The differences are remarkable. Folks with money want to live where it's cool. The artists and clubbers left the East Village for Williamsburg, then on to Long Island City and now on to.... well, you get the point.

    It was once said that all the energy in Manhattan existed below 14th Street, and the "Bridge and Tunnel" crowd was mocked. Today I think you might say that the energy has hiked across those bridges and hitched a ride through the tunnels.

    And what brought all this about? In NYC the answer to me is simple: the termination of Rent Stabilization slowly allowed the free market to set the rents. Whether the result is good or bad is debatable. What is not is that today you must be financially well off to live even modestly comfortably in Manhattan.

    Which I should add is why some of the really cool artist and club types are moving further and further away from Manhattan (but still within striking distance)...a few even to as far away as the beautiful buildings of Albany!

  2. Lisa, my answer to your final question: They lose their soul, and end up seemingly alive but soulless. Such beings are called zombies. I lived in the West Village in the rough and tumble 70's, bought a house there when NYC was going bankrupt and the President of the US told us to go f**k ourselves. Since then, my old neib has undergone gentrification on jet fuel. A house you could have bought for less than $100K in the 70's recently sold for $20 million. Now it is all beautiful and BORING. This being New York, it's denizens are still racially, ethnically, and sexually diverse, but not financially. Even the artists--all two of them still left there--are hideously rich and BORING. The real estate moguls, aided by our billionaire mayor, took over the hospital and are turning the site into a condo complex where each unit will cost $15 million and be BORING. It's the Zombie Jamboree there now. I moved across town to where I am surrounded by NYU students. They can get raucous at times but at least are fully alive. My advice: live in a student area. It's the best answer I can come up with.

  3. When I was younger, I thought highly of efforts to "preserve the past," to maintain things of social or historical significance, to keep things alive, to carry on old traditions. But with age and experience (and hopefully SOME wisdom... shut up, Jeff) I've realized that, while history and knowledge of it IS vitally important, trying too hard to preserve what's come before is a fool's errand. We live on ice flows and must be ever ready to jump to the next block of ice as the currents of human society push us to and fro. Cities, and the people that live in them, live and change and die. People want what they don't have. People with money want to buy what they want, they just don't realize that you CAN'T buy life and you can't buy soul.

    And so it goes, and so it goes...

  4. Thanks, all. I think what this discussion points to at its heart is income inequality. This would not be such a huge problem if the working and middle classes were doing better, economically. Address the ridiculous wealth disparity, pay people a livable wage, and finding a place to live will become a lot easier. Yes, gentrification always happens, but this turbo-gentrification on steroids strikes me primarily as what happens when you enrich a tiny percentage of the population and impoverish the great majority. This is the primary point of the Frank piece I linked to, which I think is just brilliant.

    As for me, I think I'm settling in San Diego. It's not inexpensive but it's quite a bit cheaper than the Bay Area, and it's where I'm from.

  5. Yeah. I hear you. It's not only the cities. It's small scenic towns all over the West, many inhabited by movie stars. Years ago traveling around with my Airstream trailer in order to work for peanuts as a Forest Service biologist, I called it the Guccification of the West. I saw it in Utah, Montana and now Idaho, although I knew about the ritzy aspect of the latter, unless you want to take up residence in a dull, Mormon farm town. No thanks. Same with flyover country. No thanks. Everything is relative, though, and the same aspects of a Montana town, scenic but decrepit in places, that drew hordes of artists and writers in the '70s still exists even though some of the writers are rich now. I'm ready to trade down.

  6. Yeah."Guccification" indeed! Sometimes it feels like we're creating a society where only rich people are allowed to live in interesting, nice places.

    1. That really is it. It's all about the winners these days.

  7. Life has become a puzzle. It seems to be good, but only for a few. Others of us have to make do, and somehow, most of us do make it. I felt all the nostalgia for NYC the way it used to be, and then for SF the way it used to be, and I've been in Venice (40 years ago) when everything seemed safe, and charming. Fortunately, I've found a home where I can fit in, but make no mistake-the boring homogenization is happening here too. I hope you like San Diego. I thought it was very pretty, and that living there seemed easier than some of the places you mentioned.

    1. San Diego is beautiful. I'm much more aware of how pretty it is now than I was a few years ago. All the hills and canyons and brush, and ocean. And gentle. It really is an easier place to be than many. Great beer too! :)

      Glad you've found a place where you fit, sorry that creeping homogenization is happening to it, though...

  8. San Diego is a great place to live, I've heard from a friend. And it's so beautiful.

    Want to say that some of us living in Manhattan are neither rich nor living in projects. I live in a very multi-economic neighborhood with a mixture of newer, more upscale people, tourists coming through and old-timers. It seems to work for us.

    Several friends who work in Manhattan live in Jersey City, some in apartments, some share houses. It seems to still be a place where one can find a reasonably priced apartment and still be 20 minutes from Manhattan via PATH or car or bus.

    Can't wait to hear more about China when you visit, always interesting and educational posts.

    1. Thanks -- and glad to hear that you've found a place you like that works for you!

      And yes, San Diego is really nice -- and quite a bit more "vibrant" than it was when I was growing up here.

  9. It's a very interesting post about the dynamics of city neighbourhoods.
    Some of them evolve continuously, others just stay the same for decades, like the Paris suburb village Charonne described by Cara Black in her post "A village in Paris". Sorry didn't found out how to link to it from this comment section.

    But the bottom-line of this post I would say is people like you actually are the avant-garde of the gentry. First you come, 15 years later they 're arriving.

    I wish you a favourable quest for a new home.
    As for to what places to go then for writers and artists:
    New Orleans maybe?
    But that's just a guess from a stranger who never was in the States.

    It's always easier to live in the place where you're from.
    Big Belgium beer brand Stella has the following slogan:
    Your home is where your Stella ( so your favourite beer) is.
    And you mention the beer is that great in San Diego. So ...

    Greet you!

    1. Hi Thijs! Great to "see" you here! And yes, I've just about settled on (and in) San Diego. It's a nice place, and seriously about the best beer you'll ever drink. :D