I (Still) Heart NY: Reflections on the Creative Life in the Big Apple

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the “goodbye New York” essay. Apparently, this well-stocked genre is taking a turn for the cynical as the cost of living in New York City continues to skyrocket. Alarm bells are sounding in the blogosphere and beyond: New York is squeezing out young, creative-minded individuals! New York is becoming an effete playground for the commercial elite.

For my part, I wrote about my move to the city a year after the Fung Wah bus dumped me and two enormous suitcases on a squabbling corner of Chinatown; now, five years later and safely uptown from Canal, I find myself again reflecting on the city that has shaped my early adult life. I’m not ready to write a goodbye essay yet (or, I think, anytime soon), but as someone who still feels creatively fulfilled and challenged here, I am inclined to add my more positive voice to the mix of increasingly hostile adieus.

I suspect that my experience has been colored by a few distinct factors working in my (or New York’s) favor. To start with, my initial zeal for frugality was borderline embarrassing. Okay, it was embarrassing. I breezed into the city planning to spend no more than 2 weeks on my friend’s couch, thereafter pay no more than $600/month in rent and, for all I factored in certain key quotidian costs that most New Yorkers happily absorb, glide through life in boring sobriety. I somehow succeeded at the first. As for the other two, I’ll give myself credit for lasting a few months before surrendering to reality.

Having fully adapted to my habitat in the intervening years, at this point I might as well just be throwing piles of cash into the air and waiting for wine to rain down on me, compared to myself of five years ago. Looking back, I can hardly believe how many elements of my current lifestyle I blithely denied myself, all the while keeping busy and focused enough that I never felt denied of anything at all.

That rigid frugality was obviously fortunate on the survival front. It allowed me to grow my savings on an entry-level non-profit salary for three years straight. During that time I sought free/cheap parties and networking events like it was my second job. I volunteered for independent film projects and learned the ropes in an industry in which I had no training; I spent time writing. I met other creatives who didn’t have much more money to play with than I. It worked out.

Of course, I lived in a series of less than desirable apartments in Brooklyn, not to mention extremely undesirable closet-rooms with sort of weird strangers in Manhattan, before I found an apartment I loved with a friend. Even that beloved apartment had its few…minor flaws. For example, it was sandwiched between a funeral home and a trash collection facility, the latter (I assume/hope) of which graced us with a very distinct odor at certain times of day. It was across the street from a Halal chicken slaughterhouse and less than half a block from a gritty and desolate swath of Gowanus. Huge garbage trucks idled outside the building for hours starting around 11:00 every night, rumbling so loudly that I had to close my 4th story windows and use headphones just to hear the Daily Show playing at full volume on my laptop. My roommate and I shared a single closet and a bedroom that I dubbed the “sleeping quarters” because no actual doorway separated it from the living room. This apartment was a good 45-minute commute from my job in Manhattan, and that trip could grow to nearly two hours if I tried to get home from parties in the wee hours of the morning. (Taxi? Who would ever think of taking a taxi at 3am? Oh. Like, everybody. Except me.)

But I thought it was all just great. I was close to a few wonderful friends. My apartment had plenty of sunlight, rooftop access, high ceilings, and hey, I wasn’t home that much anyway! When I was home I could watch the sunset from the roof and spend my evening writing and cooking while my roommate worked night shifts. More than that…this was New York! I was meeting new people! I was working on creative projects! I was learning production. It was a challenge and an adventure, and I had expected nothing less.

Which is all to say, well, the second thing I had going for me/New York from the start was that I had only a vague sense of the history of artistic power in this place. I had no lofty expectations nor romanticized notions of “the creative life in New York City” to fulfill. No visions of a quaint little loft in the West Village. No dreams of making it as a writer before I had to get a “real job.” I didn’t expect to hang out in cafes and pubs with famous-to-be artists. All I really knew coming in was that the few acquaintances I had in New York lived in Brooklyn, that it was going to be expensive as hell, and that, somehow, this magical place would allow me to pursue any or all of my too-numerous interests until I chose one – or just suddenly blew up into the international superstar I was always meant to be.

And that it did. Okay, maybe not the superstar piece (YET). But I definitely had the chance to squish as many career interests and “passions” into my little canvas bag of life as humanly impossible. But as my various endeavors began to require more and more time, it grew increasingly frustrating. Because I also knew, first and foremost when I arrived, that I had to find a job.

I tried my hand at your average coffee shop gig, hoping for a flexible schedule that would allow me to spend most of my time interning, freelancing and otherwise vaguely flitting from interest to interest until my roster of talents stretched to infinity. Unfortunately I realized within minutes that I would never be able to operate an espresso machine. (I guess we all have our strange handicaps.) I made a few halfhearted inquiries about waitressing, but everyone wanted someone with “service experience.” My only experience was office based. Office it would have to be.

Of course I hoped to find a full-time officey job that related to some actual concrete career interests. But since I didn’t really know which interest to focus on first, it was difficult to throw myself into one field or another with the singular dedication that seemed to be required (in 2008 at least) to get a rent-sufficient job in a production company, environmental non-profit or political office (the latter of which I was rapidly losing interest in anyway, thank god). As for jobs for burgeoning young writers…What? Hahaha!

So, three months after arriving jobless and apartment-less in New York, I took the first full-time temp gig I found, at a large non-profit where I was pleasantly surprised to discover an office-full of fun, bright and socially cognizant non-profiteers. The pay was terrible, but the hours allowed me decent time for getting involved in projects on the side. At least, decent time considering that said bright co-workers rapidly became a sprawling group of friends with whom I “worked” (went on coffee runs) by day and tumbled out onto the streets to explore the neon city by night. I’ve never been one to miss out on the fun, and I was just as happy to prioritize my ever-expanding New York social life as I was happy to work on creative projects.

And that’s the third thing that predisposed me to love New York despite the monumental cost of living: I love being around people. I need a certain amount of alone time, but forming new friendships and finding new social opportunities has always been distinctly exciting to me. Both friendships and social opportunities abound in New York if you take a little initiative. (And when you’re socializing with a bunch of non-profit kids and independent filmmakers, guaranteed you know all the places where you can get free lunch, free food at happy hour and well drinks for $3.50.) Life was good.

But, as I was always vaguely and fearfully aware, my goals in the first few years were pretty easy. Despite a continued openness to that milieu of interests I had been so eager to explore, I almost immediately found that film production piqued my interest the most. I knew I was starting from the bottom, with no formal education or experience, so I went to every networking event I found and volunteered to PA on independent film sets. Offering free labor is a pretty sure-fire way to worm your way into any chronically cash-strapped industry, and I expanded my knowledge base until I was taking on larger gigs and more important roles.

Which was great…except, finding time for worthwhile “side projects” became increasingly difficult. Faced with the same old time constraints that largely prevented me from being on set on weekdays, it was hard to advance beyond a certain level of skill and knowledge. The production gigs that I could take pushed my writing – that is, my most directly, independently creative time – into a corner where it was easily neglected in the absence of any real deadlines.

This is the frustrating place in which many creative-minded people find themselves stuck in New York, if not for the foreseeable forever, than at least from time to interrupting time. Whether it’s a day job that gets in the way of artistic endeavors, or paid freelance gigs that don’t ultimately pay the bills or truly represent one’s actual creative interests, making a living in New York City takes significant time and energy away from the creative space. Add, to the time spent making a living, logistics like laundry, groceries and desperate calls to your landlord about the latest leak/break/infestation, all done in different places sans vehicular transportation, and it quickly becomes overwhelming.

The fundamental difficulty is that creative endeavors tend to require conditions that are hard to come by in a big buzzing city – things like extended solitude, open stretches of quiet, reflection uninterrupted by the clamoring world outside one’s mind.

Of course, being creative also requires inspirational experiences. “Material.” And for ultimately collaborative endeavors like filmmaking, executing a creative vision requires a large network of contacts or at least a vast pool of eager for-hire professionals in easy proximity. For inspiration and people, New York City is a resource like no other. But finding the balance between creative space and social space, creative time and sustenance, art and money, is no easy task. Who can blame those who feel a crushing strain on their artistic freedom (and/or wallets), by the time we all finish paying more than half our earnings in rent to live an hour’s commute from jobs, friends and other important elements of life?

At the end of the day, the decision, to stay or to go, has always come down to the highly individualized question of creative and personal needs. If New York was considerably cheaper and less sprawling a decade or a few ago, of course it was easier for creative-minded people of all types to find the time and space for their art without compromising the income, friendships and decent living quarters that young people today struggle to maintain.

But many driven, creative people are still able to carve out workable lifestyles in the midst of the chaotic scramble. Is there now just a more specific type of person, or a smaller pool of people, who can survive New York? I suspect there are two types who hold a Darwinian advantage today: 1) those who are entirely comfortable living with, or on the perpetual verge of, debt, and, 2) those who are more naturally adept at splitting themselves and their time between a creative and a corporate persona.

I definitely don’t fall into the first category. In pursuing the second, I have found that the creative/corporate split requires careful lifestyle management. I have to impose limits on my socializing and networking; I schedule time to sit down and work on personal projects. I try to find creative inspiration or respite in long commutes by reading or just letting my mind wander into a reflective space. If I’m commuting home to Queens from a party in South Brooklyn late at night, I will now, finally, take a cab.

On the day job front, I eventually left the non-profit and found a producing job that relates to my larger career goals. Of course I still feel frustration at inevitably passing up opportunities and time to advance my own personal creative agenda. But it has been interesting to learn that many freelancers struggle equally to find time for their own projects while maintaining the near-constant search for the next gig.

In many ways, we’re all in the same boat. Pulling late nights when we can, carefully managing our schedules, and feeling at turns frustrated and invigorated by the constant challenge of balancing survival with artistic exultation. If the challenge ever ceases to be invigorating and becomes a wholly counterproductive battle, it might just be time to pack up, hop on a plane (or back on the Fung Wah), and find a slower pace at a lesser cost.

Maybe most of us – young, creative-minded, transplant New Yorkers – will reach that point of burn-out, when we’ve amassed all the experience we need for years of creative fodder to come and grown a bigger network than we can even begin to keep track of. When it’s just not interesting anymore to spend the majority of one’s time making a living, running from place to place through an underground maze, chasing after those few quiet hours to spend absorbed in creative work.

Maybe, New York is just for the young and the lucky. But that much, it probably always has been.

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