NY versus LA Three Point Oh?

My mom and I were recently discussing the OLD New York. The one everyone says never truly existed but for in film and in our minds. But now, the corporations, we agreed, are building whatever they’re building and not an inch of it has any soul, like it’s a movie set. I know, I know, cliché but true. Historically, that’s what I might have said about Los Angeles.

I recently found myself telling a friend, a fellow New Yorker, that, “Oh, you’d love L.A.” Then it dawned on me, maybe, probably, he wouldn’t – but I do. How passive aggressive of me. How Californian.

L.A. is not for everyone – for sure – and this is still a website about Brooklyn. Yet, in an L.A. versus New York head to head list of positives and negatives, L.A. increasingly wins for quality of life and New Yorkers stand around at rooftop parties and shrug about their latest friend to move there.

My instagram feed is filled with pictures of friends boasting of their best coast for its slower and more flexible pace of life and peaceful palm tree paradises. A friend who used to be a neighbor in Prospect Heights told me over dinner in Silverlake last January, “My quality of life has improved immeasurably since I moved here.”

A sign in a Venice Beach store
A sign in a Venice Beach store

No more trudging to the train in snowy winters, or sweating it out on the concrete in August. Life in L.A. is grand. And cheap, I’m told. Another friend, who left Williamsburg for L.A. and got a job that doesn’t exist here, told me, “I’d rather sit in traffic than stare at somebody’s armpit on the subway in August.”

We were talking over drinks all the way across town in Venice Beach and the server had just informed us he doesn’t own a car and that he takes three buses, sometimes for almost three hours each way, to get to the East side for events. C’est la vie – but why rush? There are only so many things you can do in a day, man, so take your time. Why not bring a little of this attitude to the city that never sleeps, lest she soon break down and have a panic attack?

Of course there are downsides to the West, namely cars, and as a native New Yorker I love my subway. I’m not trying to bemoan my town, just suggest how we can make it better. Recently when I’ve gone to see friends locally and told them I was moving – to a new apartment – they assumed immediately that I would be defecting. I am not. Yet. I’m sticking around to see if we can get it together here in stubborn old New York.

The heart of it all New York
The heart of it all New York

But the reason it’s important to note is that ten years ago most New Yorkers wouldn’t have given a rat’s ass about the west or the south or considered either a livable cosmopolitan option, insert anything Woody Allen has to say about Hollywood here. To be taken seriously as a professional person, outside of filmmaking, one went to New York.

Out of college there was no question about whether I would come back to my hometown to set down some roots. The same went for many of my friends, but the few who did go west early struck it pretty decent out there. If I were graduating now, I would think twice, especially since they’re building public transportation for us auto-phobes to ride when we’re out in Southern California.

The tipping point for some isn’t just the better weather, it’s the climate each city poses to the  cannabis smoking population. Two things are at play here. It’s not just because they want to smoke it, but because living in a place where it is semi-legal makes for a culture of people who are more willing to be realistic about the future – relatively speaking – than we are in stodgy old industrial New York who won’t give up on the prohibition policy. Realism in L.A.? I said it.

The reasons to come to New York are myriad: people, environment, energy and connection inspire lives and practices. I don’t say anything to ward people off from moving here as others have done. Recently Paddy Johnson wrote a piece titled Don’t Move to New York for the L Magazine, because it’s “barely hospitable to those making the kind of art I love. It’s my job, though I don’t like it, to tell young artists thinking of moving that without connections, their job prospects are dim. The ugly reality is the cost of living is prohibitively expensive in New York.”

Is that really your job? To be hopeless? Why wouldn’t your sentiment be, ‘let’s do something to change it? I thought she really missed the point of being in New York – this atmosphere is ripe for artists and musicians and they are following suit creating and building great work. Yes it is unnecessarily expensive here and that needs to change, but artists don’t come to New York to find a deal on studio space, they come here to be inspired and to find themselves and their paths. There are ways to make it work, and people do, it’s just complicated and that’s part of the allure of coming here in the first place – to prove yourself. Many of my friends on the West Coast will quickly admit they wouldn’t last more than a few weeks here.

Patti Smith and Jonathan Lethem
Patti Smith and Jonathan Lethem via Vanishing NY

Paddy was basically writing the academic version of what Patti Smith said locally in 2010. Vanishing New York reported that in conversation with Jonathan Lethem at Cooper Union she was asked “if it was possible for young artists to come to the city and find the path to stardom that she did.

In response, Smith told the crowd, ‘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.'”

I think that’s irresponsible. If New York has been taken away from me, well then, I am going to take it back. The argument relies too heavily on the notion that one makes art to be a star – we’ve profiled at least one who would contest that – and that when faced with hardship or struggle, one should turn away and take the easier path. It also turns their back on the people who do come here, as if they’re idiots to do so, like ‘I did it, but you can’t,’ which I find really arrogant. It’s why people get turned off from snobby New Yorkers. If you’re snobby, it’s probably because you lack confidence. People have made it in New York under worse conditions, and are currently making it work despite them.

It all depends on what your work is, and what kind of life you want to lead and city life is definitely not for everyone. Like marmite. And by the way, lots of cool shit happens here – not just over-marketed restaurants, concerts, plays and nightclubs that are at times soulless sets – and it happens despite the struggle to do it. And it will, always, it’s just a matter of whether 5 or 5,000 or 50,000 or 500,000 people will be creating it. The proximity to that art and those people is why I live here.

But on the point of being an inhospitable environment, Paddy and Patti are on point. I don’t believe that the political leaders of our city and our state understand their short term thinking is creating untenable circumstances for the next generation who might choose to make New York their home. They willfully ignore how they can make it more hospitable to the middle and working class, to turn New York back into a culturally rich and vibrant city it loves to be, in favor of creating a punitive, inaccessible security environment that is aligned only with the interests of the wealthy – not the actual millions of people who are the backbone of New York’s famous personality.

Bushwick art
Bushwick Street Art

I’m not a New Yorker who complains about the influx of new people, I want lots of people to come here and make creative lives here, just not exclusively the over entitled relatives of rich people all over the country and world who buy real estate. For now we know big business and Mayor Bloomberg only want rich people here because they pay a lot of taxes and don’t use a lot of public services outside of the roads they travel in their tinted black SUVs.

A good start for accommodating and growing the middle class in New York would be to entice would-be defectors to stay and enable them to build their lives here in a tenable way. As it stands there is not a welcoming or hospitable climate here in New York for the young people whose work and ideas should rise to the top of pile unless they are the children of already famous and rich people, like Patti Smith. I know, I know, she’s a legend, I get it, it’s complicated.

But this is why rich people’s kids play other rich people’s kids on HBO’s Girls, a show ostensibly about being young in Brooklyn. I used to get mad at the show because I thought it didn’t reflect my borough, then I realized it was chronicling what the borough is becoming. That’s the kind of town we’re building with the over-saturation of this place in the media. Most of us, approximately 99%, don’t hang out in a group of exclusively white rich girls and behave in such a disgusting manner. None of this media is indicative of the truly rich and engaging film, music and art that are made by the people who live here, that is ignored by the vast majority of the media and thus also the people who live here, who are corralled into the fenced off pens of corporate-sponsored “culture.”

It’s complicated because many of the artists who live here straddle the line of benefiting from exposure, but suffer through lack of resources to get it, or struggle with the consequences of their work in the hands of others. For instance, a recent Marty Markowitz sponsored campaign to hire artists to paint street art on industrial walls was a great idea and beautified blocks of the borough. But it also signifies a few things for the neighborhoods that get new art: that artists live here (great for developers to sell condos, rent apartments) and that those artists are whiter and more affluent than anyone who was here before. That population might read this art as a code that they will soon be forced to pay more rent or leave. I remarked to a friend recently, who agreed, there is a trail of tears along the gentrified corridors of Brooklyn.

During a night out in L.A. on my last trip, I ended up at a bar where my server had previously been my neighbor in Prospect Heights not but a year before. She confessed that life was much easier out in West Hollywood, and she had no intentions of going back to struggling in New York.

Los Feliz Living
Los Feliz Living

Though driving around in your car is a much more isolated existence from one in which you’re constantly engaging with people everywhere you go as in New York, that can turn on its head pretty quickly if you are faced with the overbearing police presence here, especially if you’re not white. Say whatever you want about the police presence in LA, at least in the years since Rodney King was beaten, their ranks have attempted to publicly address racial issues, while in New York, since the murder of Amadou Diallo, we have integrated racial profiling into daily police practice called stop and frisk and act like “performance goals” aren’t quotas for bullying young brown men. So people are leaving New York in droves.

Someone recently asked me, “What does it mean when a man says ‘Newports?’ to me outside of the Port Authority?” assuming it was some kind of code word. I answered, “He’s trying to sell you cigarettes on the black market.” He didn’t believe me at first, but then realized how far we’ve come from the weed dealers who used to congregate around park entrances to deliver dime bags to customers. Now organic cannabis is delivered door to door and tobacco cigarettes are illicitly bought on the corner or individually at the bodega and mostly only brown people get caught doing either.

A native New Yorker from Fort Greene recently noted to me that as a former cigarette smoker and now frequent cannabis smoker, he felt that driving up the cost of cigarettes had made cannabis more attractive and cost effective to New Yorkers especially in the depressive post-9/11 era. This might explain why someone with few resources might have a leftover joint in their pocket instead of a pack of cigarettes when they are getting stopped and frisked. They could go to jail for that even though they basically cost the same price now. Why not get out of town then, if that’s how you’ll be treated?

I used to live on Washington Avenue above what was then Rawstar, the raw foods restaurant, and its Caribbean-born owner and chef, who I know as Mooki, is a Brooklynite tried and true. He would tell me of going to local public schools to teach kids how to grow their own food and then how to prepare it. He taught the local chefs at Park Slope raw spot Sun in Bloom a few tricks that inhabit their menu. But one day he got into an argument with a family member over business matters and, hearing their yelling, a neighbor called the police. Both ended up in jail. On a second such occasion, the neighbor – retaliating for other things – called the police again and this time they twisted Mooki’s arm behind his back so hard he had it in a brace, which he showed me, along with the bruises on his back – that’s how the police had treated him. They way they dealt with him, he told me, was to assume he was some kind of criminal, not the small business owner and lovely community-oriented man that he is. Mooki took off to New Jersey to start up his business again, and I bid him farewell when I saw him on moving day.

Condos in Austin during SXSW 2013
Condos in Austin during SXSW 2013

The defections to other places fill my Facebook feed, not just to L.A., but also to Austin, New Orleans, and most recently a few to Seattle. They set up the utopias that the media imperialistically refer to as the “Brooklyn” of a certain place. For some, anxiety grew over feeling watched by the cameras that increasingly recognize their clothes, accessories and faces, as their sides were met with elbows on a crowded train. At one point New York was the place to go for anonymity and alternative paths, now we film everyone the moment they step out of their home.

The burned out people who just don’t want to deal with this place anymore and can’t afford to buy into it’s comforts, now don’t even want to because the trade off isn’t there. For this same reason, this is also a trend that I see in the population moving from L.A. to the new gleaming condos raising on tech dollars in Austin – where things work like a combo of urban New York and car loving LA, but much cheaper, and your old friends come to visit once or twice a year for festivals and then go home. Phew.

San Francisco and New York have similar problems. Both cities are far too expensive and don’t recognize the needs of all populations in their urban planning futures – some people just get pushed out or fended off. Irish need not apply is now poor creative people go somewhere else unless you’re already rich.

For the young DIY strivers who struggle to make due in New York and San Francisco the operative function of their artistic and creative lives is the collective. The hackerspace, the collective, multipurpose retail or manufacturing space, the gallery slash venue slash loft apartment, multiple use spaces and dwellings are a patchwork of places seeking a sense of dignity and expression that must be the bare minimum due for humanity’s sake. For better or for worse, in that old New York I dream of sometimes, autonomous zones used to fill the city.

Being out West can make a New Yorker feel like you are in an autonomous zone bubble where ever you go because you’re driving, even if that means it’s also a sleepy droning 24/7 road race around town. On my last trip I went to see a new film, Here Comes The Night (with my good friend Jimmy Thompson who let me cat-sit for the well mannered and handsome Gatsby) and we headed to the after party across town. The film’s writers had spoken at the screening, and low and behold, half were native New Yorkers. They had just shown us the love letter they’d written to their city – Los Angeles.

Back east our city’s towers sit empty for masters of the universe to land and occupy them but three weeks of the year. Now, those are good tenants! We have spent a decade digging out of a recession by militarizing our police force and marketing the city to the world’s richest and most famous – whose real estate have created an entire niche category of the economy with prices that range from $20 to $100 million dollars – and also decide it’s a good idea to incarcerate poor folks for petty weed smoking than to have a permissive and vibrant culture for everyone. Insert fear-mongering line about guns or terrorism here.  

While I was out west, L.A. based comedian Justin Martindale took me to drag brunch at Hamburger Mary’s, which frankly upends ours, and even San Francisco’s, reputation for awesome gay things. Justin has a great bit about his Texan mother asking him to send over some of that reefer, and then trades on a classic New York movie reference.

The city’s pop culture brand iconography was created by great film and TV that led so many to move here – they related intensely to these primary cultural sources. Take the trajectory of women empowering media imagery: like the wave of feminists who moved here after seeing the 1964 film Sex and Single Girl. We’ve devolved from that to capitalist shoe obsessed Sex and the City to the younger demographic of the same, Girls – the iconography is vapid rich white college grads. At least Helen Gurley Brown, if white, was really smart, cool and confident.

The politicians don’t realize that the job creators are the folks you see behind counters and cash registers all across the city: they are the small businesses that we patronize everyday. They are artists and makers and retailers and food providers and musicians and filmmakers and designers and all the folks whose jobs revolve around the creative industries that have sprung up here over decades. These are the people that make New York, New York. Not the elites who fill Yelp’s pages with complaints about how the servers across town – mostly those who are struggling towards hopes and dreams – aren’t up to their standards. Who are those people?

And before I wrap this up I’ll hammer home the gigantic economic boom New York will have should cannabis be made legal. From retail, farming and distribution, and savings on the criminalization of these things, we would demonstrably opt for an expressive culture and strong economic growth that is tied to our local culture and is realistic about people’s lives, not punitive for personal choices. For now I’ll call it the post-Bloomberg era.

Of course, some people are always going to go and others always going to stay and the rivalry between the two won’t cease. But dear Angelinos, don’t count us out just yet, we’ll come around – and I’ll see some of you in the desert very soon.

Nicole Brydson Written by:

2 Comments

  1. July 16, 2013
    Reply

    This article absolutely nails it. I hope the author doesn’t mind me adding my story, as I feel I have a relevant experience to share.

    I am a 28 year old, born & raised outer borough New Yorker who lived in Queens until I was 11, Staten until I was 19, and Brooklyn(Wburg – Graham Ave) until I was 27. I used to say I would never live anywhere but NYC.

    One hour into my first time in California, my first time west of Pennsylvania, in San Francisco, and I was saying “I could live here”. 18 months later(this past October, we were in Denver when Sandy hit) my girlfriend and I were driving from Brooklyn to SF in a 16 foot budget rental truck. We didn’t have jobs waiting for us. We didn’t have an apartment. We had a 1 month airbnb apartment, a good amount of savings for two working class people, and the confidence that NYC has given both of us.

    I am also an extremely proud member of IATSE Local 52 Motion Picture Mechanics serving the tri-state area. My career in NYC was working 10-16+ hours a day making television, movies, etc. (mostly on Gossip Girl, terrible show, great crew though). My plan in SF was to contact the IATSE local out here and try to make a living doing part time entertainment crew work and composing music on the side.

    This idea was immediately discarded when I kept seeing ads for City College of San Francisco, and from seeing all of the people campaigning for LOCAL elections in the city. I had thought about going back to school for years(I dropped out of a SUNY after 1 year) in NYC but never had the window to do it as I had a well paying career in the film business. This was my window. I just finished my first semester, and not only is CCSF a great school but the out-of-state tuition I’m paying for the first year is cheaper than my in-state tuition would be at CUNY. My goal is to get my transfer credits and go to UC Berkeley, which is easy thanks to California’s community college to UC transfer programs. I want to be an advocate for working people, I want to complement the invaluable knowledge I have from being a New Yorker with the academic polish the UC system can provide. I want to return to NYC and give back to it 100 times what it gave to me.

    San Francisco is nice, but, like NYC, too expensive, and 8 months into living here we’ve decided we’re going to move to the East Bay, probably Berkeley. The lack of working class people in SF really bothers me.

    When people ask me why I moved out of NYC I have a one word answer: “Mountains”. The nature so easily accessible in the beautiful state of California is something you just don’t get in New York.

    My entire family lives in NYC. Everyone I’ve ever known lives in NYC. I miss the people regularly – but I don’t regret coming here. Will we be back in New York eventually? I want my kids to grow up in Brooklyn. For now, Virgin America has cheap direct flights from SFO to JFK and I’m always welcome at grandma’s house in Bay Ridge.

    I’d encourage all of you New Yorkers to come visit SF, rent a car and drive through the Marin Highlands, ride along the Pacific Coastal Highway and breathe in the fresh, cool air. You may not feel moved to live here but you will certainly appreciate it.

    Oh and one final note, FUCK HOLLYWOOD! 😀

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