On David Byrne, Nostalgia, Inequality, and the Future of New York

by: T.M. Brown

October 11, 2013

The first thing about nostalgia: it takes a period of time — whether it’s a an age with the epochal heft of the roaring 20s or that time you spent six months in Chang Mai finding yourself — and shrinks it down until you can cut them into slides and slot them into a giant carousel projector. These are the highlights. The tedious moments are stripped away so that time becomes a collage, moments thrown together without context or chronology. The second thing about nostalgia: it’s a bunch of bullshit.

David Byrne WILD mag

There’s a sentiment repeated so often in Williamsburg and East Village bars that it’s become something of a koan for expensively disheveled white 20-somethings: “I miss the old New York.” The old New York they’re talking about is the New York of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac as well as the New York of Lou Reed and Dee Dee Ramone and the New York of Basquiat and Mapplethorpe. It’s a grittier, acidic city full of artists living in affordable lofts and heroin addicts littering Tompkins Square Park with used spikes. Well-heeled irony hadn’t descended over the city quite yet. Creatives could be creatives without worrying about whether a first year analyst at Goldman was going to price them out of their Alphabet City basement. New York was halfway between bohemia and inferno, and that’s the way it should have stayed.

It’s too bad most of the people pining for the earlier incarnations of the City weren’t alive the last go round. David Byrne, frontman of Talking Heads, was. He moved to New York in the mid-70s, an age that provided a furrow between the sharp arcs of folk and punk. He wanted to be an artist and New York was the place to be one. “Hardship,” Byrne says in a recent op-ed for the Guardian,” was the price one paid for being in the thick of it.”

If he had stopped there, you probably would have heard the scratching sounds of a thousand bearded chins nodding in simultaneous agreement. Art is the distillation of struggle, after all. But Byrne goes on to torpedo those illusions that many young New Yorkers have about their city’s dusty past:

…those hardships aren’t so romantic – they’re just hard. The trade-off begins to look like a real pain in the ass if one has been here for years and years and is barely eking out a living. The idea of making an ongoing creative life – whether as a writer, an artist, a filmmaker or a musician – is difficult unless one gets a foothold on the ladder, as I was lucky enough to do. I say “lucky” because I have no illusions that talent is enough; there are plenty of talented folks out there who never get the break they deserve.

David Byrne WILD mag

It’s staggering to hear a successful artist give this sober and lucid a summary of how the creative world works. Luck, in all its lighter and darker forms (what are well-placed connections but a winning bet on biological roulette?), is a giant barrier and talent isn’t necessarily a prerequisite in getting around it. There are plenty of hacks staffing the best magazines; plenty of terrible bands topping the charts.

That paragraph is about something larger though, and it hinges on the financial realities of many people trying to make it in industries that don’t have any sort of illuminated path pointed towards success. (It’s not that hitting it big in New York is harder than it was in the past—in fact I’d say that given the ability to connect with tastemakers [or stalk them] on every social media platform has actually counteracted the dilution of a “scene” here so it might be easier than ever to get some traction in the arts. Thirty years ago I might have had an easier time landing a gig fetching coffee at Rolling Stone but the idea that I could actually reach a few thousand eyes would have been at least a few years away; the Internet might have thinned culture on the whole but fattened it for the individual. I’m not telling you whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing because I don’t know.) The ladder that Byrne talks about keeps adding new rungs, pushing people in fields outside a lucrative few deeper and deeper into financial doldrums. Talented kids that wanted to write or publish or sing or teach have been sucked into the only lucrative industries left in the City: finance and real estate. “Saving” is now an abstract concept unless you’re raking in six figures. Paying half your salary in rent is common. Being broke is normal.

In reading Byrne’s spirited call for upheaval, I find myself sort of numb. My friends that are dedicated to careers outside of padded cubicle walls and scrolling spreadsheets have all lit out for Philadelphia and Oakland and Berlin or barricaded themselves in the still affordable fiefdoms of Bushwick and Bed-Stuy (they’ll be moving out when the rent gets too high, though). The ones that can afford Williamsburg or NoLita do so with the help of Lloyd Blankfein or their parents. Everyone else keeps their nostrils slightly above the rising tide, hoping that someday they’ll make enough to get a mortgage and spend the next 30 years paying it off.

I feel myself ready to say goodbye to all that, and I’ll eulogize the old days of New York without pining for them. I’ll come back when I can afford a roof and a life. For his part, Byrne is optimistic: “Can New York change its trajectory a little bit, become more inclusive and financially egalitarian? Is that possible? I think it is.” He’s not deluded — he’s desperate.


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