IT WAS PATTI SMITH who said, in a talk at Cooper Union in 2010, that “New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling.” Smith wrote in her memoir, Just Kids, about coming to New York as a “down and out” young woman, scraping by in a cheap apartment, creating a community of artists, and even at times paying rent with artwork.
But New York City has long since priced itself out of this lifestyle, with rent in Manhattan averaging $3,822 and in Brooklyn (the “less expensive” option) $3,035 per month. This means living in Brooklyn costs, on average, over $36,000 a year — higher than the salary of your average “young creative.” Our salary increases certainly have not kept pace with the cost of living.
When I was living in Brooklyn, I was paying $800 per month to split a three-bedroom with two other girls. We were living on the border of Lefferts Garden and Crown Heights, a quickly gentrifying neighborhood which, while it wasn’t bad, wasn’t exactly the bustling downtown area people expect when they hear “New York City.” When I initially moved to Brooklyn, I was looking for work as a writer / editor, which I found, sparingly. I was working as a writing assistant making $500-$600 a month, which is not much in general and is basically pennies in New York.
I can’t imagine that I’m alone in my experiences. Early creative work, what many call the “portfolio-building years,” inherently involves a lot of low-paying and non-paying jobs. We’re often seen as “apprentices” to our trade, despite our college educations and numerous internships. I’ve found that young creatives who desire to be financially independent from their families (which — despite what you may have heard — is most of them) do one of two things: They find a “real job,” a term I use skeptically, and attempt to pursue their passion in their free time; or they find a way to commodify their passion.
I was part of the former group, taking a job as a receptionist at a fertility clinic in midtown Manhattan. I ended up having a strong love / hate relationship with this job — I loved the patients and found myself getting very involved in their care, and I found the scientific aspects of the field absolutely fascinating. I learned a lot, both about medicine and about people, in my time there. However, this was not the reason I came to New York. I’m a creative, passionate, intelligent human being, and while I was able to inject this job with a bit of those qualities, it certainly didn’t force it out of me.
The “commodification” direction is one I saw many friends take — those who were interested in writing took jobs at social media companies as SEO bloggers, and those who wanted to work in film and TV found themselves working as assistants to talent agents. These jobs, while technically in the “creative industry,” probably utilized as little of my friends’ creative skills as my receptionist job did of mine. While this is probably the objectively better option, not everyone even has this opportunity — securing these competitive positions often requires years of unpaid internships and some degree of “connection,” leaving out those of us who had to work part-time or full-time jobs during college and were not able to devote our time to volunteer positions.
Unfortunately, both of these routes are problematic. Let’s explore.