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On Wednesday, Slate published a piece by Matthew Yglesias about why D.C. is, essentially, a terrible place for young, creative people to live.
The article has since flown about social media, causing many a sad emoticon and, apparently, excessive vomiting. The jab is all the more painful because there is some truth to it—D.C. is damn expensive, and we don’t have as many entrepreneurial opportunities or as much cultural cred as, say, New York. That’s not exactly shocking news, since New York is the biggest city in the country, with more than 10 times the residents D.C. has. But it’s still frustrating to hear so much haterade tossed at your town when all kinds of artists and musicians are busting ass to make some really cool stuff around here. Speaking as a proud local resident, musician, and arts journalist, I think Yglesias—-while he’s not totally off base—-sold our fair city short.
First, there are bizarre references to the murder rate, which is both irrelevant and inconsistent; are cities with a lower murder rate “cooler?” If so, how does he square that with his argument that D.C. was most culturally important in the ’80s, when the murder rate was significantly higher than today? And besides, does anyone think places he mentioned like Cincinnati or Kansas City are significantly cooler than D.C.?
But what really hit home for me was this line: “…if you’re a semi-employed artist or guitar player it’s much more expensive than Philadelphia or Baltimore and still smaller and less interesting than New York City, which has less than one-third our murder rate.” Again, I’m not sure how the murder rate is germane, but the cost-benefit ratio to the creative class is a pretty big deal. Speaking as a “semi-employed guitarist,” I have to admit he’s partially correct. If you’re in a rock band and simply need a hub from which to tour, both Baltimore and Philadelphia are generally more affordable than the District. They have cheaper rent, more artist studios, and more practice spaces.
But if you’re looking for a city with a decent grant system, a slew of great venues, a consistent dedication to making the arts accessible, and a strong sense of community, I would argue D.C. easily tops those two.
We have a gloriously free art culture here. Look at events from the Smithsonian hosting music & art shows with folks like John Davis and Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, to summer concerts series like Fort Reno, Fort Dupont, and the National Gallery’s Jazz in the Garden. There are the regular pay-what-you-can nights at theaters like Woolly Mammoth, the cheap or free boundary-pushing exhibits at Artisphere, and access to world-class art museums that don’t cost a dime. Those “large sums of money” that Yglesias says are handy for going out to dinner in D.C.? In New York, you’d be dropping them to visit the MOMA, instead.
D.C.’s cultural strength comes precisely because the city isn’t in the business of manufacturing coolness. Unlike New York or L.A., we aren’t drowning in ladder climbers and mercenaries. It’s generally assumed you have to work another job as a musician/artist/actor in D.C., and there’s a certain spirit of collaboration that’s not fraught with opportunism. You can go to Fort Reno and fraternize with hardcore veterans like Ian MacKaye (and sometimes Henry Rollins) and expect a relaxed, supportive atmosphere. While there are musicians for hire in D.C., it’s equally common for people in the music scene to simply collaborate for art’s sake. There may not be the same networking opportunities in D.C., but as a result, there’s not the kind of cut-throat competition and careerism.
The DIY, punk rock spirit in D.C. still supports bands without managers, fosters affordable shows, and encourages community activism. Is there a New York equivalent to Positive Force? Since 1984, the activist collective has and continues to host benefit shows for local charities, featuring big-name acts like Ted Leo and Titus Andronicus alongside myriad locals. Are there many prominent all-ages venues in New York? 9:30 Club is consistently ranked among the best clubs in the nation and doesn’t require patrons to be of drinking age (nor do the Black Cat or the Rock and Roll Hotel).
So sure, if you’re a penniless artist or musician looking for endless dirt-cheap housing options in non-gentrified areas, Philadelphia or Baltimore is probably a better bet. If you’re willing to hunt for an affordable spot (there are still a few left), though, D.C. has a slew of cultural benefits, a grassroots music community, very little pretense, and a long history of creative success.
Of course, we also have more than our fair share of wonks writing contrarian pieces for the Internet. But hey, no city’s perfect.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery