Is New York Losing Its Spirit?

I’m kidding, I never asked that.

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You know how Frank Sinatra says if you can make it in New York, you can effectively make it anywhere? I’m paraphrasing and doing a shitty job at that, but you get the point.

Do you think the notion behind that lyric is precisely what elicits the spectacular flood of immigrants, transplants and aspiring [insert vocation here]-ists to, you know, come over and “make it”? This week, David Byrne offered a shrewd look at the City’s wavering trajectory, detailing S/He Who Makes It in New York and how that personality is changing.

An old friend of mine used to say that the single most salient feature of the City’s success lays in its ability to hand select who gets to live here. It’s the kind of city that either adopts you as its own, like a clique of Mean Girls who love each other but hate everyone else, or spits you right out, thrashing you back with little if any remorse to a suburb you probably didn’t even come from. He wasn’t from here and conceivably “made it” so I think that lends some salt to his assertion’s worth.

But Byrne argues that the City’s criteria for adopting the hopeful have shifted from grit and talent to liquid assets. Gone are the days when eager neophytes could come here penniless and not only hope to make something, but actually find that they’ve become something.

In his article, which was re-published from The Creative Time Report in The Guardian on Monday, Byrne romanticizes the opportunities inherent to living in New York. “We come to New York for the possibility of interaction and inspiration. Sometimes, that possibility of serendipitous encounters – and I don’t mean in the meat market – is the principal lure.”

He continues, “New York is funky, in the original sense of the word – New York smells like sex.” But Byrne’s tone shifts when discussing the City’s accessibility, “aside from those of us who managed years ago to find our niche and some means of income, there is no room for fresh creative types.”

The point of view is interesting, especially as told by a Scottish transplant who came with nothing, lived the glamorized life of a starving artist that many creatives idealize, then proceeded to accrue enough clout and cabbage to nourish himself. Though he’s not wrong that the ever-increasing cost of New York living hinders the city’s hospitality towards young creatives, there is still a vibrant culture of creativity and innovation.

And that’s not to discredit the effect of rising rent; the raw, bohemian spirit of the Village has lost its nucleus, decentralizing to flophouses in distant boroughs. But Byrne overlooks a critical element, one which expands New York’s cultural landscape: the Internet. I’d be hard-pressed to argue that the still favorable circumstances of “making it” here, which now exist through a digital vacuum thanks to the Internet and start-up culture, are of no value.

It’s chilling to think about what might happen if the city is in fact spitting out potential and only letting seasoned meat successfully penetrate the picturesque skyline, but we’re a town built on permutation, on quick turnovers and sesame seed bagels.

In line with that, maybe the city is just attracting a new genre of creative type, still focused on innovation, but exploring new territory. All we need is a little time to prove our worth — and to that, the conversation on whether New York will continue to maintain its charisma and status as The Best City in The World is always a good one to canvass, so, let’s get talking.

Edited by Kate Barnett

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  • Claire

    Title legit made my heart hurt. It can’t happen.

  • Amy

    Did you read Simon Doonan’s The Asylum? His chapter on Kate Moss has a similar theme. There’s a fair amount of creativity research that supports the concept that the most ground-breaking creative people have overcome something really, really difficult–not necessarily economic. You can see some in the music industry who, when the process was quite a bit more open (not everyone had the last name Cyrus way back in the day). But I do think Doonan’s on to something, and others are too.

    Good questions.

  • Marcia Lee

    I think it is a valid provocative idea, though, that the concept of social media which was supposed to (and to a certain effect, has, clearly) democratize the creativity and talent has also created an immensely thick layer of mediocrity to permeate through, and subsequently counteracting and making true talent even more difficult to make a splash. as you pointed out, making it “here” doesn’t even necessarily refer directly to new york anymore, but rather national or international community of creatives that all seem to connect through the internet. Is this the New York as in the geological NYC we’re talking about, or the larger creative community of which New York stands for?

    • Leandra Medine

      That is a terrific question. I’m not sure. I think the geographic location New York is highly informed by that creative community — what do you think?

      • Marcia Lee

        I think New York is certainly a much stronger concentration of creatives and therefore more informed and critical of new talent, the talent it attracts and the stigma of NYC’s creative circle makes anyone who lives and works here somehow seem more valid. From a social media perspective stumbling onto an artist based in NYC seems somehow more credible than a creative based in Cincinnati (no offense meant!). On the reverse end, as a “creative” working here, I know there are and have met a million like me of various talents, and am also familiar with the connected NYC circles of influencers with whom I’d presumably need to meet in order to make any kind of impression. That said, it’s also easy to see how quickly true talent emerges once he or she has tapped into the right ambassador, as you mentioned this is a city of quick turnovers, yet you have to navigate and position yourself correctly for that “serendipitous encounter”. Not so serendipitous is it?

        • Madame Ostrich

          Brilliantly said, Marcia!

  • Carley Frost

    Today’s post reminded me somewhat of this article from The Cut that I read last week.

    “Why would I want to make it there (being nyc) when I can make it everywhere else?”

  • I haven’t read the full Byrne piece, though I obviously need to. I think by the sheer fact that the cost of living in New York is so ridiculously high, the vast majority of people who “make it” have to come from some kind of privilege in order to do so. It’s extremely hard to move to New York when you’re 18, even if it’s for school, and get through four years having stacked up on the necessary internships to get your foot in the door in most creative industries, if you have to find a regular old paying job just to make ends meet. Once they’re out of school, there’s little time to pitter-patter as the clock ticks on student loans. It’s a struggle, not one that I can directly relate to (and I feel grateful for that), but I’ve seen a lot of talent get lost because those talents are pushed aside in order to survive in the rat race of living here.

    • d4divine

      You nailed it. The prevalent creativity in New York these days lacks the grit that it used to have…all the gritty folks had to take it elsewhere…..perhaps Cincinnati

      • Claudia

        The people who appreciate gritty creativity also seem to be taking it elsewhere, like Julian Casablancas.

  • It’s true, by relocating so much work and creative/leisure activities to the virtual world, a new space has been created, one that is running parallel to the physical one (sometimes clashing with it, the other times running along or away …) – I owe my present job and many of my social contacts to the internet and when I realize I don’t even know the tiny town we’ve lived at for 8 years very well, let alone the country itself (I moved to Germany in 2000 and haven’t had much time to really see it. Or to get to know many Germans.), I am not very surprised.

    On the other hand, if you live in a big fruit like NY (sorry), it will inevitably shape you and if you’re lucky, there’s at least some much-needed money to be had at the end of the process, so you can stay there and are not a loser, so possibly you need to be more virtually active to survive in NY …

    Funny, how important the internet can be, though: It keeps people in small German villages thinking and feeling theirs is a huge world 🙂 with enough space for everyone (which of course is not true, not always, but much truer than the kind of things going on in small places in real life)

  • Liz

    It seems that you grew up as rather financially privileged and already living in NYC. You may be a bit disconnected from how difficult it is to simultaneously move there and find a job to sustain oneself. Just that alone can kill the chances for anyone to join the ranks of this “vibrant culture of creativity and innovation”. From an outside perspective it seems like an exclusive and exclusionary club.

    • it was admittedly rather intimidating moving here – i do not come from a financially privileged background nor creatively educated, but it is not impossible and people are quite friendly and open to newcomers, as long as you are open-minded, ready to learn and be prepared to manage expectations, because building a network doesn’t happen instantaneously, and getting a job and meeting the right people involves a lot of homework before just moving in.

    • Kate Barnett

      Hey Liz! Thanks for your comment. I worked on the piece with Leandra and have been living in New York on and off since I was 18. We’re definitely not saying that the cost-of-living is reasonabel, or that it’s easy to be in Manhattan. It’s not. I’ve lived in hovels, been priced out of 250 sq/ft apartments, and even moved home for a bit. For the past year I’ve lived outside the city, but still have the opportunity to work on Man Repeller (mostly behind the scenes), which keeps me tied in to the energy and inspiration that drew me to New York in the first place. A decade ago that wouldn’t have been an option. Which isn’t to say the Internet’s a replacement for Basquiat’s LES – obviously it’s not. But the city’s tradition of culture and innovation is still quite rich, and some new elements of that seemed overlooked in the article.

  • Luis

    No, New York is not losing its spirit. People like you, keep it alive.

    I love living here, and see creative/cool/youngandolddreams all around everyday — anyone who is here, is fully surrounded by awesome New York. It is up to us to notice.

  • Katelyn

    Since a very young age I thought I was going to go to NYU and make the great move to New York and never turn back. However, I’ve just graduated from college (not in New York) and now find myself applying to graduate school and I am not certain that I will make that move I swore to my childhood self I would. I am finding many other high school and college friends going to NYC and some of those same people formerly mocked me for obsessing over and traveling to New York City so often. I have been frequently asking myself why them and not me? I’m from a different big American city so maybe I am lacking that small town cabin fever to really entice me away to the big apple. I don’t think it is a matter of NYC loosing it’s spirit. I think it is a matter of other cities upping their game. I think we are finding ourselves in an urban renaissance where cities are getting innovative and drawing more and more people to them. I fell in love with cities through constant travel to NYC, but as a young adult I am noticing many cities across the country and globe thriving. Today, more people live in urban areas than rural and the focus on the city is intensifying.

    • Hereshoping Themayanswereright

      Your comment is very perceptive and well put. I’ve noticed the “other cities upping their game” factor as well. While I live in a smaller city, it is extremely creative and intensely supportive of the arts, the weather is incredible and it feels like paradise 24/7. Even though I’m in a creative field that would generally be thought to benefit greatly by living in NYC, I, like you, feel no enticement to leave. With the internet there really is no need, you can create from anywhere.

  • Tensy

    My daughter lived in NYC for two years and worked in advertising. She moved to San Francisco a year ago because she did not like living in NYC, although she loved her job. I see more and more young people choosing SF over NYC to start their careers. It could be because the tech companies originated there, but there is a definite buzz of entrepreneurship and start-ups. The weather is so much better and the people more relaxed. I asked her if she would ever return to NY for her career and she said, “no way, I get sent there on business every few months, and I don’t regret my decision one bit.”

  • d4divine

    As much as I despise the air of privilege that has gobbled up New York, I still love living here.

  • Lavender

    NYC is still city of my dream, I would never stop dreaming to get there and feel atmosphere

  • Fuchaforever

    So if not NYC…then what are these other great American cities that support creativity???? Anyone???

    • Cunt Power

      Downtown Los Angeles

      I’m overwhelmed by the opportunity I’ve found here to be creative and interact with creative people.

    • Jasmine

      Chicago. San Francisco. Portland. Seattle. New Orleans. Austin. Hell, even DC. Maaaaaaybe even Miami, increasingly so at least.

  • margot

    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. – patti smith

  • ni ni

    This comment on David Byrne’s article was excellent:

  • Selena Aponte

    I still get butterflies when crossing the Queensboro (Ed Koch) Bridge or walking along the Brooklyn Promenade..

    … It is a visceral experience, loving and respecting the city allows you. I’m a native New Yorker & a seasoned traveller, but I can’t imagine leaving. I’ve been fortunate enough to switch careers and have access to the variability of options I might not have had otherwise in another locale. Yes, it’s expensive and multifaceted.. you deal with it and move on. simple.


    New York will be always New York, I have no doubt. A city always in my dreams.

    From Europe,


  • But it is normal that a city that was for the most part inviting to all walks of life and socioeconomic groups was going to be a hotpot and fertile place for crossinsemination of ideas. Nowadays it is for the most part only the economic elite that can afford to live there and too much of any population sector is always going to impede creative impulses. That is why places like Berlin is so buzzing because it is still affordable and poor struggling artists can manage to rent a studio for 300 euros a month but still be streets away from wealthier possible patrons.

  • Kate

    It’s an interesting point: that the inundation of social media has paved a path for mediocrity and where does that leave the truly talented creatives who need to set themselves apart? It’s a struggle everywhere but yes, particularly in New York where “starving artists” are a dime a dozen. I’m a native New Yorker so perhaps my view is skewed but I still believe in the old adage that “if you can make it here you can make it anywhere.” New York has always been a tough city to navigate. It can be rude, intimidating and utterly overwhelming but there is nothing like the rush you feel when you find your rhythm and you’re pounding the pavement amongst a sea of people who came here to live out their dreams. Sure, it’s cliche but that is what defines New York and does make it The Best City in the World…. a community of people striving for greatness and that hunger and determination they possess to attain that.

  • Sam

    I read this post and agreed for the most part. I was not going to respond until I scrolled through the comments ….

    I am a “native” New Yorker (go ahead, roll your eyes) and I come from a different kind of Manhattan than what you may have seen on Gossip Girl. Growing up in New York City I had friends from all kinds of household incomes but at the end of the day we all had one thing in common we were: kids of the city. Some of our parents were “creative” types, taking on multiple part-times just to keep the rent paid and our bellies full. As we grew older their previous advice: “stay inspired,” became “save your money, go to college.”

    See, our parents saw what was happening to the city … River view condos were going up, street art was being “cleaned” up and eviction notices stuck to doors of “mom and pop” stores. Change is good, agreed. However you cannot fool anyone (that knows only this city as home) NYC has not lost something. It has, NYC lost its character.

    Most kids of the concrete jungle who do not come from wealthy backgrounds are struggling just to continue living in the only place they know. I am one. In my early twenties I pay for school every semester out of my own pocket (not my parents), I have two part-time jobs and intern four days out of the week. I went to a very well known performing arts NYC High School and have seen a lot of my extremely talented friends struggling to share how extraordinary they are because they’re busy keeping their heads above water. We too are trying to stay loyal to our dreams while also paying the bills. However, where we different from some of you is we don’t have the suburbs to run to when we need to take a breather.

    The point I need to make clear here (after that rant… ) is the kids of the creativity type have been stifled (due to various circumstances), less immigrants can survive in this city and its becoming a destination rich with middle Americans. The combination of international and American influences is what made NYC so great in the first place, the children of immigrants gave it its rawness. People are coming to NYC for what it once was but I’m afraid it has lost some of its flavor.

  • “Cities have sexes: London is a man, Paris a woman and New York a well-adjusted transsexual.” – Angela Carter

  • Molly

    Okay, so we’re finally saying it out loud. And as this reality settles on me, I somehow feel an acceptance and am now wondering what the solution is – see, total New Yorker at heart.

    The sad, undeniable truth is that there is a new reality and New York, remaining the economic epicenter, artistically and culturally, it has grown provencal. The obscene amount of money it requires to live in ANY part of Manhattan, eliminates most of the true avant-garde, who use to arrive in NYC because of the scene of mutual poverty and, sounding so cliche, for art’s sake. But, who could blame them, when you can be creative anywhere and via the internet, be recognized for it, AND eat too. It used to be that you had to come to NYC to be at the center of whatever your art was, food, theatre, visual arts, but now you can hip and arguably more hip because you live in Asheville or up in the Berkshires, or Maine, or Santa Fe or better, San Francisco.

    I’m like each of you who bothered to read this post and comment, I LOVE New York, the old one and the romantic in me can easily slip back into denial about my relationship with this city, like an old flame you meet up with and with whom you share a drink and get misty eyed together over how sweet it was. But the sad, awful truth is it’s over.

    So, what now? I think we, you and I, are living there now- it’s the internet and like the old NYC it’s cold, harsh, quick to chew you up and spit you out if you ain’t got it, but if you can make it there…

  • Gabby

    Awesome article! Something that I think about on the daily.

    • julesx

      NYC is losing it’s spirit because it actually has standards? I don’t think so! Everyone wants to be here because everything is at your fingertips. The best of the best is here. The most interesting people in the world walk the streets. Do you have to be privileged to be a part of it? ABSOLUTELY NOT. Just like any dream all you have to do is have the desire and drive to execute. Living in Manhattan is 100% possible for any class as long as it want it bad enough. If you don’t? Have fun in Cinci

  • This title… almost killed me

  • Sarah Fentem

    As a midwesterner who’s never been to NY all the visions of the city swimming around in my head come from When Harry Met Sally (if I’m feeling romantic) or David Byrne’s own Life During Wartime: The sound of gunfire, off in the distance/I’m getting used to it now/Lived in a brownstone, I lived in the ghetto/I’ve lived all over this town!”

    Woo! This ain’t no party, Woo! this ain’t no disco! Just a bunch of overpriced brunch places and converted loft space, apparently. : (

  • Sam Corbin

    Hear hear! New York is not a closed circuit. In fact, we have the power to change the very language that we use to qualify creativity and innovation. The forms are changing, and racing against the glut of corporate culture pretty impressively. This generation can very well begin a revolution. As Russell Brand so eloquently put it in his fiery BBC interview a few weeks, ago: “If we can engage that feeling and change things, why wouldn’t we? Why is that naive? Why is that not my right because I’m an ‘actor’? I’ve taken the right. I don’t need the right from you. I don’t need the right from anybody. I’m taking it.”

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  • Dee

    While this post was published a month ago, recently (yesterday), another article in the New York Times about the downfall of the concrete jungle was published. As I was reading this new article titled The Long Goodbye, I couldn’t help but remember this post.

    In this “Long Goodbye” article, Williams seems to state that the reason that more and more people are leaving New York is because it’s a place for the young twenty-somethings rather than those who want to settle down. This seems to contradict a bit of what Bryne was saying about New York “stiffing young creative minds”.

    Anyways, I thought I’d post the link on here just in case anyone else was interested.

  • Jolly D’Bugger

    Broadway between 47th and 34th streets has been turned into a NFL sports carnival. One can only hope that it is the last vestige of the Bloomberg (mo’ money) administration and not an indication of future trend. Might as well be in Cincinnati or rather Seattle or even better Berlin or any number of interesting places to “be” creative. Shall we differentiate between cultural creatives and financial creatives, and the consequences for the soul?

  • joe

    if you live in the suburbs you aint a real new yorker. Yes, that means you Long Island and Westchester