Ethical Stardom: Pursuing Dreams in Cities Under The Shadow Of Gentrification

As cities become increasingly difficult to afford for middle-income Americans, how do we reframe the concept of ethical consumption to fit the requirement for creative people to move to a major cultural center to succeed?

Banksy, Follow your Dreams

The idea of moving to New York to pursue your dreams or a better life has a history dating back centuries. There are chefs from around the world who wanted to open a restaurant sharing their hometown cuisine with American audiences. There are artists, writers, and musicians from the Midwest who wanted to be in the biggest city in the country for the most opportunities.

It’s a romantic story that’s no less interesting and unique because it’s so common. While native New Yorkers rightly show off their stripes, go back a generation or two and you’ll find most of their families were based somewhere else.

This narrative continues as people arrive by bus, train, and plane every day. However, this is a different era with different conditions.

I’m not talking about immigrants seeking refuge or people who’ve bravely fled war-torn countries for survival. I’m talking about people who choose New York purposely, because of its cultural capital.

Where once this was a city to arrive in with a dollar and a dream, it’s now a city that requires you to save for months or years in advance to land on your feet.

Moving to New York, or most American cities, to pursue your dreams has become both a privilege and a requirement in many fields, especially the arts and humanities.

But with city populations ballooning and real estate prices skyrocketing, cities already have a great pool of talent vying for every position.  There are kids growing up in the Bronx struggling to get the change together to take a train downtown for an art or music camp their parents saved up to bring them to.

It takes a charming arrogance to presume that as a small kid from Minnesota, you could be better than every other dancer or poet living in New York. It makes for a great origin story. Sometimes it works out and it’s hard not to identify with that underdog story.

The only problem is that type of success is starting to look a lot less like luck and a lot more like a victory lap.

It’s not always a victory lap for the young person who hasn’t made it. Not everyone who moves to a city comes from wealth and comfort. But often in pursuit of the familiar, a transplant fuels a system that’s in motion to suburbanize the city.

This system aims to make New York and every other major city a safe and familiar tourist attraction. People come to New York to eat at the Applebee’s in Times Square, to shop the Disney Store or visit the Nike store—all things they could find in their own nearby malls.

They don’t come here for the now-closed shows, luncheonettes, and hat shops. There’s a closed commercial loop between the box stores in suburban malls and the businesses that now populate the tourist capital of New York City. There’s a responsibility that’s fallen on the city in maintaining a welcome environment for small businesses rather than trying to offer family friendly entertainment to tourists. In failing this, they’ve driven small business to the margins of the city, where tourist dollars are needed, but where they’re never directed to go.

Jeremiah Moss writes:

… Combined with a record-high population of 8.5 million, the city is being destroyed by its own so-called success […] Locals avoid the city’s art museums because they’re jammed with tourists clamoring to take selfies with the masterpieces. […] The green-jeweled oasis of Central Park is “being trampled to death,” as former parks commissioner Adrian Benepe told the Times in 2016. And still City Hall wants more. The latest goal is 67 million tourists per year by 2021.

Young, enterprising, low-income New Yorkers need to pursue alternative paths to pay for their dreams. Without credit, assets, or property, they might have to take out pricier loan options, making the whole enterprise of following their dreams a higher stake venture than it is for large established businesses.

This is not to discourage anyone outside of a major city from following their dreams. But if you achieved your dream in someone else’s hometown, you have a responsibility to your community to try to make room for two of you.

If your neighbors speak a language you don’t know, learn their language. Buy groceries from their shops. Sincerely love the neighborhood you live in, or don’t move there. If you choose a neighborhood because it’s got cheap rent, realize your role in harvesting the fruit of someone else’s life and work.

You need to ensure that local public schools can offer the opportunities you had. You need to make sure that a single parent can do what you’ve done without having to struggle and sacrifice in ways you’ve never had to.

The garment district is moving to Brooklyn. The art world has moved from SoHo, to Chelsea, to Chinatown. Long Island City is starting to look like Dubai.

While other cities like Detroit and Philadelphia have tried to attract more of this cultural capital that once went exclusively to New York and LA, it’s important not to just repeat the same mistakes in a new environment.

I implore other aspiring artists to bring their talents wherever they feel they’re needed. But if it looks like the boat is full, why not check with the passengers before you jump on. There will always be another boat.

Photo: Move NY

Patrick Bobilin is a writer, filmmaker, and New York County Committee member. He ran for city council in NYC on a platform of human rights, social justice, and ethical environmental practices. Read more about his latest work in politics here. Read other articles by Patrick.