Talking Heads frontman David Byrne thinks that the rich have ruined New York, but is he right? In an editorial for The Guardian, Byrne writes that the city he knew in the 1970s has drastically changed. He says that "this city doesn’t make things anymore." He claims that, if young creative types aren't allowed to flourish here, the city will become more like Hong Kong or Abu Dhabi, which he claims "don't have culture." He says that "the lure of easy bucks Hoovered this talent and intelligence up" into finance rather than jobs in publishing and the arts. And, for the most part, his heart is in the right place.
His argument, however, is a little uneven. In one paragraph he laments that the grittiness and want that characterized the downtown scene in the '70s is no longer: "A culture of arrogance, hubris and winner-take-all was established. It wasn't cool to be poor or struggling." Does that mean he thinks that it was cool or creatively productive to struggle? "Some folks believe that hardship breeds artistic creativity. I don't buy it," he writes. And later, "I don't believe that crime, danger and poverty make for good art." So, no.
Bemoaning the gentrification of the Lower East Side and the shopping mall-ification of Times Square is pretty well-trod territory by now, but at least he has a point — the artistic enclaves he used to know have been turned into John Varvatos stores and boutique hotels, and that is unfortunate. But where his argument really falls apart is where he actually starts to blame the wealthy class (of which he admits to being a member) for both their action and inaction. "One would expect that the 1% would have a vested interest in keeping the civic body healthy at least – that they'd want green parks, museums and symphony halls for themselves and their friends, if not everyone," he writes. "Those, indeed, are institutions to which they habitually contribute. But it's like funding your own clubhouse. It doesn't exactly do much for the rest of us or for the general health of the city." So, the rich keep the city healthy by funding public and cultural institutions, but then they also don't? This is just double-speak.
Oh, and then there's this gem: "Arriving from overseas, one is immediately struck by the multi-ethnic makeup of New York. Other cities might be cleaner, more efficient or comfortable, but New York is funky, in the original sense of the word – New York smells like sex." Are you really exoticizing the Other? This is problematic, to say the least.
And to say that we should "forget about emerging artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, journalists and small business people" because of narrowing opportunities for the middle class in this city ignores the very vibrant creative communities springing up outside of Manhattan, for whom struggling is not cool but necessary, because the Chelsea lofts they might've lived in in the 1970s now list for $2.5 million on average and are bought up by people like, well, David Byrne.
Here's the thing: This writer is no apologist for the rich and has immense respect for David Byrne. He's knows 77 by heart, he's seen Byrne speak brilliantly on the ways that physical spaces affect creation, and he even had a significant freak-out moment when Byrne sat next to him at the BAM cafe before a performance of Faust. But this is simply troubling. Where did this come from? What, really, is his point?
The real problem with this piece is not that Byrne kvetches about problems of which most of us are already aware; it's that he offers exactly zero solutions. "Can New York change its trajectory a little bit, become more inclusive and financially egalitarian? Is that possible?" he asks. OK, so, what's the answer? "If the social and economic situation can be addressed, we're halfway there."
Photo: Via GalleristNY.