Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to live in Manhattan. The gritty, bustling, edgy city I saw in movies and on television was always attractive to me. When my dad brought me with him on a business trip to the Big Apple when I was ten, the deal was sealed: I was going to live here when I grew up. And after I graduated from college, I fulfilled a dream and moved here.
As an aspiring actor who waited tables, tended bar and frankensteined an income with other odd jobs, I was always able to make it work. When a hobby in web design started paying the bills and a career as a working actor didn’t, a new journey began that enabled me to call my own shots and stay in the city I loved. Gradually, the work expanded into other directions, including graphic design, copywriting, social media and consulting. Clients came to the table with budgets that were commensurate with the cost of living here, and I really enjoyed the work. Things were good.
Then there was a shift.
As rents went up, client budgets went down. And while budgets went down, expectations rose. People looking for creative services demanded more while paying the same or less, expecting a white-glove Bergdorf-Goodman personal shopping experience with an H&M budget. For a while, I thought it was just me. But it was also happening with every other creative freelancer I knew: filmmakers, graphic designers, artists, copywriters, photographers… everyone was being asked to produce more in exchange for the same or a smaller paycheck. There was an all-out assault on the creative class, made worse by unparalleled economic disparity.
There have been a few revenue supplements here and there, like the occasional voice-over job or consulting gig. But still… the pay is less than fabulous. It’s getting-by money, really. These days, clients and companies seem to forfeit the value of experience, aesthetics and taste in the interest of cutting costs and maximizing their own profits, paying rates and wages that are appropriate for 22 year old amateurs living in Queens in a two-bedroom with three other roommates while being young enough to stay on mom and dad’s health insurance. (When I look at the output of former and prospective clients who opted for the cheaper route, it is depressing to see the uninspired ideas, the boring graphic layouts, the flat, lifeless copy with dubious grammar, and the overall lack of attention to detail. I suppose they’re getting what they paid for.)
When I moved to New York in 1994, I shared a studio with a roommate on West 74th between Central Park West and Columbus. My half of the rent was $380. A year later, I moved to my own tiny studio in a doorman building on West 45th in Hell’s Kitchen. The rent was $595. In the building where I currently live, my rent for a nice 19th-floor studio with a gorgeous view was $1800 in 2009. Due to a change in ownership, I have since moved to the same apartment model on the 6th floor with three working burners, a 30 year old microwave (no proper oven), a bar fridge with no freezer and a view of a brick wall. My rent is $2300, which is just below the average rent for a studio apartment in Manhattan.
My first job in Manhattan was as a receptionist in an exclusive hair salon on Fifth Avenue. In 1994, I was paid $14/hour. Earlier this year, I tried to see what was out there for a creative with no agency experience and went looking for something to supplement my dwindling income – something I might actually be interested in. So I interviewed for a job at a custom tailor – a job that required an intimate understanding of tailored clothing, measuring clients for custom suits, customer service, a sense of style and additional tasks when needed. At the third phase of the rigorous, Pentagon-grade interview process, I asked about the starting salary for the full-time, 40-45 hour/week position. It was $32,000 per year, i.e. roughly $15/hour. In Manhattan. In 2016. The prospect of suiting up and going through that process again and again, only to find compensation that was appropriate for a Midwestern suburb was spirit-killing.
In light of the worsening pay and the monthly struggle to just survive, the writing is very clearly written on that brick wall outside my apartment window: It’s probably time to go.
This disheartening epiphany is painful for several reasons. The first reason that comes to mind is the personal psychological warfare in my head that tells me that the cumulative value of my knowledge, my experience, my skills and everything I’ve done is zero. It’s not true, I know, and I’m grateful for the friends and family who can strike the self-pity off my face with a good open-handed slap. On a good day, I know full well that I’m really good at what I do and that I deliver a Bergdorf-Goodman touch no matter what. But I’m just being rigorously honest. My harshest critic is inside my own head, and it can get dark in there.
Another bullet comes in the form of defeat and the dreaded “F” word: failure. The socio-economic complexion of this island is markedly different than it was when I moved here 22 years ago. Sure, Manhattan has always been about status and money, but the importance of money here has exploded exponentially. Unless you were born into money, make a ton of it or were lucky enough to grab a rent-controlled apartment when it was possible, you don’t belong here. If I were smarter, I would have gone into something more lucrative and useful like real estate or something involving Excel spreadsheets. But since I’d rather swallow live bees than show an apartment or use a Microsoft application, I’ll need to come up with a different Plan D. I have to cut myself a break, because I’m a single middle-class creative who pays the full-ticket price on his own. No roommate, partner or spouse. The fact that this island is no longer a place for single middle-class creatives is neither my fault nor my failure.
One observation that eases the pain of the changing the economic topography is a social one. I live in a pocket of Hell’s Kitchen that is at the epicenter of a luxury high-rise construction boom. I see the people moving in, watching the neighborhood around me slowly morph into a childproof luxury high-rise suburb. Every month, there are more and more hedge funders, tort lawyers, luxury realtors and Excel spreadsheet people who do money for a living – not the most stimulating group you’ve ever met. None of these wealthy new New Yorkers seem particularly colorful, hilarious or interesting, and it’s a big bore. In 2013, David Byrne wrote a brilliant article in The Guardian about this very thing, claiming “If the 1% stifles New York’s creative talent, I’m out of here.” This ain’t my crowd anymore.
The big downer in all of this is my love of this town, or at least what this town used to be to me. As I said earlier, I always wanted to live here. I made it happen, and subsequently wrote the entire story of my post-college adult life here. In my early years in the city, before my rent had a comma, there was such an incredible mix on this island, particularly downtown. On my first weekend in Manhattan, my West 74th Street roommate James took me on his rounds to the nightclubs, where he moonlighted as a promoter for John Blair. He introduced me to downtown drag queens like Lady Bunny, Sherry Vine, Girlina, the pre-op Candis Cayne, Mistress Formika and Mona Foot. (I still know some of them to this day. Candi, Sherry and I lived in the same building on West 47th Street for a while.) When James introduced me to the hilarious Linda Simpson, she put her arm around my shoulder, clinked her plastic cup to mine, winked and said “Welcome to our fair city!” It was like a little baptism in an Emerald City that promised wonders, possibilities and opportunities for anyone who wanted to get the hell out of Dodge. And there were places we could all afford to live.
Since then, I’ve had an incredible adventure that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I got to work on stage, television and film, and had the honor of managing and writing Joan Rivers’ social media, re-doing her website, creating a brand look for her QVC line and even penned a few jokes she used, which was a fun kick. But that scene is gone, the affordable apartments are now unaffordable (or gone), and those wonders, possibilities and opportunities seem to have evaporated. In a strange way, my current relationship with Manhattan now feels like a betrayal of a disloyal lover who traded-up for someone with more money. New York has been my home for more than two decades, and the thought of leaving truly breaks my heart.
I know, I know… “Move to Brooklyn!” “What about Inwood?” “Queens is really starting to happen!” I’ve heard it all, and I’ve visited all of these neighborhoods. They all certainly have their appeal and charms, but the truth is that none of them hold the allure for me that Manhattan did.
The New York fashion icon and costume designer Patricia Field was interviewed in The New York Times last year as the permanent closing of her legendary boutique loomed. (Ms. Field dressed me when I appeared on an episode of “Sex and the City” many years ago.) When she reflected on the consequences of gentrification and the changing economic climate in the city, she said, “I don’t feel like there’s any hope in ever going against the tide. I believe you have to get on your surfboard and ride it.” I’ve built a nice surfboard, and I’ve had a nice ride. But these days, it definitely feels like the tide is headed out.
So head where? Do what? I’ve made no definitive decisions yet. This is just a period of realizations. We do what we do until it stops working. Then we change, like when I stopped drinking and got sober in 2002. Of the many things I’ve learned while living here, I’ve learned how to be resourceful, how to adapt and how to survive. I’ve changed careers, learned new tricks, earned self-taught skills, rolled up my sleeves and built something. I can do it again.
I’ll figure it out.
For now, I’m off to hustle up the next gig to cover next month’s rent and feed the dogs. If there’s any cash left to pay my health insurance premium, awesome.
I published this post in the wee small morning hours of Wednesday, July 6th. By pure coincidence, NPR’s All Things Considered broadcast a story this afternoon on how middle class New Yorkers are struggling to pay rent. It’s an 8-minute story worth a listen…
*** PHOTO CREDIT: Aerial shot of Manhattan by Tim Sklyarov – timsklyarov.com