The Romance of the Street: Open Access?

Recently, I wrote on a New Yorker cartoon that poked fun at a young Millennial working weekends to pay her student debt (her day job, see, was just for rent). (Scroll down on the link; it’s the April 1, 2014 cartoon.) Not really funny, right? Today, I want to write about a very related recent story–another type of serve-the-people-food-and-drinks and persevere narrative, this one written by a young barista who moved on to work at a fledgling magazine. (Read her story here.)

Despite the relative rarity of a barista telling us her experience, this article fits within a classic narrative that a professor of mine once called “roman de la rue”—the romance of the street. Poor artists and students live in garrets both literal and figurative (and in marginal, bohemian neighborhoods). This model underlies everything from the opera La Bohème to its more modern incarnation in Rent. It underlies a lot of the romance of living in the big city and being an artist or student.

An implicit part of this romance in the U.S. is that starving-in-the-garret doesn’t last, usually. The one-time bohemians morph. They 1) achieve some kind of middle-class success in a chosen field; 2) turn to a more viable living, maybe not in chosen field; 3) marry and depend on the partner’s income; or 4) hit it big.

The barista’s narrative, in which she becomes a writer, illustrates path #1. Poverty is overcome by time and hard work. For another nicely articulated contemporary rendition, see Meghan Daum’s several meditations on her trajectory from Columbia MFA student (starving in a shoe-box-sized apartment) to journalist in Nebraska (large porch, great house, nice NPR station). Her essays on this, in My Misspent Youth and Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House, and the fictionalized incarnation, The Quality of Life Report, are great and creative takes on moving on, not only in time but in space.

Both narratives show that the roman de la rue is not dead, and that mobility is still possible. If Manhattan isn’t possible, there are the artistic neighborhoods further out. If rents in San Francisco are prohibitive, there are other near-by cities. If a medium-sized apartment is prohibitive, ingenious architects are developing 300-foot apartments–the size of two parking spaces.

I realize that the changing faces of neighborhoods and flexible living arrangements are a testimony to creativity and mobility. Still, what concerns me, as in my last post, is that social mobility is becoming much harder. Meghan Daum is a second-generation artist; her father is a composer and she literally has a parental abode not far from Manhattan to fall back on, if necessary. What if you don’t have that social capital? And, once you live in a apartment not much larger than a car, how much more whittling down is possible?

Doesn’t it do something to us as a culture to have certain cities that are simply no longer possible for the artist/student class?

When I graduated from college, I moved from Berkeley to San Francisco. (Again, remember, I’m a midlife PhD, so this was several decades ago.) Moving to a large city with a writer’s tradition (Ferlinghetti! Jack London! Ken Kesey!) meant a great deal to me in terms of seeing myself as an inheritor of American narratives. Moving to the East Coast, which I did a couple years later, meant inheriting, at least figuratively, an even larger tradition (Edith Wharton!  Walt Whitman!). I felt authorized to join and articulate my contribution to these narratives.

And I’m certainly not the only one. A friend from that time agrees, feeling that each successive move was a step in a type of artistic citizenship. To be a Californian meant you belonged to a region; but to be a New Yorker or Bostonian meant you were national. Moving to a large city to be an artist, or to work in an artistic field, is staking a claim to telling narratives in some kind of larger field, and is an important symbolic move. If it’s become an onerous economic scramble only, or not feasible at all, there is a kind of impoverishment of both social capital and the warp and weft of the larger social narrative.

The recent San Francisco riots against the buses that take workers to Silicon Valley reflect this tension. Part of me wants to tell the rioters that moving out of a city is not the end of the world. Moving to where the rents are lower is, after all, a viable option. I did it; Meghan Daum’s story exemplifies it. But the rioters illustrate, I think, a fear that some social spaces are being marked out for the rich only.  That movement in time and space are becoming far less possible.

A possibly apocryphal story has a bus rider telling picketers that San Francisco is “a special place for special people”—ie, not for them. An old folk song used to tell of 12 gates into the city. It seemed like a metaphor about access and many options for entry. In the current climate, there don’t seem to be 12 gates to the city. For some, there might not be any.

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