A Tale of Two Empires

So, recently I began to talk about my idea that two of the regions of the United States are replicating the pattern of Rome and Byzantium/Constantinople. New York is Rome. California is Constantinople. New York is strong, but being caught up to and surpassed by other, newer centers of culture and power, such as California. In this, California is like Byzantium, which was apparently the place to be when the Roman Empire went into eclipse. Much better than Rome, for a long while. (For more on this, see my posts here and here.)

I want to say two things about this before proceeding. First, when I say “California,” I am also referring to trends among the western states, really. I am in a way using “California” for the capital and cultural flows that can also certainly be seen in the entire Pacific Northwest, although the two regions also exhibit profound differences. One difference? The Northwest doesn’t really want to be seen as a capital, whereas California embraces the idea.

Second, I don’t mean, of course, that California is “Byzantine” as that word is generally understood. If anything, the West is more transparent and open than the northeast, and easier for outsiders to understand, not harder. The analogy is the analogy of capital and cultural flows, not of specific characteristics.

However, I do think there is an analogue of the pejorative “Byzantine”—sneaky, convoluted–in the characterization of California as flaky and unsubstantial—which seems to be fading away now, but used to be a fairly common way to characterize it. In Disney concert hallboth cases, the fading capital is still strong enough to try to lob criticisms toward the new one. Perhaps part of the fade-away is, as the author M.G. Lord notes on the evolving dignity of Los Angeles as a cultural capital, it is simply that, as time goes on, Los Angeles has more of a history to be dignified about.

I can name several factors that made me think of California as the new seat of empire. At the time, I had been powerfully influenced by an Amtrak trip from the Pacific Northwest to the San Francisco Bay area. The cars were simply full of wealth. Train travel is not particularly luxury travel, usually, but this was a trip in which passengers were given complimentary wine, cheese, and fruit nearly every hour on the hour. And this wasn’t a particular first class travel compartment: it was the train generally. There was simply more wealth and ease and pleasure in it than Amtrak in the northeast states would ever have.

A friend and I who lived in Boston were equally fascinated by the idea that our living in the East had meant that we were part of the national story. In California, where we had met, you were part of a regional story. This—like the grocery store in my recent post—is part of the significant tells in daily life.

One can think of news programs reporting national election results, for example, that speak of “the results” and “the results from [for example] California.” “The results” is the entire election, often viewed predominantly through when the precincts of the northeast close and report. “The results from California” are from a subsidiary, whereas results from Boston and New York combined are it.

And yet California is where trends start and the West is increasingly where monetary, business, and population power are. They are not exclusively there, of course. But more and more, the areas that set themselves up for expansion versus constriction are where, well, people expand.


Sailing to Byzantium: On West Versus East

So, reader, yesterday I talked about the spatial arrangements of the northeastern and western United States. Today’s post is a continuation, and I want to talk about the growing power of the western United States vis-à-vis the northeast in recent decades.

archangel michaelSo, to begin. A number of years ago, I went to an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the art of Byzantium (Constantinople)—and it was beautiful, large, and stuffed with art. Icons, primarily, and artifacts of daily life.

It was also, of course, a nicely curated exhibit with plenty of informational items on the relationship of Rome and Byzantium. (Unfortunately, no record of this exhibit survives online, so I can only give a thumbnail sketch of what I remember.) Briefly: Rome had a host of problems; Constantine became emperor; he converted to Christianity; he established the seat of empire in Byzantium/Constantinople. That city, once the eastern-most satellite of the Roman Empire, eventually took over Rome’s place as the largest and most powerful capital.

Essentially, the exhibit was arguing that Constantinople was the art capital, the cultural capital, and the political capital as Rome became far less powerful. I also remember thinking that the exhibit was trying to remove the art of Byzantium from the effects of the word “Byzantine,” which is pejorative. It means subterranean, or unduly, treacherously complicated. Not trustworthy. It was seeking a place for Constantinople as a strong capital of empire.

As I recall, Constantinople was presented as a lovely place, full of beauty and ease. The overall idea was that, rather than being “Byzantine,” with everything that connotes about up-to-no-good complexity, it was the best place to be in the Roman Empire of the period, whereas Rome was, well, fallen upon hard times. “Byzantine” was a political attack by Rome upon Byzantium, not a full representation of the place.

(I might add that, in searching for the exhibit I saw and not being able to find it, I did come across a record of a talk at the Smithsonian’s web site that has something of the same points. I quote: “The Byzantine Empire shone with intellectual and artistic brilliance at a time when Western Europe was deep in the Dark Ages and flourished long after the first stirrings of the Renaissance. When the Roman Empire was divided between east and west, Emperor Constantine chose Byzantium as the new eastern capital and renamed it Constantinople in 330 A.D. The empire was one of the longest that has ever existed, and its arts continued to influence other cultures long after it came to an end.”)

Here’s what I thought, walking out. California is Constantinople. New York is Rome. transamerican new vs oldPowerful, and putting an imprimatur on things. But suffering such constriction that it will never again be able to genuinely lead. What I have been witnessing in my own life is a turning from one major capital to another. And the other was once thought lesser, but now has far more resources.

Next: more on the western states as emergent capitals.


Patti Smith’s New York

One of the things that really interests me in life is U.S. regionalism. So today, reader, I’m going to talk about that.

The first part of this blog is about the New York of the late 1960s and 1970s, as viewed through the prism of Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids. I have to say that, when I was a young woman, I never particularly liked Patti Smith.  (Well, I do like “Because the Night.” But not so much her oeuvre in general.) She seemed like a poseur of major proportions, and, frankly, not particularly musical.

So it was that I had never read Just Kids, about her time as friend, lover, and muse to the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the 1960s and 1970s. Just Kids has been lauded, certainly—it won a National Book award—but I stayed far away.

Until recently. I grabbed it from my local library’s shelves and have read it with some degree of absorption. I ended up with a lot more respect for Patti Smith, who becomes a person of substance as she goes through her life.just kids book jacket

I want to talk about, though, what hit me most forcefully about her recounting of that period, and that was, how crappy New York was to live in during the 1970s. A lot of Just Kids is Patti Smith recounting how poor she and Robert Mapplethorpe were. Literally, not a lot of money—rationing themselves to a shared hot dog. Partly, this is because they were starving artists. But partly, it is because New York took a lot of money to live even in at the time, and they didn’t have it.

I was particularly struck by one anecdote, on their first apartment in Brooklyn. (Which was, at the time, considered cheap compared to Manhattan. It still is, but no longer the place where people restricted to sharing one hot dog can even think about living.) Their first apartment had been used by junkies, and it had used syringes nearly filling the oven and blood on the walls.

This turned my stomach—there’s something about the warmth and comfort of a kitchen being turned inside out this way that’s quite chilling. (I might also add that I just watched the movie CBGB recently, in honor of Alan Rickman, who plays the owner. The time period of CBGB occurs at the tail end of the Just Kids, of course, but the same “incredible and upsetting filth” motif runs through it: huge roaches, overflowing toilets, and so on and on.)

But the anecdote also caused me to start to meditate on New York and the West Coast, because a lot of my own life in New York City at a later period was being shocked that it was so different from the western states I’d come from.

I was completely fascinated by these differences, which manifested in every conceivable way. For one thing, I had grown up on the West Coast and had never really seen a lot of stuff that was really old. And dirty. Which a lot of the apartments I looked at in searching for rentals were. Not as bad as Smith and Mapplethorpe’s rentals, but still.

But also, I was fascinated with the different ways of using space. In both Oregon and California, for example, you found stuff in a grocery store by finding a long horizontal display. Corn flakes, for example, would be in a row left to right.

In New York City grocery stores, by contrast, corn flakes took up the space of one corn flakes box, and the multiple boxes lined up behind it. To a West Coast kid, it was genuinely difficult to see what you were looking for, because your eye was so oriented toward looking for a display that was an expanse.

So that has remained an orienting idea of NY/West Coast; the first is restricted and vaguely crummy in its space (unless you are quite rich); the second is expansive. This idea is one of the reasons I became very comfortable in suburbia. Expansion—spread out houses, spread out parking lots, spread out vehicles—is the animating spatial idea of suburbia, just as it is the animating idea of the West.

That people were expected to put up with so little space, and such crummy space, seemed very bad to me. It seemed bad for art, actually, which is partly about outreach and not constriction. Which is one of the reasons I’m so fascinated with Smith’s narrative, because she accepts the crappiness and the overall idea that artists starve for art completely.

So tomorrow, readers, I’m going to talk about space restriction and space expansion as two separate kingdoms in the US, and further, where we are in these two kingdoms!


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.