Thursday, May 17, 2007

It Takes Mountains of Cash to Live Here

Our Town downtown
August 7, 2006

They couldn’t be less alike in most ways. Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and here. In Jackson the air is clear and fresh and your eyes see mountains with sunlight playing in the snow on top. Here of course there’s none of that natural splendor. There, of course, there’s none of the mix of stuff and people that we have.

What both places do have in common though are ridiculous prices on places to live. It’s not surprising that both places cost more to live in than Cheyenne or Elmira, but that they cost an arm and two legs is ridiculous. Sure, in both places space is at a premium. Manhattan is only so big and Jackson for all its big sky-ness is surrounded on all sides by land in a government trust; like 97% of it is untouchable, so there’s little land available and the price of it is Tetonic.

And yet a lot of both places’ cachet is built on some images that belie high prices. Jackson Hole’s main image is of tough skiing and cowboy license plates. A dominant Manhattan image is of young artists and fire-escape buildings. Neither image is all false. Those components are authentically a part of each place. But there’s less in both towns of small-scale, cowboy-up, long-neck-beer-bottle lifestyle and Lower East Side poetry slams. The rent and cost of buying in either place is sending the cowpokes and the poets packing.

A mature single woman artist in Tribeca said the other night that after moving there 20 years ago from the Midwest for the art-making culture of the place, she’s ready to cash out, sell her space and move somewhere else where reading and writing and art matter like they once did there. In Jackson there are skiers who have to move on after a few seasons if they fall in love out there and want to start a family.

It seems during the day in both places that all sorts of economic levels live right there where you do. Here, the construction worker and delivery people and the mixed faces on the subway make it seem like some peaceable kingdom where all God’s children live in harmony. Out there, Mexican laborers and snowboarders eat lunch next to second-homers from Grosse Point

But here at night most of those folks go home to the outer boroughs, and there they go over the pass to Idaho. School teachers, nurses, street musicians, restaurant workers, reporters. They can’t live in the place where they work. Costs way too much. And they take away a lot with them. They take away soul. Think of the building you live in here. Is it as lively as the city streets were during the day? Or is it a bunch of folks with a disproportionate amount of those canvas bags they got for supporting WNYC or the Natural History Museum. The good looking fireman you saw in a diner at lunchtime doesn’t live in Manhattan. Neither does that hot young dance instructor you see walking to her studio in the morning. They aren’t in your building. In Jackson, the ski instructor lives over the pass in Victor, so does the girl who sings folk music in the bar at base of the mountain.

Ok, it isn’t like the exodus from here hasn’t created new artistic communities in Brooklyn and Queens and other places. And it isn’t like there aren’t more cool bars and even a bistro maybe in Idaho since the prices drove folks over there. But, come on, for all the cool photographs that make some bars in Brooklyn look so good you want to live above them, if the artists and writers could still afford to live here there’s no chance most of them would live over there. And for all the benefits touted about the new Jackson that’s springing up in Victor, the ski culture and history in old Jackson is what they really want.

It’s a question of money. And it’s too bad that so many people, for reasons of the unreasonable amounts of money needed to live in Manhattan, where Kerouac and Dylan once lived, have to take a bridge or a tunnel out of here when night falls.

-- Bill Gunlocke

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