Social critic Sarah Kendzior’s latest piece, Expensive cities are killing creativity, didn’t sit right with me. Normally, I find myself all but jumping up and down in agreement with her work–but this time, I found much of her analysis jarringly at odds with my own experience.
Kendzior describes expensive coastal cities like New York and San Francisco as “gated citadels,” playgrounds for the rich, places where corporate pressure and the high cost of living reward conformity and stifle creativity. (Although she doesn’t mention Boston specifically, she does include it in a follow-up tweet.)
But my Boston doesn’t feel corporatized, sanitized, like a gated citadel. My Boston isn’t a place where creativity is undervalued, or valued only when it enriches wealthy children. My Boston certainly isn’t a place where “you live when you are born having arrived.”
My Boston is vibrant and creative as hell. Especially here in Somerville, where I’ve lived for five and a half years–and which has the second-highest concentration of artists in the country.
First off, I can’t talk about creativity in Boston without mentioning the folk dancing and music scene, which has been the base of my social circle for as long as I’ve lived here. There’s an incredible number of regular social dance events, culminating in the yearly NEFFA festival, a veritable folkie paradise of singing, jamming, dancing, and outdoor cuddle piles. We have gender-free contras, guerilla contras, a dance and music camp in nearby Plymouth, lots of overlap with the swing and blues dancing scene, great concerts at Club Passim and other venues–and most importantly, a strong sense of community. Individual people may come and go, but the community stays–and I doubt it’s going away anytime soon.
Then there’s Boston burlesque and circus arts scenes, which are amazing–from geeky burlesque shows to everything the Boston Circus Guild does to the Slutcracker, a burlesque version of the Nutcracker performed by immensely talented dancers of all shapes, sizes, genders, and backgrounds.
The Slutcracker is one of my annual holiday traditions, as is the Illuminations Tour, a trolley tour of Somerville’s holiday light displays. Many of the displays are made by long-term or even lifetime Somerville residents. They’re festive and beautiful and breathtaking–and any definition of “art” or “creativity” that doesn’t include their everyday beauty is one I want no part of.
Somerville has far more art than I can keep up with, from PorchFest to Dancing in the Streets to ArtBeat to the Jazz and Blues Fest to Project MUM to Somerville Open Studios–which, according to its site, “has grown to become one of the largest events of its kind in the country with over 400 participating artists displaying their work every spring.” This past year, it also included a fashion show organized by the awesome Joolie of I Am Joolienn, and featuring work from Somerville High School students.
We also have HONK!, a festival of activist street bands, and Artisans’ Asylum, a community craft studio that is one of the largest on the East Coast and was recently profiled in the New York Times for its vision of the future of work.
Beyond Somerville, Boston has festivals from the Cambridge River Festival to Figment, a participatory, grassroots, family-friendly festival; from Outside the Box, which comprises nine days of free music and performing arts, to the Watch City Steampunk Festival; from the Cambridge Carnival International to the Roxbury Film Festival, which supports filmmakers of color.
We have more craft fairs than you can shake a stick (or a crocheted stick-cozy) at. We have Hornography, a brass band that plays pop and rock songs; Ronald Reagan, an 80’s pop saxophone duo; and Melodeego, a bike-powered social justice band.
We have Emperor Norton’s Stationery Marching Band, my college friend Jojo the burlesque poetess, Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys, Snap Boogie, Myq Kaplan. We have two aerial arts studios, Esh and Aircraft (I’ve taken a few classes at the latter, and they were hard but awesome!). We have the Prospect Hill Forge, which is run by two of my friends from contra dancing.
We have twelve open studio events in Boston proper, and at least two in Cambridge. We have regular art sales at MassArt and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, which are great opportunities to buy affordable art while supporting student artists.
We have gender-bending performer Johnny Blazes, Amanda Palmer, Freezepop, horror burlesque troupe the Slaughterhouse Sweethearts, male burlesque troop Sirlesque, the Boston Hoop Troop, the National Sand Sculpting Festival at Revere Beach. We have Randall Munroe, the creator of XKCD. We have my friend Emily Garfield’s imaginary maps. We have Lesley Kinzel.
We have Mary Oliver. (Well, ok, the Cape has her. But Provincetown is only a ferry ride away from Boston.)
We have Oberon, numerous performances by Berklee music students, Della Mae, groups that gather to sing everything from sea chanteys to pub songs, the Harvard Square Ghost Tour, the weekly Boston Poetry Slam show, the Museum of Bad Art. We have living statues everywhere.
This is not a comprehensive list; this is my own, Somerville-centric, types-of-art-I-enjoy-centric compilation of some of the many ways that creativity thrives here in Boston.
I’m not defending the high cost of living here–I’d sure love to pay less in rent, and I know that too many people, artists and not, have been priced out of Boston. I realize that some things are only possible in cities with extremely cheap real estate, like Detroit’s exciting Write A House program.
I know–believe me, I know–that a high cost of living can make it hard to find the time and energy to create.
I don’t disagree that, all other things being equal, a cheaper city is a better choice for an artist looking for a new home. (Although, all other things so rarely are equal. So many factors influence decisions about where to live: family, community, partners and their jobs, culture, climate, living in a place you can feel in your bones…)
I don’t disagree that gentrification, widening inequality, and the high cost of entry to many creative fields are huge and important problems.
But I’m asking: don’t erase us.
Don’t generalize from New York City–which has its own extreme breed of Bloomberg-era gentrification/sanitization and its own peculiarly exclusive art scene–to all expensive cities.
Don’t tell us that art can’t thrive in Boston, when so many of us are living and breathing and creating here.
Don’t tell us that Boston is closed to all but the rich, when so many of us are struggling and love it here anyway.
And don’t forget that creativity is so much more than traditional visual art. I see it around me every day, the immense creativity of my friends and community. It’s in the songs we sing together, from Christmas carols to shape notes to raunchy drinking songs. It’s in the blues, contra, and swing we dance–sometimes in our own kitchens. It’s in the theme parties we hold and the costumes we wear. It’s in the blue and purple ceramic mug my friend Lorraine made, from which I drink my morning coffee.
We’re here: dancing, singing, painting, acting, hanging from silks or walking on stilts, staying alive.