Is creativity dead in Boston? Not the one I know.

bridge covered in rainbow slinkies

An installation by artist Lisa Greenfield during the Fort Point Open Studios, 2009

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.

Outdoor contra dance in Copley Square, 2007.

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 have local art shops Magpie and Blue Cloud GalleryMudflat Studio, the Actors’ Shakespeare Project, volunteer community theater Theatre@First, and the Post-Meridian Radio Players.

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.

Dancers at HONK! 2007.

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.

My favorite mural in Central Square, Cambridge.

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 Maegroups 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.

Earrings made out of bath mats that I bought at the Blue Cloud Gallery.

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.

ArtBeat 2012

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.

18 thoughts on “Is creativity dead in Boston? Not the one I know.

  1. I have never been to Boston, though I’m hoping to visit one day – but damn, you really made me wish I could afford to right now! People do talk hogwash, don’t they. I live in one of the most expensive cities in the world and art of all kinds manages to flourish here just fine.

    • I hope you can make it to Boston someday! It’s pretty awesome (although I admit I am more than a little biased, since I’ve lived my entire adult life here and grew up in a much less exciting suburban area). And I would love to meet you in person. 🙂

      I think Sarah Kendzior had a lot of good important points, but made too many sweeping generalizations in the process of talking about them, which is what I had a problem with. I tweeted a link to this post to her, and she responded: “Thanks! I’m not sure we disagree that much. Boston has great things to offer, I only wish daily life were more affordable.” So it seems like behind her overly-broad rhetoric, she and I are mostly on the same page…I just wish she had been clearer in her original post.

  2. Boston has AMAZING potential. But there needs to be more done to make it into the entertainment mecca that NYC is. Make all local band shows all-ages/21+ to drink, to get more people in the door to see local performers, so that there is more revenue to pay original bands. Also, arts events need to expand to the outer suburbs – it shouldn’t be all about Somerville and Cambridge.

    • Agreed! Teens and young adult are missing out on some awesome art due to age. I got to see so many shows in NYC growing up, I would have missed out on so much if I had grown up in Boston.

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  4. Another excellent place in the greater Boston metro area is the Moody Street Circus in Waltham.

    There is also a good number of bellydancers performing in and around the area. Two troupes I can think of off the top of my head are Vadalna Tribal Dance Co. and Urban Nomad Dance Company.

    • Ooh, cool! That circus sounds awesome. I love learning about so many new places from the commenters in this thread. 🙂

      I’ve seen Valdana at Temple (before it went on hiatus, then re-opened as Allure), and they’re great. I don’t think I’ve seen Urban Nomad–I’ll check them out. Another bellydancer I like is Nadira Jamal–I haven’t seen her perform yet, but I took a workshop with her as part of a body-positive movement event, and she’s a wonderful teacher. I really like that Boston has such a big (and, as far as I can tell, body-positive) bellydance scene!

      • Ah, I’m so glad you’ve taken a class with Nadira! She’s my regular bellydance teacher and a fantastic performer. 🙂

        Yeah, the bellydance scene here is quite welcoming and body positive. It’s a great community!

        This whole post and the comments are great. Yay Boston!

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  7. A.) Somerville and Cambridge aren’t Boston
    B.) Folk dancing represents tradition, not creativity. C’mon, there’s even a caller telling you what to do! That’s the opposite of creativity.

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