The Myth of the Magical City

In my 20s, I had several opportunities to live in Paris for various reasons. The last time, when I was 27, I had a job opportunity that I thought might convince me to stay, to move there permanently. But ultimately I came home after six months, deeply grateful to be back in frigid, hibernating Minneapolis in December.

When people in Minneapolis found out that I had just moved from Paris, their response was uniformly, without exception, “WHY ON EARTH WOULD YOU DO THAT?”

At which point I would explain that I didn’t actually have a great time living in Paris, for a wide variety of reasons. In fact, with the benefit of a few years of hindsight, I would say that that period is a strong contender for the worst six months of my life.

But having that conversation over and over again, with people who were utterly baffled that anyone could prefer Minneapolis to Paris, made me realize how deep the mythology of Paris runs in our collective unconscious – how successfully it has achieved its superlative status, or narrative, or myth, however you want to describe it: The City of Light. The myth is so powerful that it transcends the idea of an actual city, built out of concrete and cobblestones, where people buy groceries, commute to work everyday, begin and end relationships, pay their utility bills… all of which can be lovely, banal, depressing or horrifying experiences in their own right.

With some regularity I come across an article or essay about Being an Artist in New York, or LA, or San Francisco – I’m sure these articles exist about Paris, London and Tokyo too – and they all seem to tread and buy into the same narrative. Here’s a recent example, which I’ll summarize:

“[The city in question] is indeed a magical place, full of opportunities for those willing to work hard! But it is challenging and one must make many sacrifices to succeed there! At some point, one might decide that it’s not where they want to be anymore because they’re ready to move on to a new stage in their lives, start a family! But [the city] has not defeated them, living there has been a very valuable and formative experience.”

Everybody seems to buy into this narrative, especially the artists themselves, which ensures a steady churn of young people who are willing essentially to suffer – working ridiculous hours at low-wage jobs and living in squalor – to keep the culture of the city bright and lively for a few years before they get sick of being exploited, at which point they need to write their own article or essay to justify leaving to themselves.

Like any abusive or exploitive relationship, this dualistic discussion or argument around the value of living in a city like New York (opportunities vs. challenges!) can go on and on and on without ever being resolved, but the benefits always accrue to the city itself – or more specifically, the people in the city with the power and resources – Wall Street guys or whoever it is who can afford to live comfortably there, with the added cultural benefit of an unending supply of young and beautiful artists willing to suffer for their amusement.

As with Hollywood, I honestly don’t believe that there’s a conspiracy of wicked people pulling the strings – but I DO think that the mythology I’m talking about is cultivated consciously and unconsciously – it takes on a life of its own and is perpetuated by people who fold it into their own identities in sometimes healthy, but usually unhealthy ways.

There’s value, I think, in simply calling a myth a myth, identifying it as such, because it throws light onto a lot of decision-making that is deeply, profoundly irrational, by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people per year.

There have been a bunch of stories in the news lately about the fact that the average rent in New York is now $3000 a month, for a one-bedroom apartment. Which is just plain absurd to me – I guess no more absurd than paying $50,000 for a semester of college, but that’s another mythology at work.

In Minneapolis you can still get a nice, large, one-bedroom for about $750. It is impossible that the cultural opportunities one has access to in a month in New York are four full times as valuable as the opportunities in Minneapolis. It’s not even worth arguing about. We have good fresh produce in Minneapolis (a bunch of Whole Foods branches, but moreover, a dozen co-ops and as many farmers’ markets), we have high-speed internet, we have theaters that show lovely, obscure art films.

What we don’t have is an international mythology around our culture that people are willing to suffer for and profit from. That’s not a part of the cost of living here – which is fine with most of us who stay, because it means we can afford to buy a house. Or, more to the point, we can afford to work 20-30 hours per week and spend the rest of our time, you know, making art.

An artist once told me, “Living in New York for ten years as an artist is like spending ten years in prison – when you get out, the credibility you gain is mainly from the fact that you survived.”

The only difference in my mind is that most people don’t actually choose to go to prison and stay there, as a formative experience. Per my understanding anyway, in prison, the door is locked.

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