In this week’s New Yorker, economics columnist James Surowiecki takes on Elizabeth Currid’s book “The Warhol Economy,” which argues that the art/music/fashion industry is more vital to New York City’s economy than even Wall Street. While agreeing that art and culture have economic value, Surowiecki takes issue with Currid’s conclusion that the soaring cost of living in the city is threatening to kill its golden goose:
Currid’s concerns are familiar ones by now: as the city gets wealthier, it becomes harder for young creative people to live here, and, if they stop coming, the well of creativity will dry up. Her answer is a series of industrial-policy prescriptions, including subsidized rents for artists, more support for things like Fashion Week and the Whitney Biennial, and a more welcoming approach toward night clubs (where, by her account, much of the culture industry’s business actually gets done).
Currid’s desire to subsidize creativity is understandable, but her insistence that the culture industry is on the verge of crisis is refuted by her own work. Unless you think that network effects in the art-and-culture business are suddenly going to stop mattering, creative people are still going to find ways to make a living here, because they must, in order to succeed. And, empirically, if you look at the history of New York in the twentieth century there is little evidence that a more expensive New York is a less creative New York. To be sure, there was a tremendous artistic efflorescence in the nineteen-seventies, the worst decade of the century for the New York economy. But, in the twenties and the sixties, cultural booms coincided with economic ones, while the explosion in the number of art galleries, bands, and boutiques in the past decade makes it hard to believe that New York is suffering from too little art and culture.
Surowiecki’s conflation of “art galleries” and “creativity” aside, his argument misses Currid’s point (as she described it in this Village Voice profile): That as New York City increasingly becomes prohibitively expensive to live in, artists are forced not just out of the city but to the fringes, making it harder to have a creative hub like the Lower East Side circa the late ’70s.
And as for the ’20s and the ’60s, there’s plenty of reason to believe that housing availability aided in those creative boom years as well. While those decades may have been economic good times, they also coincided with big increases in the city’s affordable housing stock. In the years leading up to the ’20s, the expansion of the city subway system was opening up fresh territory for residential neighborhoods, with 420,000 new apartments built during the decade (according to the Encyclopedia of New York City); the Harlem Renaissance was largely made possible by the fact that Harlem’s previous Jewish residents cleared out to places like East Tremont and Brownsville.
In the ’60s, meanwhile, not only was white flight making room for bohemians – I grew up in a middle-class rent-stabilized apartment on the Upper West Side that was originally built for rich people several decades earlier – but subsidized housing programs like Mitchell-Lama were greatly expanding affordable housing. Bob Dylan may not have lived in Co-op City, but he wouldn’t have been able to rent a cheap Greenwich Village apartment without it.
The way to do a real analysis of Currid’s claims would be to look at historical rent data – I couldn’t find any in a quick search of the web and reference books, but presumably Surowiecki could send an intern to dig some up – and see if creative boom years really have coincided with tough housing times in the past. But why bother with research, when glib contrarianism will do?