Que Pasa, New York?

by Matthew Asprey

31 January 2011

How do artists get their work done in other cities of the world? Where is it viable to live? It's probably silly to begin our investigation in New York. Just 30 years ago, New York was still opening its arms to the tired, poor, huddled masses of creatives. But now?
Photo by
Jiri Sebek 

“If you got a lot o’ money you can make yourself merry,
You only got a nickel it’s the Staten Island ferry…”
—Bob Dylan, “Hard Times in New York Town” (1961)

With Sydney behind us, Clare and I have begun our reconnaissance mission: how do artists get their work done in other cities of the world? Where is it viable to live? It’s probably silly, then, to begin our investigation in New York. Just 30 years ago New York was still opening its arms to the tired, poor, huddled masses of creatives. But now?

Flying out of Sydney on the cusp of the southern summer, we made a four day stop-over in wintry San Francisco. We roomed at the Green Tortoise in North Beach. This four-storey hostel, built on the lower slopes of Telegraph Hill on Columbus Street, is impressively self-sufficient. You need an ATM? It’s inside the building. Likewise calling card dispenser, public phone booth, vending machines, internet terminals, laundry, sauna, kitchen. Some nights the guests muck in and help cook a big batch of burritos. The Green Tortoise also organises day trips and tours of the West Coast. It was good to be back at the hostel after a year away. Nothing had changed, not even the desk staff.

I was a two-minute walk from City Lights Books. Late one night I had a meeting with a staff member; I handed over a copy of my recent anthology Jack London’s San Francisco Stories for the store’s consideration. North Beach used to be the centre of an important artistic scene. Apart from City Lights there’s the American Zoetrope building on Kearny, the Beat Museum, and some of North America’s oldest strip clubs including the Roaring 20s and the Condor Club. You can find plenty of good cheap vegetarian grub, particularly in Chinatown to the immediate southwest. There’s a huge jazz mural above the New Sun Hong Kong, and Enrico’s restaurant on Columbus has Lavirille Aber’s painting of Duke Ellington on the wall; such things to me, are the clearest indication of a fine area for artists to visit, if not live in.

It was Clare’s first time in San Francisco. We walked down cold gusty Kearny to Market Street. If I ever have the good fortune to live in San Francisco, I’d like to live in the Mission south of Market. The Mission has a lot of wonderful graffiti art, including the walls along Clarion Alley: sleepy-eyed Ganeshas, Henri Rousseau-inspired undersea forests, Mexican death murals, psychedelic faces exploding in reds and blues and greens, political slogans like ‘Demoncracy’. The area is, or was till recently, largely working-class Hispanic. The gentrification of the last 15 years led to the formation of the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition (MAC), whose aim is “to stop the displacement of working peoples from the Mission District and San Francisco.” To be accepted here I’d have to prove my non-hipster credentials, probably by not being able to afford to rent in the area.

At Adobe and Valhalla Books, Clare and I browsed fruitlessly for Donald E. Westlake paperbacks, pretty essential for the long-term traveler. Cheap signed hardcovers? Beautiful, tempting, but too heavy for the backpack. We walked west on 17th Street. I was disappointed that the wonderful Castro Theatre was showing a sing-a-long version of The Sound of Music every night we were in town. No, thanks. Last time it had been a terrific Al Pacino festival. I grumbled and bought a vegan peanut butter cookie at the Castro Cheesery. A homeless black androgyne in a red hoodie came over to ask for a piece. Clare handed over some gummy bears.

I needed to buy a small netbook computer. I’d left my Macintosh laptop back in Sydney because it was too heavy, too big, and too expensive to lose or have stolen. Near the elevated Central Freeway I found a Best Buy. I bought a Toshiba NB305. With the strong Australian dollar and purportedly cheaper US retail prices, I’d expected to find a good deal. Instead I wound up paying much the same as I would have in Sydney. Still, the netbook has allowed me to write every morning on the road.

The Kazantzakis of Amsterdam Avenue
In New York City, Clare and I checked into the International Student Center, an unbelievably cheap youth hostel on the Upper West Side. Each morning I got up early, walked over to Amsterdam Avenue, and squeezed into a blue leatherette booth at E.J.‘s Luncheonette. A young waitress with a red ponytail, a pretty and sassy actress like every other waitress in town, brought out my poppy-seed bagel and a cup to be refilled many times from her glass orb of scalding brown water. It was the cheapest way to rent a table with good light for a few hours. Across the street was the St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library, a place to work in silence, but most days it did not open till 11am.

Before resuming work on Murphy and the Baker, my long novel about Depression-era Sydney, I decided to redraft the manuscript of a novella set in contemporary Greece. I’d been working on this small book for a few years. It was easy to drift off into thoughts of old friends from Athens. At the time of my last visit the crisis was clear: the youth of Greece had small hope of finding substantial work. It was hardly surprising that the population exploded in protest when the country went bankrupt.

I remembered sad and joyous moments. At Brettos in Plaka the bloody marys were pushed into our hands. A lonely American guy could not convince anyone to go with him to Mykonos. On Aegina a goat herder showed me how to drive a stick-shift. Another day I’d waded into the limpid but frigid green waters below the uninhabited Klonos Hotel with my Albanian girlfriend. But those days were past, much had changed in my life, and I was writing fiction. I let the memories jumble with my invention and tried not to distinguish too consciously between the two as I put words on the page.

Some mornings on the Upper West Side the streets were wet with early rain. Walking back to meet Clare at the hostel, I passed the corner of Columbus and 83rd where people were buying Christmas trees. The air smelled of the pine needles and icy rain. There were pretty amber lights lacing the boughs of the street trees. Kids stomped around in rainboots and dogs trotted in knitted red booties. Eventually the hard cold of December dusted then slushed up the footpaths with winter’s first snow. 

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