The State of New York / by Michael Dustin Youree

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A few weeks ago, I sold the first guitar I ever owned, an acoustic / electric Ovation.  I haven't played it in years and, at this point in my life, it was just taking up space in my tiny storage compartment.  I figured I could just flip it for some quick cash, so I put it up on Craigslist for $150, a good deal for this guitar.  I had several people offering to buy the guitar, but one stood out, a high school music teacher.  He could only pay $75, but promised the guitar would go to support a music program at his public school in Brooklyn.  I was sold.  We made plans to meet up a few days later.

While using Google Earth to find the right place for us to meet near my storage facility, I was struck with nostalgia when I saw this...

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The yellowish building on the left is what used to be know as 5 Pointz, arguably the greatest salute to the origins of graffiti and the art form it has become.  It was a rich piece of the New York story that provided thousands with inspiration and drew flocks of street art tourists and NYC connoisseurs.  It helped that it was perfectly situated across the street from PS1, the super trendy modern art museum.  I have a particular connection to this place.  My girlfriend and I met at one of their summer dance parties.  As for 5 Pointz, it was a culture defined, a wonder to behold, and a testament to the soul of graffiti, that the city streets belong to the people who live on them.  Here is a few shots of 5 Pointz before it was destroyed...

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And here's what it looks like now...

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The loss of 5 Pointz bums me out.  The world lost an invaluable treasure to make way for high-rise, high-priced apartments that most New Yorkers can't afford.  I understand.  That's capitalism.  There are millions to make with 5 Pointz out of the way.  I don't blame the owners or developers for destroying it.  To give them some credit, 5 Pointz wouldn't even exist if the owners hadn't granted the permission in the first place.  The white washing of the walls was pretty dickish, but it worked in killing the resolve of the rag-tag band of supporters standing in their way.

It was time to go meet the teacher.  I had a bad taste in my mouth thinking about the destruction of 5 Pointz and how that relates to the current state of New York City.  It didn't help much when I stepped onto the crowded subway platform to find that the L train was still six minutes away.  Figures.  Throughout my 9.5 years in NYC I have seen the subway system decline in service, yet dramatically elevate in price.  Without going into a rant, lets just say it adds to my criticism of the direction NYC is headed.  Quickly, I decided I would try to beat the six minute train to Union Square on foot.  From 1st Avenue I cruised down 14th Street, adjusting the pace of my speed walking to the rhythm of the street lights.  I won.  Making it to the uptown 4 train just as it was rolling into the station.  It was an odd feeling it gave me, somewhat contradictory.  I had outsmarted the NYC system with the street savvy I gained from being a part of the NYC system.

As I pulled into Grand Central Station for my last subway transfer, my mind was reeling, lost in the frustrations I have with New York City, which is fueled by the love I have for New York City.  I walked down the deep tunnel that leads to the 7 train.  There I found a small reminder of what makes this place special.  At the base of the tunnel was two men playing sublime lullaby-like music on the harp and guitar.  In front of them danced a little boy joyfully.  The boy's parents and the musicians beamed with amusement as they watched him move to the music.  I couldn't help but smile myself.  Then, after descending the final flight of stairs to the 7 train platform, I heard another musician on the classical guitar beautifully playing Yesterday by the Beatles.  Again, I was pleasantly amused.  There is still so much talent and culture and warmth here, even in the blistering chill this winter has brought, even amongst the cold and calloused calculations of this money hungry city.

I finally met my buyer at the Court Square Dinner in Long Island City, the Queens neighborhood of 5 Pointz and PS1.  He was a nice guy, not too different than me, an aspiring musician who fell into the world of teaching as a way to afford the ever-skyrocketing cost of living in NYC.  We chatted for a bit, at the end of which he handed me $80 and promised to send me pictures of the guitar in the classroom.  I was recently inspired by my participation in The Acoustic Guitar Project and wanted to do something similar with this guitar... tell it's story.  I left the deal feeling pretty good.  I had made a little much needed cash and helped out a music program at the same time.  I was both a businessman and humanitarian, a capitalist and a socialist.

I can't help but be concerned about the state of New York City.  It seems as though it is falling out of balance, that its finance driven ambition is crushing the creative spirit of entrepreneurial pursuits.  As a freelancer, you take great risk.  Health insurance is virtually impossible to afford on your own.  The steady growth of corporate housing makes finding a legitimate apartment lease ever harder because they require you to prove an annual income far beyond the annual rent.  This is only possible with a corporate job.  The list goes on.  Those of us who wish to be explorers and go our own way are pushed into the system, like some kind of modern feudal cast chaining us to a social class.  Eventually, the rebellious spirit of the entrepreneur is crushed under corporate demands.  

As an artist, I don't feel a part of collective community, but instead twisted into the mindset of capitalist competition.  My fellow musician is one I am in a race against, someone who I should be threatened by because there is only so much pie and I want mine.  We are like dogs fighting for scraps.  It doesn't help that the infrastructure of venues and promoters seem not to care about quality, only quantity.  You could have the greatest show in the city, but if you don't bring X amount of people you will never be booked again.  This sabotages the scene.  Where once you could count on a venue to play good music, now there's no guarantee.  People have lost interest.  Of course, I don't blame the venues and promoters, they too are just trying to survive the rising rents and indoctrinated sense that money is what matters most.  When you're just trying to survive, its hard to care about anything else.

This is how it's always been in New York, some may say.  And maybe they are right.  But we live in a different age.  The time where one has to go to certain cities to be connected with the movers and shakers in a given industry is coming to a close.  The world is globalizing.  How can New York keep up with cities like Austin and Berlin, which offer cheap housing, lower costs, higher quality of life, cultural richness and the communal spirit.  Counter to the notions of big finance, you can't buy everything.  Trickle down economics doesn't translate to the aforementioned qualities.

There is a bigger debate at play here, one for the soul of America as a whole.  Are we a country where we all fall in line under the multi-national corporate feudalism, where coloring outside the lines is frowned upon or are we a country that prides itself in innovation and empowers those who think outside the box?  I'm not here to say that it has to be one or the other.  Nor do I write in an effort to damn corporations.  There is a balance.  I don't see social ideas and capital ideas as opposed to each other, but rather complementary.  That is what made NYC the great city of the world.  My honest concern is that the more it becomes difficult to live outside the cast, the less people are willing to be entrepreneurs, the fewer Edisons we breed and Einstiens we welcome.  Instead we have a country, a New York, where people just fall in line or go elsewhere.

5 Pointz is gone.  Will the spirit that built it go too?  Will we continue to destroy culture and beauty for the sake of a few more million dollars?  I have witnessed artists flee New York to find better, more pleasurable lives elsewhere.  Success too.  I am in the process of being one of them, trying to decide if New York is a place for a person like me... a rebel, a creator, an entrepreneur, a capitalist and a socialist.

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Often times, during rush hour or in the wake of delayed trains, the subway platform becomes crowded.  When the trains roll in they are already full.  As the doors open, people on the platform jockey for position in a dance against one another to grab what little space there is in on the train.  Tempers rise.  Scowls are exchanged.  It's a dog eat dog world.  I've learned to step back.  Other trains are coming.  And chances are there will actually be room to stand comfortably.  In the meantime, I can learn to smile again with the music coming from yet another talented subway musician.  Maybe I'll even say hello to my fellow New Yorker who had patience, sharing a laugh about life here.  It's a dog run with dog world.  New York is the dogs that inhabit it.