Can't Knock the Hustle

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On New Year’s Day 2018 in New York City, with the temperature hovering at 12 degrees, Mayor Bill de Blasio was sworn into his second term in an outdoor ceremony by Sen. Bernie Sanders. Progressive politics were on the menu, and the number one topic for de Blasio, city comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, and public advocate, Letitia James, was affordable housing.

After a customary show of gratitude and a summation of past accomplishments, de Blasio laid out his top priority for the new term: “For hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, we will make sure that this city that is now too expensive for them becomes theirs once again. We will give them the affordable housing they need. We will create for them the good-paying jobs they deserve. We do all this for the people who do the work, people who have always made New York great but have never gotten the credit.”

Economic diversity has always been at the center of what makes New York City a mythic capital of the world. From subway drivers, garbage handlers, postal workers, bodega clerks and public school teachers, to mom and pop shop owners, artists, fashion execs and wall street bankers, the city gets its special flavor as much from its cultural diversity as from intersections of class that happen on a daily basis.

Artists have always been important interpreters of the city’s socio-economic paradoxes. The two are inseparable. The city has been the lead character in the narratives of the Harlem Renaissance, the Beat Generation, Hip Hop and underground dance culture to name a few. Often intersecting with progressive movements of political consciousness, neighborhoods like the Loisaida (Lower East Side), Spanish Harlem, the South Bronx, Bedford Stuyvesant, The Bowery, The West Village, and Fort Greene have deep cultural histories.

For the participants in these New York stories and cultural epochs, the cost of living in the city was inextricably linked to its characterization as a dangerous place. Low rent, squats and rooms for rent could be found with relative ease. However, in the 21st century it’s become a much different story.

In the words of Brooklyn based artist and cultural producer Jaret Vadera, “I feel like saying you are a New York artist is, in some ways, another way of saying that you’ve seen some things. That you’ve been through it. That you’ve sacrificed, gotten your ass kicked a few times, swallowed your pride, gotten back up and started again. It’s another way of saying you know how to hustle.“

Hustle indeed, the cost of living in New York City is outrageous and real estate developers have become insatiable. According to data compiled by housing economist, Chris Salviati at Apartment List, as of January 1, 2018 New York City’s median cost for a one-bedroom apartment was $2,070/mo and $2,470/mo for a two-bedroom. At $15/hr working 40 hours a week, monthly income is around $2,400 before taxes.  So how do artists do it?

Stephanie Diamond, founder of Listings Project, a highly vetted word of mouth real estate listings service geared toward artists, thinks $2,070 may be a low estimate for a one-bedroom apartment. With over a decade of experience navigating the New York market, Diamond says, “The most popular growing category right now is lease takeovers. A lot of people are having to leave the city...Our biggest category is actually rooms for rent. Of course, in New York City most people exist with a roommate, because it’s very expensive...so no matter what season it is that category is always thriving.”

In today’s economy the MFA has become a bit of a totem for entry into the rarefied world of fine art. The ubiquitous dream of obtaining consistently adequate compensation for artistic output through gallery representation, access to curators, art fairs and art critics, is dangled in front of students who enter the gamble with student loan money.

In regard to those bills, Vadera points out, “For most artists I know, it’s a constant hustle. Working full-time to pay the rent can make it difficult to have the energy to make your work. So what’s the point then? You have to remain persistent, prioritize and stay focused, but you also got to pay those bills. As for your work, the commercial art world is in full gear here. I’ve felt the tractor beam allure of feeding the commercial art machine to make that bank. Some people know how to work it, and make it work for them. But, I’ve also seen it twist a number of artists, just a few degrees at first, but just enough to ruin their work.”  

After being bumped out of two neighborhoods in Queens due to rising rents, artist and arts educator Alice Mizrachi, a native of the borough who carved out a path without an MFA, paid some dues and ultimately made her way Upstate. Of the move, she says, “In the beginning I went kicking and screaming because I’m a city chick and I never wanted to leave the city.” But, her steadfast careers as an arts educator and sought after mural artist have provided her with the financial resources to see a future in home ownership. “I started to realize,” she explains, “that I could sit here and complain about the years of people raising rents and gentrifying neighborhoods or I could just become a property owner.”

Roommates, sublets, and breaks from living in the city are all strategies of artists who can’t shake their addiction to New York’s majestic mix of culture. In fact, it could very well be said that a New York City artist also has to be a warrior. Most would agree that they have had to withstand the volleys in order to reap the benefits of a decent life in this increasingly complex metropolis.


Diana McClure is a writer, photographer and cultural producer based in Brooklyn. She has written for NYTimes.com, The Brooklyn Rail, Art in America, ArtAsiaPacific, Art Basel, The International Review of African American Art, Photograph, and The Emilio Sanchez Foundation among others. Her photographs have been featured in a variety of places, including The Philadelphia African American Museum, Causey Contemporary Gallery, Edge Zones MiamiThe Los Angeles Times, NYMAG.com, and the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture.