Friday, March 10, 2006

Shards, or, Life in a Northern Town

I grew up in a backwater city, the kind of place where it’s always cloudy and cold and everybody is short and wide and the economy peaked a few generations ago. It’s one of those black holes of humanity from which not even hope can escape. The kind of place where the high school kids with ambition set their primary ambition as moving.

If you didn’t grow up in a place like that, it’s hard to convey what it’s like. As a kid, of course, you really don’t notice. But as you move into your teen years and the world gets bigger than your street, you start to notice that all the really interesting stuff happens in other places. Travel is difficult, since your city isn’t really on the way anywhere. The good bands don’t come; going to a concert is a many-hour drive. The ‘celebrities’ from your town, D-listers anywhere else, get an embarrassing amount of local coverage. Anything that’s happening is happening somewhere else.

It was worse back then. In my teen years (the 80's), there was no such thing as the web. TV choices were limited, and satellite radio was science fiction. Local culture was defined by a weird mix of local ethnic quirks (there was a weird amount of Southern/country/redneck culture for a Northern town – for years, I thought .38 Special was a local band) and secondhand mass media.

For the smarter kids, as we thought ourselves, it was suffocating. We knew there had to be more options out there, but we didn’t have a clue what they were or how to find them.

Anyway, even in that steaming dungheap of a city, that tumor that lacked even the ambition to metastasize, a few shards of alien culture managed to turn up. I clung to those shards fiercely, not really understanding them, but sensing that they were different, that they portended the possibility of something else.

I still remember the first time I heard “Marlene on the Wall,” by Suzanne Vega. It was 1985, cloudy (naturally), and I was completely floored. It didn’t sound anything like .38 Special. It was literate, cool, ironic. Educated. Urgent, yet distant. I didn’t know that was possible. I was in high school, and had never heard a woman sing like that. I found a store that carried the album, which wasn’t easy, and quickly memorized the whole thing.

A few of my fellow frustrated-geek friends and I started making regular treks to the one art theater downtown, watching movies we didn’t understand just to see something different. I remember a fellow geek (and lifelong friend) introducing me to the music of Pat Metheny, via a pirated tape in the cassette player of his parents’ Toyota Tercel on the driveway of my duplex. It didn’t sound like anything else I’d heard, and that was what I liked about it. We made the multi-hour drive to catch a Metheny concert, which is still a cherished memory.

Back then, there were very few cracks through which shards of non-mainstream culture could fall all the way to my city. There was a generally horrible college radio station (I still remember the newsreader pronouncing “Protestant” with the accent on the second syllable), occasional dropped comments from adults who had been other places, and that’s about it.

I think about my old Northern town sometimes when I hear about the latest breakthroughs in blogging, or podcasting, or satellite radio. Now, a reasonably ambitious kid in dear old Northern town with access to the web could access cutting-edge stuff. Now, a kid who gets tired of living in a milk jug (as the saying went) can get a much clearer idea of other places. The provinces need not be as provincial.

So why don’t the breakthroughs happen in Buffalo? Why isn’t Scranton the next Seattle? These places have educated people, internet access, incredibly cheap housing, and not all that many distractions. These should be the places the breakthroughs happen. Yet, not.

Richard Florida has built a career on the observation that success breeds success, that cities with creative people already in them draw more, who in turn come up with breakthroughs that power the economy. There’s certainly some truth to that, and anybody who can make tolerance of gays into an economic-development policy has earned my respect. But anybody who tries to make a living in Seattle or Boston or New York as a creative type will notice quickly that the cost of housing has become prohibitive. Until recently, they may have put up with it anyway, on the grounds that there was no other place where they could come in contact with creative people. Now, that shouldn’t be true. As long as you can get a good internet hookup, you’re good to go. And housing is inarguably cheaper in the provinces.

So why can’t Binghamton be the next Austin? Sure, it’s cold, but it’s cold in Minneapolis, too, and Minneapolis has a thriving creative community. The last time I checked, Madison wasn’t exactly Phoenix, but it seems to prosper. And I’ve never mistaken Boston for Miami.

I thought the web was supposed to make place less overwhelming. Yet the economic and cultural gulf between the coast and the inland cities is widening. Why?

I’m having a hard time squaring some conflicting beliefs. I believe that the gulf between, say, Rochester and Manhattan is even greater now than it was twenty years ago, and that’s saying something. (Comparative data on housing costs backs up this intuition.) I also believe that technology has improved access to cultural alternatives for folks in the Rochesters of the world. I just don’t know how those can both be true at the same time. If my 17-year-old self could access the same stuff from Northern town as the most tragically hip scion of privilege on the Upper West Side, then why is Northern town still sliding?

Any thoughts out there?