I’ve been thinking a lot about something David Byrne wrote this week. Discussing Des Moines, Iowa he looked at what makes some cities better to live in than others.
I was pleasantly surprised. Not only is there an extensive network of bike paths (always a big selling point for me), but I also sensed that this city was a better place to live than many others I’ve passed through.
I didn’t sense the huge disparity of income that we often see—famously in the town I live in. You don’t get the feeling you’re an intruder in a rich person’s playground. I saw folks of different races and folks with different backgrounds enjoying their city—rather than keeping to themselves, isolated, as I have witnessed in many other places. I saw neighborhoods that seemed to be holding their own; a middle class was surviving and many were staying more or less close to the city center, which helped it stay alive and vital. I saw the beginnings of local culture manifesting in some new local restaurants, venues, galleries and shops.
Byrne discusses why a city like Des Moines, Iowa is thriving while others are not. He wonders if local culture might flourish in small cities if there were outlets for it, like the recently-opened Des Moines Social Club.
I noticed years ago that if, for example, someone opened a music venue—like Hilly Kristal did with CBGBs—then the musicians come out of the woodwork to fill it. They start forming bands, writing new songs and hanging out and influencing one another—and sometimes their work expands out to the wider world. None of which would have happened if the place to perform wasn’t there. Who knew they were even there?
Obviously, there is more to building up a town than a single venue, but this idea of not knowing what a community has to offer until there is an outlet for its abilities is a powerful one. People might actually be able to make a living doing things they are passionate about.
This also means that if it works, these folks don’t have to leave. The talent born here can express itself here…
…folks begin to think that all the really good and important stuff is made by outsiders in the big urban cultural hubs—that the rest of us should passively consume that stuff because we can never make anything that good.
The small-city-as-social-and-cultural-wasteland narrative is so ingrained in some, that even an artist as respected as Byrne has felt the wrath of his friends for challenging it.
We New Yorkers need to get over ourselves a little bit and be aware of what’s going on elsewhere…and to entertain the idea that life doesn’t have to be all about aggressive striving…to realize we don’t have a monopoly on how one can make a life in a city.
Kids in small towns often leave for the city but would some build something unique in their own town if given the opportunity? In an earlier article regarding Des Moines, Byrne wrote,
The town isn’t particularly hip, but I sort of counted that as a factor in its favor—kids would have to discover what they thought was cool for themselves. Or make it up. Or come to the conclusion that trends does not a life make.
The small city as an antidote to passive consumption? Now that’s a compelling idea. Byrne points out that many of the community hubs (or social clubs, or leisure centres, or whatever you want to call them) bringing out local culture are created out of repurposed structures – abandoned post offices, fire stations, factories, etc. The place is part of the process.
It makes things possible: performances, exhibitions and all that, which can provide an essential venue for all the creative folks around here—and their audiences. But it’s also what it says, a social place where folks can come in contact with people they never ordinarily would meet. Worlds in collision.