Arts Desk

Why Slate Is Wrong About D.C.

On Wednesday, Slate published a piece by Matthew Yglesias about why D.C. is, essentially, a terrible place for young, creative people to live.

The article has since flown about social media, causing many a sad emoticon and, apparently, excessive vomiting. The jab is all the more painful because there is some truth to it–D.C. is damn expensive, and we don't have as many entrepreneurial opportunities or as much cultural cred as, say, New York. That's not exactly shocking news, since New York is the biggest city in the country, with more than 10 times the residents D.C. has. But it's still frustrating to hear so much haterade tossed at your town when all kinds of artists and musicians are busting ass to make some really cool stuff around here. Speaking as a proud local resident, musician, and arts journalist, I think Yglesias—while he's not totally off base—sold our fair city short.

First, there are bizarre references to the murder rate, which is both irrelevant and inconsistent; are cities with a lower murder rate "cooler?" If so, how does he square that with his argument that D.C. was most culturally important in the '80s, when the murder rate was significantly higher than today? And besides, does anyone think places he mentioned like Cincinnati or Kansas City are significantly cooler than D.C.?

But what really hit home for me was this line: “...if you're a semi-employed artist or guitar player it's much more expensive than Philadelphia or Baltimore and still smaller and less interesting than New York City, which has less than one-third our murder rate.” Again, I’m not sure how the murder rate is germane, but the cost-benefit ratio to the creative class is a pretty big deal. Speaking as a “semi-employed guitarist,” I have to admit he’s partially correct. If you’re in a rock band and simply need a hub from which to tour, both Baltimore and Philadelphia are generally more affordable than the District. They have cheaper rent, more artist studios, and more practice spaces.

But if you’re looking for a city with a decent grant system, a slew of great venues, a consistent dedication to making the arts accessible, and a strong sense of community, I would argue D.C. easily tops those two.

We have a gloriously free art culture here. Look at events from the Smithsonian hosting music & art shows with folks like John Davis and Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage, to summer concerts series like Fort Reno, Fort Dupont, and the National Gallery’s Jazz in the Garden. There are the regular pay-what-you-can nights at theaters like Woolly Mammoth, the cheap or free boundary-pushing exhibits at Artisphere, and access to world-class art museums that don’t cost a dime. Those "large sums of money" that Yglesias says are handy for going out to dinner in D.C.? In New York, you'd be dropping them to visit the MOMA, instead.

D.C.'s cultural strength comes precisely because the city isn't in the business of manufacturing coolness. Unlike New York or L.A., we aren't drowning in ladder climbers and mercenaries. It's generally assumed you have to work another job as a musician/artist/actor in D.C., and there’s a certain spirit of collaboration that’s not fraught with opportunism. You can go to Fort Reno and fraternize with hardcore veterans like Ian MacKaye (and sometimes Henry Rollins) and expect a relaxed, supportive atmosphere. While there are musicians for hire in D.C., it’s equally common for people in the music scene to simply collaborate for art’s sake. There may not be the same networking opportunities in D.C., but as a result, there’s not the kind of cut-throat competition and careerism.

The DIY, punk rock spirit in D.C. still supports bands without managers, fosters affordable shows, and encourages community activism. Is there a New York equivalent to Positive Force? Since 1984, the activist collective has and continues to host benefit shows for local charities, featuring big-name acts like Ted Leo and Titus Andronicus alongside myriad locals. Are there many prominent all-ages venues in New York? 9:30 Club is consistently ranked among the best clubs in the nation and doesn’t require patrons to be of drinking age (nor do the Black Cat or the Rock and Roll Hotel).

So sure, if you’re a penniless artist or musician looking for endless dirt-cheap housing options in non-gentrified areas, Philadelphia or Baltimore is probably a better bet. If you’re willing to hunt for an affordable spot (there are still a few left), though, D.C. has a slew of cultural benefits, a grassroots music community, very little pretense, and a long history of creative success.

Of course, we also have more than our fair share of wonks writing contrarian pieces for the Internet. But hey, no city's perfect.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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  • PTRQ

    As an employed, enthusiastic patron of the arts and lover of DC, exactly Ryan. So many great, sincere folks doing great things and opportunities for anyone (including this doofus) to get involved in great stuff.

  • BSI

    Slate still exists? I thought that died out with Alta Vista and the Hamster Dance.

  • Joe Flood

    True - I know a lot of photographers, filmmakers, writers and other artists. They all have regular jobs doing something else. They do their art on the side. I'd argue that this is an advantage DC has over other cities. While DC is very expensive, there are jobs here so you can use your day job to fund your off-hours artistic efforts.

  • JR

    Thanks for writing this, Ryan!! As one of the residents of the recently completed Brookland Artspace Lofts, as well as a DC native, I make my living working in the local arts & cultural sector, and lack of work would be the only reason I would leave the area.

    I'm still here.

    In addition to the diversity of art, and all the opportunities for support and to support what's happening in the area, which you mentioned, the one thing I'd add is that as the nation's capital, we benefit from a unique intersection of local, regional, national, and even international influence and inspiration that provides another unique and enriching layer to the cornucopia of artists and arts in the area.

  • Shane

    I would say that DC taken as a whole, including the outlying areas, is cool. But the one thing DC proper is missing diversity and I think that is the larger picture with this article. People of different ethnic groups think DC is entirely too expensive to live and that affects culture and art. We see it all the time how neighborhoods are gentrifying and becoming staid with same type of people buying up homes.

  • Kevin Erickson

    Yglesias is generally great on any topic except cultural policy and cultural practice. Remember when he argued that the Dismemberment Plan should have had much higher ticket prices to their reunion shows since they sold out so fast? Remember when he argued that there's no problem with artist compensation in the new music economy since the guys in The National seem to be doing alright financially? Remember how much he likes Metric, Canada's worst band?

  • Mountaincoco

    Gadfly (n): A person who upsets the status quo by posing upsetting or novel questions, or just by being an IRRITANT. The terms has been used to apply to many politicians or social commentators.

    This clown Yglasias who wrote this article (from New York, no less) is the worse kind of gadfly. Perhaps we native Washingtonians should take up a collection and send his sanctimonious, Hahvard-educated, oh-so-condescending ass back to New York on the slowest Amtrak train that we can find...preferably one with no bathroom or dining facilities.

    Pompous jerk. He should go back where he came from if he doesn't like it. There will be no tears shed for him here.

  • Stephen Smith

    LMFAO – can anyone who's actually lived in Baltimore or Philly say with a straight face that DC has them beat when it comes to the arts? That's the kind of bullshit that only a "native Washingtonian," or someone who comes from somewhere even more arts-starved than DC, would say.

    Also, quite a touchy attitude you guys have – unless you think DC is the best place ever for everything, GTFO? Admitting you have a problem is the first step to fixing it, and if DC can't admit that a few grant programs and free museums stuffed with centuries-old cultural relics aren't enough to make up for its ridiculous housing prices and whitening population, then the city will never develop any real arts scene outside of a few indie rock venues (which, I'd remind you, is last decade's music). Even moombahton, arguably the biggest innovation in dance music since dubstep, was born in Maryland, not DC.

  • dan reed!

    Sure, Baltimore and Philadelphia may have the arts, but I don't think they've got DC (city or region) beat for diversity, even if the city is "whitening." Three of the suburban counties are majority-minority now (MoCo, Prince George's, Charles) and I'm sure Fairfax is close behind. Philadelphia only lost its (slim) white majority in 2000 and the suburban counties (even Delaware and Camden, home to Chester and Camden, respectively) are still predominantly (70%+) white. Baltimore City's Hispanic community is almost nonexistent, and its surrounding counties remain predominantly white as well.

    I don't know what folks like Stephen and Matt want from DC. Tall buildings like New York? Chronic disinvestment to keep housing cheap, like Philadelphia and Baltimore?Maybe we should stop comparing DC to every other place and consider it on its own merits. That's not being defensive - that's respecting that this city came about very differently than its East Coast counterparts and as a result looks and functions differently.

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  • Casper

    I haven't read the original article yet but in general I would say there is no good place left in the USA for a semi-employed artist. It just doesn't exist anymore. Usually you have to just go with what you can afford or is practical. I live in Baltimore and the longstanding Baltimore vs DC debate could go on for pages but I would not recommend Baltimore for the arts because it suffers too much from small town elitism syndrome.

  • Carlotta

    Who is the musician in the pic? Is he in a DC band?

  • Ally Schweitzer

    Carlotta, that's Devin Connell from Foul Swoops.

  • Artist Worker

    I was in a band in DC for one year in 2010. I found the music scene in DC to be vibrant, cheap, and fun. We practiced about 10 minutes outside of town at an artist shared practice space for $35 per night (4 hour sessions). We played the DC club circuit and even played 930 club as an opening act for another larger DC band. All of us lived in DC and had other jobs. We all also lived in the city and paid reasonable rents ($700/rm in a house; and $1000 for basement apartments or apartments in buildings). I didn't find this experience overly expensive and it was wildly rewarding for the cost.
    Also, all of this talk of DC "whitening" is just deplorable. To act as if it is a bad thing that "white people" are moving into the city is shameful bigotry, and to act as if all white people are the same and there isnt any diversity or culture among whites is shamefully narrowminded. DC also has a vibrant Ethiopian, El Salvadoran, Mexican, Korean, and Nigerian population, and is still a majority black city is almost all of the neighborhoods that young people can afford. Let's not be so open-minded that our brains are falling out.

  • seeseehpounder

    Just like the murder rate has nothing to do with art, what does race or creed have to do it? Do white people not produce art like other races? Do other races support art more than white people? The arguments for and against seem asinine. DC is the same for semi-employed guitarists as it is for recent College graduates, or or any semi-employed It will always be the city of defense contractors, lobbyists, think that this environment spawns a strong art scene would be silly.

  • LOL You lose

    Yglesias seems to have no real idea why Berlin is the way it is.

  • Barbara Piper

    So, if I understand your point, D.C. is better than Baltimore or Philadelphia. OK. That's really comforting.

  • Silver Springer

    I'm going to point out that once again, Matt Pryor is hitting the Ottobar and skipping DC. Samiam is skipping DC again too.

    That happened last year with Matt Pryor, Samiam, Frank Turner, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Jeff Mangum...and probably a ton of others.

    We need to do more about being receptive to the arts or we're going to keep losing Baltimore.

  • Terry in Silver Spring

    DC is more expensive than New York? I don't believe it. Sure, you can move to outer parts of the NYC area to reduce your rent but you can do that in the DC area, as well.

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  • Travis Morrison

    everyone knows moombahton was invented in moombahton, west virginia, and I'm tired of Baltimore taking credit

  • Shean

    This is the saddest most underwhelming defense of Dc yet. Lower the fail whale.