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sontag glosses the girlfriend experience / nyc trustafarians

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From the journals, from the start of 1959:

The ugliness of New York. But I do like it here, even like Commentary. In NY sensuality completely turns into sexuality – no objects for the senses to respond to, no beautiful river, houses, people. Awful smells of the street, and dirt… Nothing except eating, if that, and the frenzy of the bed.

Except, of course, that TGE suggests that the last sentence should be reversed to read “Nothing except the frenzy of the bed, if that, and eating.” And I imagine she means real smells, the back-in-the-day real dirt, when the thing that stinks nowadays back in Gotham is something much more abstract. This sort of thing, for instance, the half-told story of the New New York and its Creative Industries.

Famed for its concentration of heavily subsidized 20-something residents — also nicknamed trust-funders or trustafarians — Williamsburg is showing signs of trouble. Parents whose money helped fuel one of the city’s most radical gentrifications in recent years have stopped buying their children new luxury condos, subsidizing rents and providing cash to spend at Bedford Avenue’s boutiques and coffee houses.

The concentration of people relying on family money in certain neighborhoods of New York – not just Williamsburg, though if you want to take a trip to see the ‘farians living in their native milieu, of course it is a good place to start – is extremely high. I don’t have figures, but there was a kind of standard deviation between job/salary and estimated cost of residence that make the state of play rather clear. When I sold my own apartment there, in 2005, I had four offers come in the first day it was shown. Three of the four were way, way over the asking price, and all three of those offers were formally made by family estates or by people who attached a very clarifying letter from their father’s broker in New Jersey.

It bears remembering that TGE incorporates a subtle and interesting reference to this situation. At one point, Chelsea explains that the reason she’s taken up the line of work that she has is because (and I paraphrase – don’t have time to find her exact words right now) she doesn’t or didn’t want to rely on her parents. The math’s not hard to do. Implicitly, the suggestion is that she could have relied on her parents, that they had the means to support her in the city. Her career as a high-end escort doesn’t originate in poverty, nor is it simply some sort of mindless / libidinalized cashgrab. Rather, if we’re all going to be on the anti-bburg-trust-fund bandwagon, and I’m sure we are and should be, Chelsea’s choice of a line of work represents a heroic refusal of exactly the sort of thing that the NYT article describes. Sure, she could have found something else to do, and lived elsewhere and otherwise… She’s like one of the “goodguys,” the recovering-fundees, who are meant to provide relief at the end of the trust fund article:

The culture of the area often mocks residents who depend on their families. Misha Calvert, 26, a writer who relied on her parents during her first year in the city, now has three roommates, works in freelance jobs and organizes parties to help keep her afloat while she writes plays and acts in films. There is a “giant stigma,” she said, for Williamsburg residents who are not financially independent.

“It takes the wind out of you if you’re not the independent, self-reliant artist you claim to be,” she said, “if you’re just daddy’s little girl.”

There’s a long, complicated, and in some senses counterintuitive story to be told about exactly what happened in New York from the mid-ninties onward. Giuliani (and his incredible good-fortune to be mayor during a prolonged bull market – nothing unbreaks the windows in NYC like a glut of finance sector bonuses), NYU, the coming of age of the progeny of a corporate managers of the post-Cold War surge of globalization and financialization, the inflation of a local real estate bubble that started well before the interest rates came down, and informalization of work in the wake of the rise of the unpaid internship, and the rise of what we might call hedged entrepreneurialism amongst the creative types. Lots more too, obviously…

Written by adswithoutproducts

June 13, 2009 at 8:29 am

9 Responses

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  1. I still don’t understand America’s complicated relationship to its own pioneer history. It must surely be split between those parents rich enough to pay for their kids to live wherever but want them to ‘make their own way in the world’ and those, the ones in the article, who presumably don’t care whether their kids are self-supporting or not. The thing I don’t understand about the second category is what they think their kids are going to do with that time and money other than fuck around, drink too much and generally act like a dick in previously poor areas of big cities. What happened to the Protestant work ethic?!

    infinite thought

    June 13, 2009 at 11:43 am

  2. Considering that these kids likely aren’t *actually* artists, or, at any rate, that in 95% of the cases their art probably could be pursued to exactly the same effect elsewhere; and considering the rather generic nature of “bohemia” today (I was trying the other day to explain to someone the sui generis quality of the Lower East Side in the ’70s), to fund a kid’s New York City lifestyle (let alone their New York City residence) seems quite an extravagant indulgence.


    June 13, 2009 at 1:12 pm

  3. IT,

    Yes. Would also be interesting to think about any differences with how this stuff gets played out over here, as there’s certainly lots and lots and lots of freelance curators and DJs and the like that are funded the same way. Brits are perhaps a bit more and less discrete at once about inherited wealth, aren’t they? I believe the people in the article when they talk about the shame of non-independence in the US. I have a sense, from limited exposure, that that shame doesn’t quite factor the same way in the better circles over here. It is a monarchy, after all – that sets quite an example for twatty types to follow and emulate.

    But yes, good questions.


    Yeah, you’re right too. But it’s also more complicated than that, isn’t it. There’s always been a way that large sectors of the art/writing/cultural production realms are in fact filled with people with inherited wealth. I mean, when Woolf calls for “a room of one’s own,” she certainly doesn’t mean a shabby little bedsit to commute into a job from, does she?

    Sad but true. Some of them – not many, but probably more than we’d like to admit – do make it.


    June 13, 2009 at 2:46 pm

  4. Seconding Ads above. Yes, we mustn’t be ahistorical, and it would be interesting to meditate on this moment’s specificity. But trust funds have long driven the avant-garde; it’s hard to imagine US modernism without James Laughlin’s daddy.

    And I for one am leery of any story that goes “in the 70s bohemia was so authentic” (one needs only read the Goncourts writing in 1860 to see the problem). Williamsburg bugs the shit out of me too, but really, there’s a problematic way in which excoriating the current efflorescence of gentrifying hipsters works to valorize the previous generation of same.

    How about this: let’s never say any version of “kids these days.” Instead let’s talk about the dynamics that produce these cultural bubbles and busts?


    June 13, 2009 at 3:59 pm

  5. Sorry, let me clarify. I wasn’t attempting to romanticize or privilege the bohemia of the ’70s, or any earlier era, for that matter. I meant only that the hipster experience of Bedford Avenue or Smith Street or Ludlow Street is replicated exactly in even small cities around the U.S., which wasn’t the case before the mid-nineties, I’d say.

    “Modernism” might have been in a very different place without ND, Jane, but individual modernists themselves didn’t as a rule benefit all that much from Jay Laughlin’s largesse. As the old joke has it, a museum would rather own one of your paintings than give you a hundred dollars a week to paint more of them.

    And I don’t know about means-testing the artistic class as a whole to check for undisclosed family wealth. Seems like the really rich guys — James Merrill, Robert Motherwell, Harry Mathews, William Burroughs, e.g. — cast a very long but distorting shadow.

    Besides, who, exactly, are we talking about here when we refer to “creative types”?


    June 13, 2009 at 6:58 pm

  6. The trustafarian issue doesn’t even come close to a demagogic diversion. It is just dumb. An article written in a paper – the NYT – which threw its editorial weight, in the 90s, behind stripping NYC of rent control, which was the single biggest cause of the end of New York City’s ‘bohemia’, as well as driving out hundreds of thousands of the working class from Manhattan. The arguments for the end of rent control were, of course, as they always are when the greedheads are salivating – that it would be a public good. Bring prices down. Make more apartments available.
    Luckily, once the steal is in, the ideologues simply forget the arguments they made in the first place, and after a while you find some funny patsy to push around in the press.


    June 13, 2009 at 11:47 pm

  7. See when there’s talk of hipster kids who don’t deserve their wealthy lifestyles all I can hear is the upshot that young professionals *do* deserve their wealthy lifestyles.

    peli grietzer

    June 15, 2009 at 5:04 pm

  8. Jane and Peli,

    Very much in agreement with both of you.


    Yes I think that’s right too. I’m not sure it’s always a question of incredible wealth, per Merrill. TSE, Pound, Woolf, the list goes on and on, all could one way or another afford a room of their own without too much anxiety, no? Probably true of the kids in Williamsburg, too. The strata where trustfund endowment / monthly dispensation starts is probably a bit lower on the scale than many of us think (i.e. the person whose parents run a catering company or whatever in the article…)

    And good question, what we talk about when we talk about “creative types.” A ‘funded young chef, part owner of one of those places that was regularly featured in the mags at the time, bought my apartment. A woman who made videos for Cat Power and the like bought the one upstairs (more on that in a post that’s in development).


    Yeah that’s true too. None of this would really matter if there were more afforable housing across the board in NYC.


    June 15, 2009 at 6:20 pm

  9. I think, Peli, that many of the hipster kids are professionals, operating behind a kind of mufti. Ads’ anecdote confirms this, more or less.

    Ads: Yes, I’m sure you’re right that they could.


    June 15, 2009 at 7:14 pm

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