The recent decision of the rent control board in Albany to allow a 7.5% increase in rental rates is only the latest affront to affordable housing in New York City. We have landlords emptying whole apartment buildings under various pretexts, and now this, not unexpected, increase. Of course, the politicians will tell you the increase has to do with the price of heating oil, but that doesn't help to explain the fact that the board has raised rents significantly in every year they've been in existence, dating all the way back to 1980. There seems to be a deliberate policy of emptying the city of the poor and working class, so that Manhattan can become a playground for the rich.
We have a little bit of a different situation here at the Chelsea Hotel, where our manager and part-owner Stanley Bard has for years done his best to keep rents at an affordable level. It's a good thing too, since most of the writers, artists and musicians living here -- especially the older ones -- don't make enough money to pay market rates. But now that the Chelsea neighborhood is the hottest real estate property in New York, the Chelsea Hotel's board of directors is putting increasing pressure on Mr. Bard to bring rents in line with the market. If that happens, a lot of us are going to be forced out. Already, the building has become way too expensive for younger artists just starting out in their careers.
So why should you care? Boo hoo hoo, whiny artists crying in their soup. It's easy enough to feel this sort of resentment toward creative people: let them get a real job. Workers, a bit more essential, can always be bussed in from New Jersey. And as for the poor and the homeless, though no one would be so callous as to suggest prisons and mental hospitals, can't they just as soon set up their cardboard boxes in the wilds of Ohio or somewhere like that?
Well, for one thing, things are going to be a hell of a lot less interesting around here without us -- in the city certainly, and in America as a whole. Like it or not, we're the ones creating your culture; we're on the cutting edge. If we can't be free in what we create then you won't be free in what you consume either. The decline in our art and music and literature reflect this: most of what you see and read and listen to has been cynically designed -- ala Madison Avenue--to manipulate you. Artists go along with it not because they like it, but because, increasingly, they have little choice, they have to make the bucks. Living in a suburb is, for us, tantamount to creative death; the artist needs a community of like-minded individuals in order to thrive and to make an impact in his chosen field.
We're becoming an increasingly crueler society. And it's all part and parcel with the war on "terror," which is coming, increasingly, to look abroad like a war on Islam, and at home like a war on civil liberties such as privacy and freedom of expression. Am I the only one to notice that there seemed to be a lighter, more forgiving quality to America when there was a Democrat in the White House? George Bush, who authorizes torture and spying at the drop of a hat, haughtily declaring himself above the law, is a man seemingly congenitally lacking in basic sensitivity to other cultures and other points of view. Like it or not, he seems to have a charisma and a "moral" force that sets the tone for the rest of us: as the president goes, so goes the nation.
I believe that, as creative people, we at the Chelsea Hotel offer, not just cultural products, but an alternative mode of living in, and of conceptualizing the world. This has nothing to do with any sort of political orientation on the part of our residents -- who run the gamut from right to left -- but in fact everything to do with an apolitical orientation in which difference is tolerated and respected. As the goal of art and literature is the understanding of self and others, so the creative person cultivates a life of self-reflection and empathy. In the Living with Legends blog, I often joke that this hotel is filled with nuts, and in fact we are all crazy by the standards of the larger society. But that doesn't rule out the fact that perhaps we have something valuable to say to that society.
It's an easy out to say it's all market forces driving the real estate boom and the rising rents in the city, and that the larger political situation has no bearing on the matter at all. But there have been real estate booms before, and there's always been more of a cushion in place to absorb the blow of the rampant speculation. We've known since at least 1929 (actually since long before that) that the market can't be allowed to operate unfettered. There need to be checks and balances in place, and they need to be enforced. I suppose it's too late to hope that George Bush will come to his senses and quit playing Cowboys and Indians, but I think that realizing the extent of his adverse influence on the country is the first step toward fixing the damage.