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David Byrne: The Rich Are Destroying New York Culture

City becoming 'pleasure domes for the rich,' singer writes in op-ed

October 7, 2013 5:55 PM ET
David Byrne
David Byrne
Carlos R. Alvarez/WireImage

New York is in danger of losing what remains of its creative soul as the wealthiest one percent usurp the cultural resources that once made the city "a repository of ideas and information," David Byrne writes in an op-ed piece for Creative Time Reports.

The singer, songwriter and former Talking Heads frontman describes New York as a body and a mind. While he applauds improvements to the body – a historic reduction in crime, along with initiatives including bike lanes, parks and upgraded public transportation – he's less optimistic about the overall health of the organism, writing, "The cultural part of the city – the mind – has been usurped by the top one percent."

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Rather than serve as an incubator for musicians, writers, dancers, actors, filmmakers and artists, "most of Manhattan and many parts of Brooklyn are virtual walled communities, pleasure domes for the rich (which, full disclosure, includes me), and aside from those of us who managed years ago to find our niche and some means of income, there is no room for fresh creative types," Byrne writes.

Once New York was hub of creative industry, Byrne writes, and a city where hardships were worth the tradeoff for being part of the electric bustle of a vibrant metropolis. That has changed, in his view, as the city becomes less accommodating to the middle class.

"A culture of arrogance, hubris and winner-take-all was established," he writes. "It wasn't cool to be poor or struggling. The bully was celebrated and cheered. The talent pool became a limited resource for any industry, except Wall Street."

As the "arty types" have had increasing difficulty finding jobs, the rich financiers have taken over. Byrne notes their monetary contributions to civic institutions such as museums and symphony halls. "But it's like funding your own clubhouse," he writes. "It doesn't exactly do much for the rest of us or for the general health of the city. At least, we might sigh, they do that, as they don't pay taxes – that we know."

As New York comes to resemble cities like Abu Dhabi or Honk Kong, it's losing something vital, Byrne adds. "Those places might have museums, but they don't have culture. Ugh. If New York goes there – more than it already has – I'm leaving."

Where he'll go is a question he's unable to answer – "Join the expat hipsters upstate in Hudson?" – but he finishes with a wish for the city to right its course. "The physical improvements are happening – though much of the crumbling infrastructure still needs fixing. If the social and economic situation can be addressed, we're halfway there. It really could be a model of how to make a large, economically sustainable and creatively energetic city. I want to live in that city."

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