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August 17, 2006

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A (Really Expensive) Room of One's Own

Daniel Brook ruminates on hyper-gentrification in The Next American City:

“How can you live in San Francisco and write a book?” is, to reluctantly borrow a phrase from Donald Rumsfeld, a 21st-century question. In the past, the City by the Bay was always considered a writer’s metropolis. A hundred years ago, it was Jack London territory. Mid-century brought Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Today, Michael Lewis, Amy Tan, and Michael Chabon call the Bay Area home. These established celebrity authors can afford to live in San Francisco, but an undiscovered Kerouac or a budding Ginsberg never could.

While San Francisco’s dot-com boom may be over, the high cost of living reflects a “new normal.” Post-bust rents remain 76 percent higher than the pre-boom rents. Writing a first book here sounds preposterous because it is preposterous. That basic commodity Virginia Woolf identified as the prerequisite for the writing life — a room of one’s own — is now a four-figure monthly proposition.


Lots more in the magazine, too; check out Joel Kotkin on the triumph of the suburbs, etc.

Posted August 17, 2006 at 2:15 | Comments (3) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted, Society/Culture


I know Daniel Brook's stuff from Philadelphia's alt-weekly City Paper. It's important to note that Philadelphia is affordable only relative to New York, San Francisco, and maybe Los Angeles; the typical downtown apartment runs $1000/month or more. Philadelphians do get more space for their money, though. But it's not like the next Kerouac could live here. Nor apparently do any agents or publishers of writers, painters, musicians, etc...

I wonder how Kotkin's essay squares with Brook's. If almost everyone would rather live in the suburbs than the city, you would think that rents in the city would be going down. But that doesn't seem to be happening. Rather -- to make the deeper point Kotkin's made before -- relatively wealthy singles and couples seem to be flowing into the downtowns of cities as blue-collar and lower-middle-class families flow out of its neighborhoods. The demographic shift is more decisive than the change in overall population. And still, more people seem to want to live downtown than can ultimately afford to. You could definitely count me in this category. And I'm childless, college-educated, and live in Philadelphia. (Cute, too.)

I just looked on Craigslist, and apparently since I last checked, $1000/month has become the starting point for apartments in South Philly; to live downtown, you need to be prepared to drop $1300/month or more. Good God.

Yeah, I've also heard that it's the wealthy singles & couples -- maybe childless, maybe retired -- that are driving up rents. And I guess it's a ripple effect: Other people who might have vied for the lux. lofts get pushed down the housing food chain, all the way to crappy two-bedrooms in weird neighborhoods, where they compete with ME.

Brings to mind Bruce Sterling's book "Holy Fire," which is not great, BUT hinges on an interesting scenario: As people live longer and longer (we are talking serious life extension here -- decades more than we're used to now), the magic of compound interest associates wealth more and more strictly with age. So we shift from an all-ages plutocracy to a gerontocracy -- and it sucks to be in your 20s even more than it does now.

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