Dozens of wonderful movies have been made about making it in New York City. Heroes and heroines flock to the big city seeking understanding and/or excitement. Often they hail from small towns with nothing more than a suitcase and a dream. They emerge from buses and trains into a bustling mysterious brightly lit metropolis. They pound the pavement for a room and a job, knocking on countless slamming doors (a la Gene Kelly; Gotta Dance! Gotta Dance!) They find a room, perhaps even an efficiency or worldly roommate. They get a job and make it all work. They won’t quit ’til they’re a star!
Movies about the big adventure that is NYC aren’t really made anymore. NYC appears quite frequently in film but less as a place to conquer, and more as a posh playground. They still come from small towns and less glittery cities. But the heroes and heroines of today are more likely to find shelter in a 2,000 square foot loft than a room in a boarding house. Young women don’t share an “interview dress” but news of sample sales. And it’s been a few decades since a call girl found it entertaining to window shop at Tiffany. The scrappiness is gone. The roughing it and hard knock pursuit of a brand new start of it is a thing of the past; and for good reason.
You’d be hard pressed to find a legitimate boarding house in NYC. There are efficiency apartments still holding on, but they’re most decidedly not for out-of-towners. If there are buildings which house nothing but theatrical agents, even Gene Kelly wouldn’t be allowed past security. It’s a different city than it was 80, 70, or even 20 years ago. It is a town less about cab drivers answering back in language far from pure, than it is about gentility. Searching for grittiness can become a scavenger hunt. There is a gloss to the city that doesn’t sleep. Our heroines of yesteryear would not know what to make of bicycle paths, pedestrian malls, man-made beaches and midtown pop-up swimming pools (that are nothing more than oversized dumpsters). For the out-of-towner arriving to make their fame and fortune, these sights might be comforting and not the least surprising. Their perceptions of NYC, gleaned from television & film will be confirmed; it is a luxury cruise ship! The food is copious, the entertainment splashy and every need is easily fulfilled.
Of course there is still a grittiness to be found in the city, and there are still wonderfully diverse foods and entertainment. But it gets harder and harder to live an urban life beyond the homogenization. With each passing year the city becomes more a place for tourists and less for residents. People come from all over the world to see the prescribed sights. The intensity of the city and its lights might be exotic but the ads, retail and amenities are very familiar. A person could come to NYC; complete their tourist attraction checklist while eating, drinking and sleeping in very familiar places. But what of that young man or woman arriving with three bucks, two bags, one me? How do they find their way in a town priced at tourist levels, no longer as welcoming to the young yearning to be free? What does it mean to a city, and a world capital to no longer be the incubator of extraordinary young talent? The world will always welcome bankers and engineers, but what of artists?
NYC will never (willingly) go back to its hardscrabble ways. The tourism dollars are simply too good to turn down. But it is possible to recapture the opportunities and promise of the big city. Dotted throughout the island are examples of how. There is (at least) one subsidized residence for actors. There are small-business incubators supported by the city. There is even health insurance for freelancers. Gathering these meager resources and augmenting them to support artists and innovators would be a great legacy for a mayor. City sponsored art projects, theatres, and music would open the door for those Ruby Keelers and Gene Kellys and who knows whom else. The only way to ensure true diversity is to actively support success. It’s really up to you New York, New York.