Screw Big Cities

A mid-sized manifesto

Caleb Walsh Illustration

Screw big cities. Everybody says big cities are these great, wondrous galaxies that hold together fully formed and diverse constellations of art and culture so broad and deep that one cannot stand at one end and see the other. And yeah, that's totally true.

But big cities are also stultifying and cliquish, with massive structures of inertia and control. They possess so much gravity that, if you can't break in, you may get crushed.

Big cities are great if you want to experience art, but what if you want to make it? Are you content splitting an 800-square-foot live-work space with three other people? You better get used to it. I'm not talking Bushwick. I'm talking the place after the place after Bushwick.

When I was 26, in our weird little city, I lived in an apartment so big my roommate cut an entire album without waking the neighbors.

A year later, my friends and I started an art party called Terrain because our city was hemorrhaging smart young people, and we wanted to try and stop the bleeding. We had no idea what we were doing, and we did a lot of things wrong, but it didn't matter. People found us and offered to help.

That first year we had 75 art submissions and drew 1,500 patrons. This year we had 1,000 art submissions and 7,000 people through the door.

That's the thing about this place: We don't have to break in, because the door isn't locked.

But you're right: Jobs here suck. We are a uniquely depressed place in significant ways. Jobs suck in a lot of other places too, though, where rent is way higher and competition is tougher.

And there's this guy I know here, who had a good idea and took it down to the Bay Area for a venture capital round. In addition to asking for money, he asked dozens of smart, rich Silicon Valley types how to succeed. He asked whether he should move his company down there, near the action. They sent him home with nearly $400,000 and said, For the love of God, stay where you are.

Because, like Silicon Valley, our city also has nerds and the Internet. Unlike Silicon Valley, $400,000 is a lot of money here.

And yeah, we're too white and too straight, and our urban growth area is so huge we might as well not have one. Too many people here still treat a 40-year-old world's fair like the best thing that will ever happen.

But we know that's some bullshit. Our city is way too slow to turn toward new things, but now that we're moving, there's nothing to stop us. There are parts of this town that seem completely broken. But then I compare that to other similarly broken big cities, and I think I'll take my chances fixing mine.

Here's what I've realized, and it makes me sad and a little angry at myself that I'm only just realizing it: Young people in big cities have it harder than we do.

In our city — this city — the only thing holding us back is us. We need to recognize that. In a town like ours, where change is slow and people have been reluctant to take risks, it's not enough to just buy in and make change. We have to let others know we're making change.

People are looking for leadership — a group to stand up and say, "This place is great. we don't need to live anywhere else. We have what we need here and if we don't, we can f---ing build it."

Because we can build it.

So say it with me:

F--- a big city. Let's do this here. ♦

Luke Baumgarten is a co-founder of Terrain, the founder of Fellow Coworking and former culture editor of the Inlander. He tweets @lukebaumgarten.