"While New Yorkers have rarely needed to look far for inspiration, a new wave of UK grime and design talent is breaking the Big Apple and bucking the trend. Is London's increasing influence a passing fad or a symptom of a changing city?"
WGSN, the world's self-proclaimed "leading trend authority", recently published a blog post detailing a new fad sweeping New York City. Apparently, a certain subsegment of New York men have started dressing predominantly in Palace and Stone Island gear, and pepper their sentences with London vernacular lifted from Skepta's more recent discography - kind of like a roadman take on Elijah Wood in Green Street, or Lee Nelson without the ham-handed satire.
The post doesn't specify how pronounced the fad has become, and it's easy to get the impression that trend forecasting amounts to little more than relaying anecdotal observations smuggled out of trendy after-parties, but it does present an interesting paradigm: for decades New York has served as the world's primary incubator and exporter of contemporary culture. Cities like London and L.A have had their moments over the years, but from Scorsese to no wave and hip-hop via Warhol's superstars, no place on earth has ever achieved such breadth of pop cultural hegemony. Manhattan's skyline looms so large in the collective imagination that it's typically the world that apes New York, rather than the other way around. Why the sudden change?
Maybe it's just a fleeting moment of roleplay, a product of a social media-driven age that constantly pangs for fresh stimulation, but WGSN suggests that it might have something to do with a gradual and sustained change in New York's identity as a city, writing: "People used to look to New York City for its grittiness and abrasive urban attitude, but perhaps in a cleaner, smoothed-out city with increasingly exorbitant rents, there's a waning influence".
Manhattan's skyline looms so large in the collective imagination that it's typically the world that apes New York, rather than the other way around. Why the sudden change?
It appears that two decades or so of sustained gentrification in New York has corroded away its shine, something that could be said for a lot of major Western cities, especially the London that these guys fetishise. It's a perspective that often gets overlooked when we discuss the changing nature of our cities: is their cultural value being gentrified out of them? Instead, the conversation usually centres around more tangible and explicit mutations, like rising rents and altered demographics. And that's understandable; when a shortage of affordable housing is forcing councils to ship away low-income families to towns many miles away from their ancestral homes, fretting over cultural exports can border on grotesque. But that's only if you consider the two issues mutually exclusive rather than inextricably entwined.
Contrary to views typically espoused by The Cult Of Positivity, great art is overwhelmingly borne out of anguish rather than joy. That anguish can be intangible and omnipresent, like an existential melancholy, or it can be as pronounced and quantifiable as poverty. It's an unshakeable feeling of deficit, of dissatisfaction with the world at large that spurs people into creating an alternative to what already exists before them. It's an urge driven by a gaping void and the intrinsic need to fill it. Imagination and talent can spawn a successful novel or album or movie, but a dose of misery is needed to push it into the realms of greatness. It's what separates Nick Cave from Coldplay and Michael Bay from the Romanian New Wave. The tortured artist may be a cliche, but Basquiat, Mapplethorpe, and Foster Wallace, with their addictions and depressions and deviancies, were not balanced, well-adjusted, happy people, despite being undisputed greats in their respective fields. Quite the contrary.
Much like the depressive mind, the constellation of social and urban ailments that so often plague neglected inner cities also serve as plentiful wells of inspiration. There's a reason why hip-hop and Taxi Driver were born out of New York's urban squalor, rather than the staid, well-preened streets of Geneva or Singapore - that's not to say that affluence is incompatible with great art- of course it is, but it's arguably more synonymous with individual, inner anguish, rather than the collective outward variety that spawns entire movement and scenes. But as rents and living costs rise like flood waters, forcing the longtime residents out of rapidly-gentrifying neighbourhoods, those that would've once converted their everyday anguish into artistic creation are replaced with a consumer class whose contributions to culture rarely extends beyond the financial.
These former hotbeds of creation are populated by white collar Wall Street types. They're people who've come to consume the cultural legacy that made these areas famous rather than contribute to it.
Looking at a map of New York rent prices, downtown quarts like SoHo and Tribeca - and even parts of Brooklyn - once the home of artists and bohemians in the 60s and 70s, now command higher rents than the traditionally-bourgeois Upper East Side. Who in the arts can really afford to pay upwards of $3,500 a month in rent? Certainly not the young and up-and-coming, unless they're born into nepotistic privilege, like the Lena Dunhams of the world. Maybe the old, those who've already made it, but they've usually long passed their creative peak.
Instead, these former hotbeds of creation are populated by white collar Wall Street types and foreign tycoons who've made their fortunes from banal work like manufacturing. They're people who've come to consume the cultural legacy that made these areas famous rather than contribute to it, whose sterile lives spent chasing LinkedIn-optimised job titles offer little in the way of inspiration. As the young, the fun, and the interesting are pushed further towards the urban periphery, lower Manhattan withers, becoming a hollowed-out monument to a fading high water mark, the Beat Generation's very own Acropolis.
In contrast to this new, post-sanitisation NYC, the London depicted in Shutdown must look utterly exotic to WGSN's transatlantic roadmen - it's a vision of a city still filled with danger and excitement, rather than the reality, which is really just a quainter, Victorian terraced version of their own. It would be foolish to argue that New York is over, and America's first city still has enough cultural capital in the bank to inspire great creative works and memorable artistic scenes in the future, but it could well be passed the peak of the bell curve, just beyond the apex of a slow and steady decline; a city as greying and diminished as its populace.