Every year, thousands of starry-eyed kids move to coastal metropolises in search of something they could find anywhere.
The pastoral beauty of the midwest. Photo via Flirckr user USFWSmidwest.
The most boring element of the Thinkpiece-Industrial Complex is that of whether LA or New York is a better place to live. Zach Lipez's recent VICE piece Hello to All That was the most recent rekindling of the decades-old Coastal Cold War but you can find veritable content oceans of millennials lining up to tell you why they left New York, and you can find the New York Times extolling the alleged virtues of LA over New York. The idea, I guess, is that we all care where these youngish "creatives" live and that the decision to live in one overpriced city or another is a monumental life choice on par with divorcing someone or joining the Marines.
I don't have a dog in this bicoastal bitch-fest—I've lived in the Midwest, perfectly happily, for all of my 29 years. I'm sure NYC and LA are fine places to live, but I'm also sure there is nothing wrong with staying put in your hometown, or moving to "just" the metropolis in your region, be that Raleigh, Minneapolis, Denver, Cleveland or hell, Pittsburgh. Fewer people write long essays about how wonderful those places are and how living there means you are by default ambitious, smart, and interesting. That's probably because no one in these places gives a shit about proving themselves by writing overwrought personal essays.
The first thing you have to get over is that not moving to New York, or leaving New York for LA or anywhere, is not "defeat." There is no scoreboard keeping track of your life that will penalize you for not moving there. There is genuinely nothing wrong with staying in your hometown and taking over your dad's shoe repair company. You can find happiness—or misery—wherever you decide to lay your head.
Every 12 months, the liberal arts colleges of America pump out more kindling for the NY/LA dream pyre, more starry-eyed cannon fodder for the creative class, more future why-I'm-leaving-New-Yorkers. In the five-year period between 2007 and 2012, more than 740,000 college grads between the ages of 20 and 30 moved to New York; LA gained more than 415,000. The vast majority will have run into a brick wall of reality: The age-old option of working a day job to bankroll your creative endeavors is damn near impossible in today's New York or LA, because the rents are insane. The median one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles rents for $1,800 (and the less said about NYC rents, the better). The average one-bedroom in Minneapolis is $889. New York may be more glamorous and LA may have beaches, but is living in those places more than twice as good as an existence in the Twin Cities?
The cultural scenes of "flyover cities" aren't as star-studded or moneyed as That means it's easier to make something of yourself out here—people will work together to elevate their local institutions, and you don't have to deal with the horrific overcrowding and backbiting competition that comes with big metropolises. If hell is other people, living in a place with 7,000 people per square mile must be its ninth circle.
It takes all of two weeks of living in a middle-sized Midwestern city as a mature adult with access to Google to realize basically everything you want to do in LA or New York is possible everywhere. The stuff that Los Angeles and New York are celebrated for—fast-paced lifestyles, their music scenes, people who will have weird, no-strings-attached sex with you, drugs, etc.—are actually present all over the country. It's possible to look at art you pretend you understand, and it's possible to eat at restaurants that challenge you by serving squid or brain sandwiches or whatever. It's possible to meet people who like the same things you like, it's possible to meet people from all over who have all sorts of crazy perspectives on life, and it's possible to do pretty much whatever you want to do, wherever, if you try hard enough.
It's no longer necessary to pack yourself up and move to a sprawling metropolis that doesn't give a fuck about you or your artisanal cheese making. If you want to write and advance important conversations, your city (or one close to it) has an alt-weekly, and those people would love for you to write for them. Your band doesn't have to go to the big city to get noticed by labels. Just ask Zola Jesus, Atmosphere, or Spooky Black, all of whom transcended their non–New Yorkiness through making art whose appeal couldn't be contained by the circumstances of their geography. If building a "personal brand" is your thing, well, the currency for that stuff is measured in retweets and Tumblr notes, and you can get that stuff anywhere. The point of all of this is that some of the best art is created by people who find stimulation in the environments that they know best.
Another ancillary benefit of living in a city that is not New York or LA is that "influence" is treated as it should be: illusory and mostly bullshit. Bon Iver is the most famous person in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, but there's no way he'd even be allowed to cut in line for The Joynt. Real America has a way of leveling all playing fields you don't experience anywhere else.
Refusing to move to New York or LA is not some kind of "failure," and it's not "settling"; it's giving yourself over to being a reasonable human living in a reasonable city with reasonable goals. You and your dreams are not defined by your location, and success can mean anything.
I get asked all the time, working my day job at a college here in Madison, Wisconsin, why I haven't packed up and at least moved to Portland. The answer is complicated, but mostly I love that the Midwest is home to weird pockets of authentic culture that New Yorkers and Angelinos will never know. We have crazy clusterfuck country festivals attended by more people annually than Coachella or Lollapalooza combined. We have the Gathering of the Juggalos. We have punks who grew up on farms, and we have farm kids who listen to A$AP Rocky. I know this place. If I moved to New York, I'd just be another writer going to the same shows, visiting the same websites, and drinking at the same bars.
Success to me means knowing I will take my last breath clutching a container of locally-sourced Wisconsin cheese curds while in a too-tight Green Bay Packers jersey. I will die content, secure in the knowledge that I have accomplished what I set out to accomplish, and on my own terms.
Besides, I've heard the subway in New York sucks and the traffic in Los Angeles is hell. Why would anyone put up with that shit?
Andrew Winistorfer is on Twitter.