If you took the Internet at face value, you might think that the only places worth living in the United States were New York City and San Francisco, particularly if you had artistic or entrepreneurial goals. This has never made sense to me. At the start of your career, when you are making the least amount of money of your life (or perhaps none at all), why would you choose to live in a place with one of the highest costs of living in the world?
New Yorkers will submit the city’s excellent food and culture as evidence in its favor, which is of course true, but I don’t believe these things are essential, and may even be detrimental to good writing. Getting distracted and broke just seems like a bad way to finish that novel.
But New Yorkers are right on one count for sure: humans like to be entertained. Why else would we continue to live in expensive cities that we can’t afford and read novels, which arguably have little tangible benefit to society. What was it that T.S. Elliot said? “Mankind can only take so much reality?” (edited: yeah, the quote is actually, "human kind, cannot bear very much reality," from his Four Quartets, but you get my drift, there's value in entertainment)
There may be a better compromise for the competing professional and personal needs of the writer that goes beyond the usual metropolitan suspects. Across the U.S., a small city revival has been taking place. Towns like Buffalo, New York, which had been more or less abandoned as American ghost towns, have started to experience a popular regrowth. Maybe this is a reflection of millenials’ taste for city-life or the fact that the economic cycles of cheap real-estate eventually lowers the risk for entrepreneurs to start new businesses, but for whatever reason, it’s happening. Small cities are filling up again with people hungry for good food, entertainment and community, but at a fraction of the cost of New York or San Francisco, and maybe with a little weirder, local character.
This same revival has been taking place in Durham, North Carolina and has been noticeable even in the last two years since we moved here. My husband actually used to live in Durham as child, right next to Duke University on Monmouth Ave., some twenty-odd years ago. Back then, he says you didn't go into the downtown area, even though it was only a 10 minute walk away, because there just wasn’t anything to visit. Businesses had shuttered around the same time as the collapse of the tobacco industry, which had thrived there during most of the early and mid-part of the 20th century.
What remained were some art deco-buildings, red brick warehouses, and smoke stacks, the remaining artifacts of the tobacco industry like Liggett-Meyers and Lucky-Strike. But there was so much amazing architecture that I think developers and business owners saw an opportunity for a second life in the city. They were smart enough to retain that visual character, which has helped set Durham apart in some ways.
Durham went from depopulated and dead to having independent breweries, music venues, bookstores, and excellent restaurants. A new baseball stadium was built for the local minor league team, the Durham Bulls (made famous in the Kevin Costner movie, Bull Durham), and thankfully, the old wooden one has been left standing and is used by high school teams and clubs, maintaining a lot the 20th century character and charm in the neighborhood All of this is within minutes of Duke University, and under a 45 minute commute to either Chapel Hill or Raleigh, both of which are experiencing their own versions of this municipal rebirth.
We used to live in downtown Durham and would walk to get a beer at Fullsteam or Motorco, or pop down the street for an independent movie at The Carolina Theatre. I'd buy my books at Letters Bookshop, The Regulator, or Nice Price Books, all within walking distance of our place. We lived in one of the tobacco warehouses and had a large loft apartment that cost us all of $1300 for two bedrooms, two baths, in the very thick of the downtown scene. We could have gone cheaper, but we liked the building too much.
This past weekend we visited one of the recently renovated, classic mid-century buildings, The Durham Hotel, and got a drink on the rooftop bar, which had amazing views of the city. This was exactly what Durham was missing.
We also tried out the new ramen restaurant, Dashi. I am a huge ramen noodles fan (the real soup, not the instant kind). When we first moved to Durham, it didn’t have much in the way of Japanese food, but now it has a legitimate, serious ramen shop with a bar upstairs for small plates. I had the shoyu style, T had the tonkatsu. I dug right in and totally ruined the bowl’s presentation before even thinking I’d might want to take a picture to share with you guys, but here it is. Doesn’t that soy sauce egg look incredible? Perfectly soft-boiled, jelly yolk. And the noodles, crinkly and chewy, just the way I like them.
So there you go, you can get delicious ramen some place other than San Francisco. You can walk to the movie theater without going broke for the privilege. And you can use that saved cash to pursue professionals goals and take risks that maybe aren’t the most financially practical. For this reason, Durham is a great place for writers, or painter, or brewers, or farmers, or whatever it is that you want to do or be.
So check out Durham or some other small city if you’re thinking about a change. New York would be fun, but at what cost really, both financially and personally? Maybe it would be fun for a little while, but is it really sustainable or productive for a struggling artist to live there? Smaller cities might be a real alternative for living your own life, not the one the Internet thinks you should have.