A rooftop, Manhattan
At one in the morning
And you said something
That I’ve never forgotten
-PJ Harvey, “You Said Something”
In 1999, I tended bar at an upscale restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I worked for an impeccably dressed, unintentional philosopher named Bill. He resembled a “pre-facelift” Al Pacino. He said cool things. He said things cool. Bill was a real New Yorker, born and raised on the island of Manhattan.
But one day he revealed something almost unbelievable:
“I’ve been off this island two times in my life, for a total of 48 hours.”
This didn’t make a bit of sense to me. Bill was at least 50 years old. Manhattan is small and narrow: you can walk its width in an afternoon. There is so much more!
“Everything I want I can walk to.”
This part stuck with me.
Ten Years After
Yesterday I was accidentally listening to BBC Radio. The reporter described how Russia has begun laying claim to vast Arctic oil reserves that have become accessible now that global warming has melted sea ice. This is why I don’t listen to BBC Radio. Not only have we burned enough fossil fuel over the past several decades to tear a hole in the sky… but in doing so, we gain access to more oil and natural gas. The human race is a junkie refinancing the mortgage on a burning house.
This made me think of Bill. Not because he was an elegant heroin addict (he was) but because I realized something: I no longer cared about international affairs. In fact, I didn’t care about much outside a one-kilometer radius from Wealthy Theatre. I’ve become hyperlocal. I have seen the light of the City of Grand Rapids’ amazing Master Plan: live, work and recreate in the city you call home.
My partner listens to National Public Radio like she’s getting paid to. It’s on in every room. It’s her version of leaving the toilet seat up. I systematically stop the podcast and put on Charles The Osprey, or A.B. & Coconut Brown.
I’m no longer interested in Russians.
I’m no longer interested in driving to Barnes & Noble for something I could find at Literary Life. No longer interested in furnishing my home with the same lighting fixtures from the same aisle at Home Depot. No longer interested in franchised cool: hipsters with mustaches (unique like all their friends) in some manufactured homage to Brandon Flowers. I want original, independent. Make something. I’ll buy it. Build an entertainment center out of anything other than pressboard: make it out of bones and bananas, I don’t care, just make it interesting.
We have to be smarter than the junkie refinancing the burning house: we have to move beyond disposable consumerism. The good news is that sustainability tastes better. If you live near Wealthy Street, you’ve got half a dozen superlative options for coffee, within walking distance. Your dollar is more important to the people who own Sparrows or Rowsters, than to the pre-fab “baristas” at the Woodland Mall Starbucks. And it’s better for you to spend your dollar closer to home, because local stores are generally more invested in the community. The dollars you spend there go directly to the ownership and staff, not to a cadre of VPs and CEOs you’ll never meet – people to whom you are nothing but a trending line of data in another market analysis.
I was living in the East Village (NYC) when the K-Mart went in, near Union Square: it was reviled. A Trojan horse of disposable consumerism, in a defiantly independent neighborhood. Fortunately, Uptown (Grand Rapids) is inherently unappealing to big-box franchises, because we don’t have an expressway running through Eastown. There will never be a Wal-Mart on Lake Drive. Our infrastructure is naturally better for small, independently owned businesses. We are blessed for the factors that limit us, this way – just as Wealthy Theatre is “limited” by its 400 seats, which make it ideal for Michigan performers playing to Michigan audiences.
Where these inherent “limiters” do not exist – for instance, Downtown – it becomes a question of curating. The new bar “Pyramid Scheme” is a brilliant addition. It’ll be run by by people who give back to the community. Local bands will have a great, new option, for live performance. Michigan beers will be sold. Sustainability.
Artprize is another fine example of curating: it attracts international artists to our city in a framework that celebrates Grand Rapids. It is a funnel of light. It benefits locally owned businesses, and motivates people far and wide to experience and examine original beauty.
If you took a highway to get to ArtPrize, you probably saw billboards featuring McDonald’s latest ad campaign. These provide a valuable “compare/contrast” opportunity, prior to seeing art Downtown. One billboard features human lips contorted to resemble a heart, symbolizing love for a quarter pound of microwaved, colorless ground beef. The imagery doesn’t require you to interpret, it’s all made very plain, nothing left to the imagination – sort of like pornography.
These billboards display the low art of disposable consumerism. Whenever I’m returning to Grand Rapids, I count these as markers back to what Bill described as the island he never wanted to leave. I turn up the Paucity CD and drive a little faster, hastening my way back to the brick pavers on Wealthy Street.
Where everything I want I can walk to.