Skip to main content

Lena Dunham Wants Brooklyn to Be More Like Chattanooga

"If they struggle for too long, they're leaving New York for Seattle, Chicago, Austin, and in some cases, even Tampa. We can't have our generation's Patti Smith moving to Tampa."
  • Author:
  • Updated:
Chattanooga, October 2012. (PHOTO: IMILIOUS/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Chattanooga, October 2012. (PHOTO: IMILIOUS/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

New York City is dying because the rent is too damn high. The Creative Class is fleeing Brooklyn. Lena Dunham, of Girls fame, wants to stem the tide:

It's news to no one that the middle class and up-and-coming talent struggle in this city. As a result, New York is seeing an exodus of its creative population. As Dunham says, "If they struggle for too long, they're leaving New York for Seattle, Chicago, Austin, and in some cases, even Tampa. We can't have our generation's Patti Smith moving to Tampa. That's going to seriously f*ck our shit up." When it comes to the middle class, Dunham says, "They're the backbone of our city, but they're getting priced right out of it. A one-bedroom apartment shouldn't cost $6,000, but Europeans don't know that. They're paying whatever, and it's ruining everything." Any New Yorker, fresh out of college, looking to make a start, can tell you that affording an apartment, or even getting past all the paperwork and credit checks, makes for a discouraging situation.

Emphasis not added. You might be wondering why Dunham invokes punk rock icon Patti Smith abandoning New York for the likes of Tampa. Let me play Johnny-on-the-spot:

One woman asked if it was still possible for a young artist to come to New York City and do what young artists did when Smith was starting out.

Patti recalled coming to New York without money, when it was "down and out," and you could get a cheap apartment and "build a whole community of transvestites," artists or writers, or whatever.

Today, she said, "New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling. But there are other cities. Detroit. Poughkeepsie ... New York City has been taken away from you.... So my advice is: Find a new city."

Emphasis not added. Over the last few years, more and more top talent are finding a new city. I track the convergence of the Innovation Economy to places such as San Antonio. Ironic migration is reshaping the American landscape. Dunham herself has explored this migration shift on her show:

In a recent episode of HBO’s Girls, Hannah, the character played by show creator Lena Dunham, has a late night phone chat with her sorta-boyfriend during a pilgrimage to her hometown of East Lansing, Michigan. The most notable thing about her trip isn’t that she’d just had sex with another dude, but that said dude had a giant apartment. "Why doesn't everyone who's struggling in New York move back here and start the revolution?” she muses. “It’s like we're slaves to this place that doesn't even really want us." ...

... Hannah does have a point about East Lansing. The jobs crisis has caused young people to thumb their noses at the biggest cities and move to places like New Orleans, Austin, or the Rust Belt to save money, help with revitalization efforts, or become a big fish in a small pond—a far more aggressive (though perhaps more constructive) form of gentrification than my move up to Harlem.

Many people who move to cheaper cities have no sympathy for those of us who can’t afford decent lives in places like D.C. or San Francisco or Boston. A commenter on a recent piece about a young, privileged woman applying for food stamps suggested the writer move out of the "hyper-saturated market" of New York. "I think society should subsidize people's lives, but not their dreams," he wrote. "Maybe you should just move to Omaha and sell real estate."

This time, emphasis added. I have another data point to add to the conversation: Chattanooga.

Full disclosure, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce brought me to their city to see the urban revitalization and economic development associated with the one-gigabit-per-second fiber Internet service. Welcome to The Gig City:

The Gig City is a city of pioneers. Chattanooga has a rich legacy of entrepreneurs – from startups that grew into industry game-changers to civic leaders who changed Chattanooga from the “dirtiest city in America” into Outside Magazine’s “best town ever.” And now, this renaissance town is ready to re-pioneer the Internet.

Everyone who is struggling in New York or San Francisco is moving to Chattanooga to start the revolution. Anecdotally, that appeared to be the case. Introducing Nate Hill:

The Chattanooga Public Library is "a breath away" from having the fastest Internet of any library in the United States. But the institution's leaders are asking the same question posed by the nationally recognized Gig Tank competition headquartered here.

Now what?

Nate Hill, who started his new job on July 2 as the library's first assistant director of technology and digital initiatives, will now be another mind added to list of several others working every day to figure that out. ...

... Nate said he sees a lot of potential for libraries right now at the intersection of the production of content and the consumption of knowledge.

"To me, the big, exciting possibility for public libraries in the future is that we have always been institutions about consumption of knowledge. We're in this place where The Public Library can really service the creative side of the community in a totally different way than we've ever been able to before," he said. ...

... Nate not only brings next-generation thinking to his post but has also hands-on experience developing apps, websites and other user interfaces.

He is the Library Journal's 2012 recipient of their Mover and Shaker Award. In his previous job as the Web librarian at the San Jose Public Library, he developed an award-winning mobile application called Scan Jose that featured the library's local historical materials. He is also involved with the Digital Public Library of America, a new organization formed in 2010 that is comprised of representatives from foundations, research institutions, cultural organizations, the government and libraries to discuss best approaches to building a national digital library. The DPLA recently joined President Barack Obama's US Ignite initiative, a program that Chattanooga is also a participant in.

Emphasis added. How does talent in San Jose end up in Chattanooga? I asked Nate that very question. He's also familiar with Brooklyn. He threw both places under the bus as "too hierarchical" and "big." Chattanooga's attraction isn't cheap cost of living. Nate talked about the room and support to explore ideas, to create. He can do what he wants to do in Chattanooga. He couldn't in Silicon Valley. He left and is pulling others like him to The Gig City.