Shit Gets Real: A Cautionary Tale of Rising Rents

*steps with reckless abandon on to metaphorical soap box*

In the spring of 1992 I was dropped off with a handful of my friends at the humongous Tower Records on Route 17 in Paramus New Jersey on a Friday evening.  The plan?  Shop for records, make “come hither” eyes at brooding boys with greasy hair and Metallica t-shirts and rock the ever living CRAP out of my maroon J Crew anorak which is basically the only thing I wore ever in 1992.  Yes, it was way too big.  At 15 years old we were too young to drive and I, in particular, wouldn’t have even known what to do with those boys if they actually talked to me (IT SPOKE, RUN!  RUN LIKE THE WIND!!), but going to Tower Records was a fun thing and a way to kill a few hours while waiting for real life to begin.

Oh, if I could only hold you once again, maroon anorak, we could be together FOREVER, bound eternally by poor taste.

Oh, if I could only hold you once again, maroon anorak, we could be together FOREVER, bound eternally by poor taste.

I have always been known for making impulsive decisions, and on that day, I made the impulsive decision to buy Pearl Jam’s Ten record on cassette tape since I didn't yet have a cd player (that would come that Christmas along with a copy of Nirvana’s Nevermind, thanks to my older brother’s lifelong commitment to being a badass) because, and I shit you not, there was an end cap full of them, on sale for like $5.99 or whatever, and I thought the name Pearl Jam was hilarious.  Like, I remember standing there with my friends Jeanette, Jackie and Jen saying, “UM, ok, Pearl Jam, nice name, what do they even sound like?  I’m totally getting this, I mean like, right?  HAHAHAHAHAHA Pearl Jam that’s so dumb.”  Yeah, because Def Leppard is such a great band name.  

As we all know, later that year, Ten would hit the Billboard charts hard, basically jumping into the mainstream full time, with like, hit after hit, and along with Nirvana and Soundgarden, the second wave of Seattle’s grunge scene had brought that city national and international fanfare for being THE music town in the US.  So much of what we’ve heard in mainstream rock since then has been influenced by “grunge,” which is a term that makes me cringe every time I hear it because it so smacks of like, a CNN anchor smiling through whitened teeth trying to make sense of a complex, incredibly nuanced arts movement with an oversimplified branding term to make it palatable for The Olds.  Grunge™.  Don’t be scared, baby boomers, we’ve packaged the winter of our discontent up nice and safely for you!!

By the time I got to Seattle in 2009, the city’s reputation was no longer that of a hard-wrought industrial city, reliant on Boeing for blue collar jobs and sporting a vibrant, developing art scene of under-employed gen-x-ers; it had become the city that sported the Microsoft boner to the east and the Amazon boner to the south.  And while the boner in Redmond came packaged in the worst pleated khaki pants, white new balance sneakers and sense of entitlement around, at least they were tucked across the water, safely in Redmond where their nouveau-riche workers could abuse their restaurant servers (me, for a while.  Ever had to fix someone’s chair while they stayed seated in it?  IT’S NOT DEMEANING AT ALL) and interior designers in their own backyard, with a lower impact on Seattle itself.       

But that Amazon, though.

Look, if you talk to me for more than 5 minutes, you’ll probably know that I FUCKING HATE Amazon.  I think Amazon is absolutely terrible for local economies.  Amazon employs a ton of people and pretty much pushes their limits across the board, particularly the people who work at their fulfillment centers.  Amazon’s entire business is predicated on the idea that if they price everything lower than local competitors, they can put their local competitors out of business and then jack prices up again, making them the only game in town, and at high prices to boot.  This was never more apparent to me than when I worked for a family owned supplement business who sold a buttload of product through Amazon, and the margins were so low that I am pretty sure they lost money selling through Amazon when there were high amounts of returns - returns that Amazon completely disowns and charges manufacturers for.  Driving brick and mortar retail business when every single customer says “well, why would I buy it at Susan’s Natural Foods when it’s cheaper on Amazon” is maddening and an endless loop of disappointment.  But once you’re hooked into the Amazon supply chain, most small businesses can’t lose that operating cash flow or they’ll go under.  Amazon is the heroin of mass retailers, for both the businesses they exploit and the customers they keep on the hook with low prices. Which is apt, given that Seattle’s heroin epidemic once flavored the music; now it flavors the businesses.    

But the reason I bring Amazon up is because of the impact they’ve had on Seattle’s once-thriving arts scene, and I think it can be used as a cautionary tale for Portland, a city that reminds me so much of Seattle that I’d swear they were related if I met them on the street.

A politically-active friend recently told me that he is gathering data and studies about rent stabilization to bring to the Portland city council.  And he’s right for doing it, because the rent is getting too damn high.  In Seattle, Amazon was actively importing new workers to the city to build to an eventual 20,000 at higher than average wages, which spurred a flurry of development, mostly condos and luxury apartments, to house those workers. Simultaneously, landlords wanted in on the sweet, sweet high rent action and raised their prices accordingly.  My rent for my tiny, loud apartment in Seattle went up 50% in two years - a rate increase untenable for most people.  You can’t go from $800 a month to $1200 a month without a wage increase to support that, and I challenge all of you to point out any company in America that is handing out 50% wage increases over two years.

Many, if not most, serious artists are not high wage-earners.  The term “starving artist” exists for a reason.  But it’s an oversimplification and, frankly, insulting to think that those artists will just move on to the next little town and create a new arts scene there.  It’s incredibly expensive to move and incredibly presumptive to assume that these people aren’t rooted to a specific place and deserve to be there.  And incredibly invasive to just press forth with getting them out of the city so the wealthy can move in, though I use the term “move in” loosely, because often when mass gentrification hits a city, most of the high rent housing stays vacant for most of the year,with primary residences elsewhere (like in NYC).

As a result of the need to make way for the techbros, Seattle’s music scene, specifically, is dying, venues that still offered local music closing one after the other because of high rents, not to be replaced with a shiny new venue to serve the community, but shiny new condos to house primarily male tech workers who have no investment or attachments in the city, and who really bring no IRL culture to speak of.  This once-vibrant music community is not just moving out, though some are; but others had to just stop making music because making music these days isn’t truly free - it takes money to get gear, promote shows, maintain a web site, get rehearsal space (also rapidly disappearing), all while paying rent, buying groceries and maybe once in a while taking your boo out to see your friends’ bands.  And it is not fair to say that artists “should get a full time job.”  First of all, anyone who says that is out of touch with how hard it is to even find full time work, and second of all, that argument only makes sense if you expect Mick Jagger or Nicki Minaj to also have full time jobs outside of their "hobby."  Get this through your skull, people: INDEPENDENT MUSIC AND ART ARE IMPORTANT TO OUR CULTURE and without them, we become more fractured.  They are worth money, we are not entitled to art and culture for free just because Napster once existed, full stop, end of conversation.   

As a newcomer burned by this once already, I see the similar things happening in Portland.  Though not as rapidly, and I believe this city still has a fighting chance to support low income households and artists while also making room for an influx of “from away” money in a manner that doesn’t deprive this community of affordable resources.  The music scene here - and all of the artists here - are so talented, there is such a deep well of creativity, skill and motivation in this city, that we have to defend it with our lives.  I can’t bear to keep hearing that my artist friends are being kicked out of their buildings and forced to move in 30 days, and in all honestly, I don’t want to move at the end of my lease in January, though I know I’ll have to because it will be unaffordable to me - it’s kind of unaffordable now, and I’m employed full time.  

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not obsessed with nostalgia and I actually think change is good for mental stability, but change has to be healthy and positive.  This is my first step in raising my voice, and I hope to encourage the music community to do the same.  Space Gallery recently made the bold move of buying their building to protect it as an artists' space, which is the kind of territory marking that has an impact on preserving artists’ livelihood and sending the right message to policy makers.  While not all organizations have the finances to do that, we can register our approval by sharing that story and spending our money at the local businesses that serve us every day, drawing attention to the completely electrifying music scene here and starting this dialogue with others.  By building community, we create a stronger barrier against the rising tide of economic inequality and preserve our right to KEEP KICKING ASS - supported by our own local economy.   

Here’s a link to find your City Councilperson; if you have a story to share or know someone who does, reach out via email:

http://www.portlandmaine.gov/132/City-Council

You can register your ideas for affordable housing here:

http://www.portlandmaine.gov/communityvoice