When I was much younger I wanted nothing more than to move to California and begin a new life. I spent a great deal of my high school years dreaming about the day I could finally leave and head for the west coast. There is something mythological about the west, about how we, especially in the United States, think about the hope that we somehow know resides on the sun kissed tides of the Pacific Ocean as its waves break onto its southern beaches or the northern coast. For my younger self, California was always southern California. Well, I went to California and found the dream not quite up to the standards I had set up in my imagination. I was poor, without a job, and had little hope for a future.
It did not take me long to realize that I was an east coast guy through and through. California lacked the edge I found in cities like Philadelphia and New York. Soon I turned my sights to the Big Apple. For the next decade I made plans to move to New York and try to make it in publishing. I worked on my education and traveled to New York whenever I could. For much of my twenties, and even into my early thirties I thought I would end up living and working in New York, and by “New York” I mean Manhattan. After finishing my Master’s Degree I had several interviews with publishing companies, but none of them were willing to pay over $30,000 a year. It would have been nearly impossible to live in New York on that salary and maintain any semblance of a life.
In our younger years we tend to mythologize and romanticize our future lives. I see this time and again when I talk with my students about their plans for the future, which overwhelming involve making lots of money and keeping to the plan they set out for themselves during their teen years. I can only smile to myself at their naïveté. We each get the life we deserve and too many get the life they don’t deserve. Manhattan is now all but unlivable for 99% of the public, and as its status as world capital continues to grow, it will become the exclusive living space for the few and a tourist destination for the many. California is no better. For example, many colleges and universities in northern California find it difficult to recruit faculty because of the absurd cost of living in northern California. The promised land has turned out to be closed to the many.
We should have a choice about where we want to live, but as the population shifts back to cities from the suburbs, the majority of people are simply priced out from living in such places. This is further complicated by fact that the United States has gone from a manufacturing based nation to a service based one. What waitress, bartender, Macy’s makeup counter employee can afford to live in the city? I live less than an hour from Boston, where the rents and costs of buying homes are beyond the reach of most people, including many of us who reside in the professional class.
The cost of living is rising and will never reach levels that will make it affordable for the majority of the population to live in a place by choice. With the exception of the super-rich, capitalism limits choice. Perhaps it’s time to look for an alternative to the democratic capitalist system we have also mythologized?