It’s been quite a year. I started the year pondering how Cats happened, and now, the longest eight months later, the question remains unresolved but somewhat less important. An apocalypse can be a disaster or it can be a prophetic revelation, and to this amateur observer, Cats was a disaster that revealed nothing while the pandemic is both disaster and revelation. It’s time to see what we can see, and maybe get there before the rest of the world shows up.
The pandemic, you may have noticed, has caused a seismic shift to remote work. People (with means and mobility) are leaving cities, rents are dropping in SF and NY, and there’s a housing boom in the ‘burbs and maybe everywhere that’s not a city.
In America, this has led to proclamations of the death of cities in general and New York and San Francisco in particular.
But proclaiming the death of cities in the middle of a pandemic is kind of like saying you’ll never drink again when you’re lying fetal on the bathroom floor after a night of drinking. You’ll drink again, you know you will, and cities will come back.
A few years ago, a friend of a friend was leaving Chicago and on his way out he wrote a Facebook post about how he was tired of all the racism in Chicago and just couldn’t stand it anymore. I mean, yeah, it’s a racist place, but it’s been that way since forever. He went to grad school in another American city, I assume one without a racist history, but the point is that he was leaving anyway for personal reasons. A lot of the “I’m getting out!” content feels a bit like that. Yeah, sure, your ex was a bitch, we get it, but why did it take you seven years to see it?
Sometime soon, maybe in a year, maybe in five years, there will be a vaccine and people will forget about the pandemic. Half the country is already pretending it doesn’t exist and in five years, when it really doesn’t exist, the other half will forget that it existed (or are you betting on the memory of Americans?).
The really big thing is not that people are leaving cities, it’s what enables them to leave cities — the decoupling of cities and work for a huge number of people around the world.
There’s a massive group of people who just went from needing to live near work to having the freedom to live just about anywhere with good wifi.
Now, I’m just a filmmaker trying to avoid a 150-page first draft of a screenplay that needs rewriting and you probably shouldn’t listen to me, but I think it’s a worthy exercise to think about where people will go and what that will precipitate.
With the virus still floating around, some people are staying put and some are hiding out in the woods until things cool down and some are heading to the ‘burbs where they will spend the next twenty years smugly expounding on the virtues of lawns and the traffic, my God the traffic even though the traffic isn’t so bad now that all the commuters are gone.
But sometime soon, people will forget about the pandemic and a lot of people will move back to cities, and a lot of us city-lovers will move to new cities.
Because a life entirely mediated by Zoom is soulless and empty. Because many people will crave all the things that cities offer: great restaurants, bars, dating markets, live comedy, live music, art galleries, theater, cinema, excitement and energy, weirdos, running into friends, the ability to join a face-to-face community or scenius, and the feeling of discovering something new every day.
Cities will have a lot to offer, as they have for thousands of years, especially for young single people who just lost an entire year of youthful fun to the pandemic. And as the population of cities shift more to young, single, and ambitious people, more young, single, and ambitious people will be attracted. Network effects, or something.
College kids want to party, you may have seen on the news.
And if you’re young and breaking into an industry, you want to expose yourself to the upside of chance encounters and casual off-the-record conversations. You don’t “run into” people on Zoom. Ever tried to Tinder when back home in the ‘burbs visiting your parents?
Nothing propinks like propinquity. Most of the interesting stuff happens outside the official channels, not to mention the aesthetic reasons for preferring cities, or that some of us just prefer to be around other people.
As long as cities offer some level of serendipity and a lot of easy-to-access culture, they will be desirable places to live for a lot of people.
There’s a latent force, a pent-up energy, a coiled spring. And when the pandemic ends, people will exercise their newfound freedom to move and a lot of shit will go kinetic.
For the newly mobile, let’s call them the mobile middle class — not quite the leverage class, but people with high incomes that are not tied to their local economy — the desirability of a city will be increasingly tied to lifestyle factors.
Prior to the pandemic, I spent eight months living more or less nomadically. I kind of despise the word “digital nomad” but I can’t think of a better term, so here we are. I had a remote freelancing gig and moved around a lot, spending time in Mexico, Colombia, Barcelona, San Francisco, and New York.
Being a digital nomad (ugh) really shifts the calculus of where to live, especially for people without kids. In my experience, nomads tend to look for a few things:
- Good weather
- High-speed internet
- Affordable short-term housing
- Culture and “lifestyle” (so broad! can mean many different things to different people!)
Some people prefer warm beachy spots like Bali or the Canary Islands while some prefer places with lots of culture and things to do — places like Berlin, New York, Lisbon, Barcelona, Mexico City, Austin, Medellin, Thailand, Vietnam, etc.
Looking at the fastest-growing locations for digital nomads might provide a hint as to the kinds of places that will grow in popularity.
Up until now, this has all happened on a small scale. Remote jobs were relatively hard to come by.
Not anymore. The pandemic just created tens or even hundred of millions of new remote workers.
Are they all going to move? Will they all go abroad? Will they all choose nomadic lifestyles? No. Obviously not. But we’re going to see a massive shift in preferences — we’ve already seen the revealed preferences of mobile people with families, but a large percentage of the newly mobile will want to live in cities and that when they choose which city to live in, lifestyle and cultural factors will be more important than job opportunities.
This will lead to growth in cities that offer the things that nomads previously looked for — culture, weather, affordable cost of living, interesting people, culture, etc.
What happens when people start flooding into towns and cities whose growth was previously limited by the number of high-paying jobs?
Well, The Washington Post has an article about it. You should read it because it’s the future.
Let’s take an example of a Google engineer, currently living in San Francisco making $150,000 a year. They can buy a house in San Francisco for $2 million or they can move to Asheville, NC or Nashville, or Austin or Denver or Salt Lake City and get a lot more house and still have money left over (if they move quickly).
Or maybe they’re want to explore the world a bit. They might live in South America or Europe or Asia or Africa for a while.1
Same income (for now), more lifestyle or culture or whatever.
This is going to cause some serious tension. I read the WaPo article and didn’t see any mention of pitchforks, just angry people on Instagram, but it’s early.
Let’s take Asheville as an example. You might be thinking “wait, this has already been happening in Asheville for the past ten years” and yup, but now it’s going to happen harder and faster.
The local middle class, that is, people who have in-demand skills but are tied to the local economy — their economic opportunities won’t open up in the same way that the SF engineer’s lifestyle opportunities just did. It’s asymmetrical, or something.
If you’re a software engineer in Asheville, your job market just went from a 30-mile radius to anywhere in the U.S. (the world too, but software engineers don’t want to compete in the global market, more on that later). But if you’re a teacher, saving for a home for the past five years and just when you got that down payment together… a bunch of carpet-bagging remote workers come into the market and start bidding up housing values! And you don’t even like kombucha.
I saw hints of this when I was in Barcelona. The city is a magnificent place to live, which has attracted foreigners. The increased demand for housing, coupled with an increasing percentage of the housing stock devoted to Airbnbs (because it’s also a huge tourist destination), is forcing long-term rental prices up.
As rents rise, long-time residents find themselves priced out of the market. The tension is there. You hear it when you talk to native Catalans and you can see it in the graffiti.
Now, imagine what happens if just 10,000 newly remote Americans or Europeans — people making an annual salary of $75,000 to $150,000 — decide they want to live in a city where a median salary is around €40,000 per year.2
Just as scaling effects have dramatically shifted incomes for the leverage class, the same will happen for cities, but instead of the power law favoring the cities with the biggest economic engines, it will favor the cities (and towns and suburbs) with the best lifestyles.
Longtime residents will rebel. There will be anti-foreigner sentiment as a kind of global gentrification happens and people fight for the souls of their cities.
There’s a quote in the WaPo article and it may look like insipid politico-speak but I think it says everything you need to know about how this is going to play out:
“There is a tremendous opportunity, excitement and potential,” says Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan, “but also great challenges if we’re not thoughtful, and the inequality and inequity continue to grow.”
Those are not sober words.
Pat Ryan, I don’t know a thing about him, except that he’s human and humans respond to incentives.
And he, along with every other mayor and county executive in the world just had the same thought: holy fuck we’re going to make a lot of money on this… if… we play our cards right. Remember when we had to give out all those tax breaks to lure corporations here? Remember how Amazon gleefully bent us over the table just to talk about locating a warehouse here? Fuck that noise, we’re going straight to the source.
Of course, there will be, uh, you know, great challenges if we’re not thoughtful about… I’m sorry — it’s hard to concentrate — there’s a giant hose of money that just fell from the sky — what was the question?
Follow the money, McNutty.
If we play our cards right. That clause is doing a lot of work, because there will be winners and losers here. Pat Ryan happens to be sitting at the head of some very desirable real estate, but not every civic leader is so lucky.
Coming soon: towns, cities, states, and any other polity with the power to tax will be fighting to attract high-income remote workers.
If this sounds familiar, then maybe you read about it in The Sovereign Individual or maybe you read this on Entrepreneur.com:
“Meanwhile, some destinations are making their best pitch to attract remote workers, and others will likely want to follow suit. States like Vermont, Maine and Oklahoma already had grant programs in place, offering cash to full-time remote workers that relocated somewhere within their borders. Beyond the U.S., countries like Estonia and Georgia in Eastern Europe, and Bermuda and Barbados in the Caribbean are greatly relaxing their worker visa requirements in an effort to lure digital nomads, largely to boost their economies suffering from a drop off in tourism.”— With Working from Home Here to Stay, Expect These 5 Things to Change
Cities that are slow to adjust will lose out.
Cities that are slow to adjust and have things like bad weather and poor governance working against them could face a vicious cycle — as high-income workers leave, the tax base shrinks and services decline, which pushes the local middle to the suburbs. Less disposable income flows into cultural endeavors, making it a less attractive place for artists and other cultural producers, which makes it less attractive for high-income people, and so on.
I see the death of some cities, just not the ones people are talking about right now.
I’m not a political scientist, I’m just a filmmaker and you really shouldn’t listen to me, but my gut is telling me that as states compete for residents, we may apocalypse, I mean uncover, some unsavory truths about democracy. That is to say, that people don’t really care about it that much. Sure, they care about a lot of the things that usually come with democracy, but the actual voting, well it’s hard when the choices suck and for some reason I can never find the checkbox for “end the drug war and also the other wars.”
As people figure out that it’s easier to vote with their feet than it is to change their local political economy, they’ll go where the going is good.
Whatever happens, if it happens, will happen fast.
One salient feature of the pandemic is that it force a lot of complacent people to make drastic and swift changes in their lives. If you think of change as a kind of muscle that can be flexed, then I think we have a lot of people who primed to respond quickly to incentives. The more you make big life-altering decisions, the easier it is to make more of them. The world is getting less inertia-y, or something.
And one salient feature of rapid social and economic change is conflict.
As progressives leave expensive cities in search of better lifestyles in towns and cities around the U.S. (and the world), they’ll bring their progressive politics, higher real estate prices, and kombucha.
Did you read the article? It’s already happening and I don’t know anything about book publishing but I wouldn’t be surprised if the writer, Karen Heller, already has a book deal for an explainer on the 2028 election.
Ironically, the great reshuffling could be a moderating political force in the U.S. If progressives migrate to red states (who’s got the warm weather and low taxes?), then red states will turn bluer and the blue states they leave behind will redden. Theoretically, this could place more states into purple territory, forcing senatorial and presidential candidates to play more to moderate median voters and less to the partisans.
Or maybe it will lead to violence! A lot of things in America lead to violence!
If you’re a tech worker living in the U.S., you might be reading this thinking “hey, this all sounds pretty good for me.”
Tranquilo amigo, because companies will pretty quickly figure out (if they haven’t already) that if all their employees are remote, it doesn’t exactly make sense to only hire American citizens. Why hire an American engineer who expects to make $130,000/year when you can hire one in Warsaw or Kigali who expects half or a third of that?
High-skilled English-speaking people around the world will have access to the global labor market and just as outsourcing in the 90s led to rising incomes for millions of poor around the world (and the resultant resentment and its attendant political strife of left-behind U.S. factory workers), we’ll see millions of people around the world lifted from their previously-tethered-to-the-local-economy jobs to global remote jobs.
I remember hearing somewhere that whenever large groups of people are lowered in status, there is strife.
Of course, the biggest losers from all of this will be the precarious class, people without high incomes or the ability to move. Luckily, American elites, will rise to the challenge of the day and, realizing how fucked up things are, will
finally figure out how to create a society with work, opportunity, and dignity for all occasionally use the precarious class as a pawn in a Girardian competition for status, if they’re not too busy with that goddamn money hose that just fell from the sky.
A massive potential energy is about to go kinetic.
It will happen fast.
Things could get ugly.
I hope they don’t.
Average is over, as Tyler Cowen says. Stay frosty.
Time zones will cause friction in the short-term, but as remote work evolves, some companies will require you to live +/- a few hours of a single timezone and others will compete for workers by allowing truly global remote work, basing teams around time zones. ↩
These are loose numbers based on informal conversations I had over the course of two months, but I’m in the ballpark. ↩
I’ve been researching the life of Catalina de Erauso, the lieutenant nun. She lived most of her life dressed as (and passing for) a man. One thing in the story that has always bewildered me is why the Pope (Urban VIII for you Popeheads) would (after 30 or so years living as a man) grant her permission to continue living as a man.
First, we have already mentioned the importance of her virginity, verified by church authorities. This quality, which implies asexuality, was considered by society to be admirable and virtuous.
In addition, despite the fact that Erauso departed from the social norms, she demonstrated respect for and submission to both ecclesiastical and military institutional authorities; therefore her transgression neither challenged nor threatened the status quo.In Search of Catalina de Erauso (171)
Which reminded me of TLP on Solzhenitsyn:
You keep your job at McDonalds and the system gets another data point confirming it is right. I hope the parallel between this and anything written by Solzhenitsyn is immediately obvious, if not, read anything by Solzhenitsyn. The Matrix doesn’t need you, but it will offer you a free pass if you help get the other batteries in line.
Transgressive behavior may not only be tolerated but rewarded or celebrated, if it fits into the narrative of the powerful or supports their power.
I think that if Erauso had used her position of celebrity to advance the power of women or done anything else to upset the existing military-state-church power structures, then the response to her lifestyle choices would have been much different.
See Mendieta’s book for a much more robust discussion of the various factors at play. ↩
I went to the El Caserio Museo Igartubeiti yesterday in Gipuzcoa, Spain, as I traverse the Basque Country in Spain and France doing some exploratory research for a screenplay.
In much of my reading and research, people have noted that the Basques have always been adventurers and explorers — they’ve fanned out around the world and were eager to move to the Americas and the US.
I’ve been wondering about why this is, I mean why would some cultures be more eager to move thousands of miles away from home — it’s hard enough now, but imagine doing that in 1620 when you had never been on a boat (if you lived inland, many Basques were incredible sailors and shipbuilders) and maybe had never even seen the sea and certainly hadn’t been on a long boat voyage or seen any other country or culture apart from your own.
You’d have to be pretty… crazy. Or brave. Or, maybe it was because of their inheritance laws!
I found out that they had a system where the oldest son (or daughter! imagine that!) received the majority of the inheritance. For a non-wealthy family, that would mean the land (e.g. el caserio).
So basically, one child gets the cider press and the surrounding land. The rest of the children get token items and some words of encouragement and they set off on their own, which would seem to encourage high-risk, adventurous travels and endeavors and Wiki agrees:
In contrast to surrounding regions, ancient Basque inheritance patterns, recognised in the fueros, favoured survival of the unity of inherited land holdings. In a kind of primogeniture, these usually were inherited by the eldest male or female child. As in other cultures, the fate of other family members depended on the assets of a family: wealthy Basque families tended to provide for all children in some way, while less-affluent families may have had only one asset to provide to one child.
However, this heir often provided for the rest of the family (unlike in England, with strict primogeniture, where the eldest son inherited everything and often did not provide for others).
Even though they were provided for in some way, younger siblings had to make much of their living by other means. Before the advent of industrialisation, this system resulted in the emigration of many rural Basques to Spain, France or the Americas.
Harsh by modern standards, this custom resulted in a great many enterprising figures of Basque origin who went into the world to earn their way, from Spanish conquistadors such as Lope de Aguirre and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, to explorers, missionaries and saints of the Catholic Church, such as Francis Xavier.
Interesting that the English had a similar system of inheritance and also a penchant for sailing around the world and mucking things up.
The quote in my post on witch hunts yesterday mentioned another persecuted group in medieval Europe, the Cagots, a group of people that everyone decided to just hate for basically no reason:
Cagots were shunned and hated; while restrictions varied by time and place, they were typically required to live in separate quarters in towns, called cagoteries, which were often on the far outskirts of the villages.
Cagots were excluded from all political and social rights. They were not allowed to marry non-Cagots, enter taverns, hold cabarets, use public fountains, sell food or wine, touch food in the market, work with livestock, or enter mills.
They were allowed to enter a church only by a special door and, during the service, a rail separated them from the other worshippers. Either they were altogether forbidden to partake of the sacrament, or the Eucharist was given to them on the end of a wooden spoon, while a holy water stoup was reserved for their exclusive use.
They were compelled to wear a distinctive dress to which, in some places, was attached the foot of a goose or duck (whence they were sometimes called “Canards”).
So pestilential was their touch considered that it was a crime for them to walk the common road barefooted or to drink from the same cup as non-Cagots. The Cagots were often restricted to the trades of carpenter, butcher, and rope-maker.
The Cagots were not an ethnic nor a religious group. They spoke the same language as the people in an area and generally kept the same religion as well. Their only distinguishing feature was their descent from families long identified as Cagots.
Their only distinguishing feature was their descent from families long identified as Cagots! They weren’t even hated for the normal reasons of like religion or skin color or sexual orientation!
“Even though they look like us and have the same religion, we hate them and they probably have the plague! But we’ll let them make rope!”
The 1600s were quite a time to be alive.
From 1609 to 1612, there was a big witch hunt in the Basque Country. Hundreds if not thousands of women were burned to death for the crime of being a witch.
You could denounce your neighbor (or whomever) for witchcraft and the Inquisition would give you a chance to confess to whatever you felt like confessing to. Then after your confession, they would charge you. If they charged you with something, e.g. witchcraft, that you hadn’t confessed to, you would be burned.
A common accusation was that women were flying in the night to wild orgies with animals, usually goats, which symbolize the devil.
If you confessed to the thing you were about to be charged with, you would perhaps receive a more lenient sentence, like being expelled from your native village for two years, which is not a great thing to happen to you today but was even worse back in the 17th century especially with the awkwardness of trying to explain to your new friends that you were evicted from your last village for being a witch.
Much of this comes from Mark Kurlansky’s book on Basque history:
“Nobody who could be identified as distinct and different was safe in this age. It is inevitable that in such an era, the Church would also grow concerned about Basque heresy. In past times of intolerance, Basques had been lumped with other undesirable groups.
“…But by the late 16th century, the Canon Episcopi, which had been universal Church law, was being circumvented by the claim that society was faced with a new and more virulent form of witchcraft and therefore the old laws did not apply. Witches, poor rural women, were consorting with the devil just like the Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Gypsies, Lutherans, and Cagots.”
That last sentence there is interesting to me because of just HOW FUCKING INTOLERANT PEOPLE WERE BACK THEN. Basically, anyone who wasn’t Catholic was considered an infidel and had to be converted or executed.
And even a Catholic woman had to fear that any perceived slight to another person, not matter how unfounded, could land her in front of the Inquisition.
Ten years ago, I was traveling around Argentina, working online as a freelancer. I had a great time traveling and thought I might live like a nomad for a year or two, but after a few months away I really missed doing comedy and on a whim I found a summer sublet in an apartment on Webster in Lincoln Park.
My plan was to stay for the summer, take some improv and sketch classes, and then move on to another city. I ended up staying for 10 years.
I stayed to join a community and write and put up shows and get on stage as much as possible and learn how to be a better comedian.
I think I succeeded. I’ve read the sketches I wrote in my first summer here, in the Second City writing intensive. They’re really bad. The things I write now, I think they’re pretty decent. They’re much much better than what I was writing ten years ago, and much better than what I was writing three or four years ago.
Comedy on stage didn’t work out for me the way that I hoped. That was heartbreaking. So I pivoted, before that as a word I knew. I started writing a lot and then making movies and found that I loved writing just as much, albeit in different ways.
I miss the stage sometimes. It’s a different feeling when a show goes well, a feeling that I haven’t found anywhere else. I could say that it’s like a drug, but I’ve done the drugs and they’re different.
I’ve been lucky to find great communities here in Chicago, first in comedy and then in film. Artists in Chicago are incredibly supportive and welcoming and eager to help each other out. People come from all over the country to study and learn here, to form groups and put up shows and write and rehearse and experiment and take classes and study.
I think that sometimes we take this for granted in Chicago, that there are so many people who come to a place and work really hard and devote themselves to a practice or a field or an art form. Of course there are other cities where this happens, but not very many, apart from New York and Los Angeles.
The beauty of starting in Chicago is that there’s not much industry presence and that means that it’s easy to be around people who care about the work more than anything else. The downside is that ambition means that eventually many or most of the people will move on.
I used to complain that the film community here was spread out and hard to find. That’s true to a certain extent, but after living here for a few years I’ve realized that that’s an unfair criticism. I think that in relation to the improv/theater community, it never felt quite as good.
That’s because improv always had natural meeting points — you were always going to a show to perform or see a friend and so you were always running into people. Film screenings are less frequent and production isn’t very frequent either. I only made about 1.5 things per year when I was directing video/film stuff in Chicago.
But after spending a few years in the film community, I found some really really great friends and I found myself in a place where I would often run into people when I went to a local festival or film event or just to see a movie at The Music Box. There were plenty of people to talk shop with, it just took some work to get there.
In my opinion, the best thing about Chicago in terms of artist development is the culture of showing up and working hard. I believe that this comes in part from the Midwest culture, an extremely hard-to-describe-but-ever-present culture.
In Chicago, people show up. They commit (and often over-commit) and keep their word. They work hard and don’t complain. They’re not superficial and they don’t create interpersonal conflict for the sake of drama.
When you say “let’s do a show,” people say “yeah, let’s do it. do you want to meet on Saturday to start writing? In the mean time, I’ll look at some possible theater options.”
I think it’s very easy to underrate this culture, but having lived in other cities and having talked to filmmakers and comedians in various cities around the world, I think that this kind of culture is not the norm, and that maybe 30-40% of success is determined by how people respond when you say “I’m going to do a thing.” It’s not every city where people encourage you and want to help out or join in or say “that sounds crazy but fuck it you should try it.”
Of course these are generalizations, but they tend to be true in my experience.
Anyway. I’m leaving.
It’s really hard to leave right now because right now it’s summer and Chicago is the best place to live in the summer — it’s magical in a way that only a city that experiences long dark freezing winters can be.
And it’s hard because I have great friends here. And practically speaking, it’s the easiest place for me to make a movie right now.
So why leave?
While I do have great friends here, a lot of my friends have left, and this isn’t an uncommon experience. For the artist community, a lot of people view Chicago as a stop along the way to somewhere else, with that somewhere being Los Angeles or New York. But I’ve also had a lot of friends and acquaintances, people who aren’t actors or comedians of filmmakers, move as well.
Most of my remaining close friends either have general plans to leave at some point in the next two years or a general sense that they would like to try living somewhere else.
It’s hard to form close bonds when all your friends keep leaving!
Living in Chicago has become easy for me. My days and weeks have become routine and I no longer have the feeling of excitement that I had when I first moved here. I don’t feel like there are any surprises waiting for me here.
I don’t want to be complacent. I want to experience a new culture and to see how things are in a new place. And yes, I want to pursue bigger opportunities. And travel, like really travel for a few months, without the overhead of rent and a gym membership and the burn rate that comes with being fixed somewhere.
This kind of major life change has always been exciting to me because they force me to evaluate everything I own and to question all the major premises of my life. Where should I live? How should I make a living? What kind of films should I make, and should I be making films at all? What is important to me? Why is Spain? Oú sont les Neigedens d’antan!?
So with a hunger for something new, something that I don’t yet know, I’m selling off most of my stuff, putting my books and a few important items into storage and leaving.
I don’t know where I’m going to land yet.
I’m going to travel for a bit and try living in some new cities before picking one to settle in.
These are my favorite things in Chicago:
The Music Box Theatre, on a Friday night when the house is packed and the organist is playing.
Seeing something fucked up and hilarious at The Annoyance.
Summer days with adventures that go on forever.
The lake shore, which I never spent enough time at.
The creative communities and creative people.
The painfully short autumn.
That every neighborhood is like its own little town with its own character and sense of place and culture.
The next-level restaurants that are actually affordable for non-wealthy people.
That I’ve never met anyone here who was trying to ‘become an influencer.’
The amazingly generous teachers I’ve had.
The fact that it’s so cheap to live here compared to other world-class cities. You can still come here and get a cheap apartment near public transit and afford to work on your thing.
And yes, I love the -50 degree days that come every few years in February.
I went to Sidewalk last week in Birmingham, Alabama and I meant to post something about it but I’ve been working from 7 7 7 to 11 every night (kinda makes life a drag…). Yeah I’m on a freelance producing gig that just has insane hours but I’m rebuilding my savings after not working for four months and making a feature film. Freedom awaits in November…
Sidewalk Film Festival. They really know how to take care of filmmakers. I woke up at 4am last Friday to catch the early flight from Chicago to Birmingham so I could get there in time for the filmmaker luncheon/retreat.
They took us to a now-defunct iron and steel processing plant that was built in the late 1800s and was operational until the 1980s. Birmingham is almost uniquely situated for steel production as all the raw materials are within 30 miles of each other, and it was the 2nd biggest producer of steel (after Pittsburgh) in the U.S. for a long time (my facts are a little hazy).
The old buildings look like sets from a post-apocalyptic world, as nature slowly reverts to the its pre-industrial state. The event was hosted by representatives of Film Birmingham. They were very eager for us to film something there and made it known that there wouldn’t be a lot of red tape.
Our guide (one of the many resident artists who have been given workshop space on the premises) told us that the plant was shut down overnight and the workers weren’t told — their personal belongings from their last day are still in their lockers and there’s still salad dressing and… something else… in the refrigerator.
The plant isn’t completely shut down — there’s a dolomite quarry right there.
Massive trucks bring the dolomite up from a 400-foot-deep quarry where the rocks get smashed in giant rock smashers so they can be used for gravel and other industrial things that need small rocks (it’s an ingredient in steel too).
Driving down into the quarry, which I sadly didn’t get a good picture of, reminded me of Taste of Cherry (I mentioned this to another filmmaker and he was like “me too!” and we became friends immediately).
The quarry processes 7,000 tons of dolomite per day. There’s something awe-inspiring about being around massive machinery and trucks. Living in a modern city, I feel shielded from any kind of industrial of manufacturing whatsoever. By the way, those trucks the guys drive — super high-tech. The loaders cost about $2,000,000 a piece and they have climate-controlled cabs, multiple cameras, high-tech seats that don’t bounce around, and a lot of other stuff I’m forgetting.
Back in town I walked around a bit and got food. I spent most of my time in the downtown area of Birmingham, which felt pretty empty and sleepy. Someone told me later that the neighborhoods to the south and east are more bustling with life and culture. I don’t know, it was weird walking around on a Friday morning/afternoon and barely seeing anyone on the street — the buildings weren’t abandoned or run-down though. It felt like everyone was on vacation.
Don’t forget your Jesus Cake. I actually ate here twice (they set up a stand on the sidewalk outside one of the theaters) and it was delicious. Very good Cuban pork, mofongo, and plantains. I asked what Jesus Cake is and the girl told me that it’s something like tres leches cake, and not a Cuban thing nor a Birmingham thing. So just a thing they made up.
What about the film festival, Robert?
This is a great festival. I mean, they really take care of their filmmakers and by take care of I mean they throw big grand parties with free food and booze in remarkable venues.
The opening night screening and party was at the Alabama theater. The opening night film was White Tide: The Legend of Culebra, an over-the-top doc about a Florida man (hah) who goes after $2,000,000 in cocaine that’s buried on Culebra, and island in Puerto Rico. It was a perfect fit for a raucous crowd of 2,000 on opening night. It’s a good story and very funny.
Then there was a big party on the stage of the theater. And everywhere else in this massive 3-story theater. There was just a party and food and drinks everywhere. It was a ton of fun. I made new friends and ran into some old friends that I didn’t expect to see there.
I talked to some locals and asked about the film scene there and what people thought of the festival. My understanding is that Sidewalk is the biggest thing that happens there every year. I talked to one woman who had been planning months before to come and had picked out all the films she wanted to see in advance. I also talked to other people who said that 80% of people in Alabama only care about college football and look at you funny if you mention some sort of non-college-football form of entertainment.
I talked to another local woman who works for the city, helping to promote it (I can’t remember exactly what she does). She told me about how the city is resurgent, about how 20 years ago it was dangerous to be downtown and how it’s developing and people are moving back and there are cafes and shops and how great the food scene is.
It’s the same trend playing out in so many cities across the U.S. There are so many small to medium sized towns now that are pleasant places to live.
The festival took over Linn Park in the middle of downtown Birmingham for a massive party.
I had a really good conversation at the party with someone about living in a small and pleasant city vs. a big and ambitious city. The question for her and for me and for probably a lot of young people with options is: is it better to live somewhere comfortable and pleasant and enjoy the good life, or should I ask for something bigger in life, something more ambitious? Am I being complacent?
I loved living in Baltimore. It was fun, I liked the texture of life, I was a big fish in a small pond (the improv pond). Good food, a great baseball stadium, very affordable, good art/music scene, and an actually weird place that doesn’t really give a fuck about trying to be anywhere else. Obviously Baltimore has massive problems too, with crime, education, etc., but those weren’t the reasons I left. I left because it felt too small, too hard to be ambitious there.
Chicago is a big city. I think it straddles the pleasant/ambitious divide. It can be either. It’s certainly more ambitious than cities like Baltimore or Portland, but less so than L.A., San Francisco, or New York. I’m not sure where Austin fits into this (it feels like it’s in the process of rapidly changing from pleasant to ambitious, which is causing a lot of angst for the people that want it to keep its old identity).
I think what I’ve been feeling in the last few years, when I feel the urge to move, is that Chicago is just a really big pleasant city and not really an ambitious city. When the woman from Birmingham tells me about the great food scene there, I politely listen, but I know that it’s nothing compared to Chicago. Maybe Chicago is an ambitious place for aspiring chefs (I don’t know, I’m really not a foodie).
But when it comes to film, entertainment, entrepreneurship and startups, etc. — I think it’s not an ambitious place. Not that there aren’t ambitious people here! Not that nobody is doing those things! It’s just not the big ambitious place where people move to seek those things out.
Oh yeah, my short film, WHAM, premiered on Sunday.
The screening includes five short films and an opening night reception that starts at 7pm.
Chicago is an October sort of city even in spring.
– Nelson Algren