Sunday, September 28, 2014

Gentrification, Transience, and NYC: Revisiting RENT

I was meeting with a director in a few weeks ago Hell's Kitchen and we passed by the Westway Diner on 9th Ave, which was boarded up.

"Oh man," he said.  "I had one of my first shows in a theatre space above there. Now that theatre's a SLEEPY'S.  That's New York.  You can't get too attached to places."

In this case, I could assure him that in fact the iconic diner was undergoing a renovation and would be open again a few months.  But he was right about the transience of life here.  One of my favorite things when I first moved to Queens was taking the 7 Train and passing by the 5Pointz graffiti mecca in between Hunters Point and Court Square.  It was this gorgeous, audacious piece of art that had pictures ranging from hipster owls to a giant portrait of Biggie Smalls.  It was a such a vibrant contrast from the dull and gloomy neighborhoods I'd occupied in Jersey and the Midwest.  Having grown up the child of hippie radicals, I delighted in the notion that I was indeed on the cutting edge of a new great artistic age, at the epicenter of what would be the new Greenwich Village or Montmartre, or you know, Williamsburg.

The demolition of 5Pointz as seen from the 7 train

But as Queens has started to attract attention, the real estate developers have other priorities.  A year ago, the owners officially signed a deal to build residential condo towers, despite numerous petitions and protests.  One morning, my train rode by and to my horror, I discovered a large portion of the building had been hastily painted white.  Just like that, the White Witch had blanketed her endless Winter over Narnia.

And this has all started to make me think about RENT.  

If you were a theatre kid anytime in the late 1990s or early 2000s, the Jonathan Larson's RENT took up a great deal of space in your consciousness.  The earnest rock opera documented the lives of young creative types living in New York and struggling with love, finances, creativity and disease. Among the members of the Youngstown Playhouse Youth Board, if you entered a room with a piano you would soon hear the first two chords of "Seasons of Love" and feel compelled to sing along.  While it's an easy play to mock, now that I am a creative type in New York, I have begun to think on the play in a different light.

My intro to Rent and theatre coincided with the onset of puberty, just like Hair and A Chorus Line served for my parents. Hello twelve, hello 13, hello pretentious tastes (my best friend Michele still gives me crap for making her listen to the soundtrack at slumber parties).  I felt no small amount of cool going to rehearsals in the "ghetto" part of town and belting out lyrics that referred "to leather, to dildos, to curry vindaloo, to huevos rancheros and Maya Angelou." Not that I had any vague idea what most of these things were in junior high--my best friend Becca used to substitute "dilly bars" when she was babysitting.  All I knew was they seemed to represent a world far removed from the what I saw blandness of Boardman.  Knowledge of RENT was an entry into a sort of secret society, a code.  Instant adulthood and sophistication.  At a Halloween party we once rocked out to the German cast recording and then grew completely silent when a track of Larson performing "Boho Days" on the Tick...Tick...BOOM soundtrack began to play.  The apex of my Rent appreciation came when I suggested to my eighth grade choir director we sing something from the soundtrack and some snot nosed girl sneered, "Isn't that about a bunch of GAY PEOPLE?"  I felt like quite the soldier for justice.

By the time high school hit and all of the other kids from the suburbs had discovered RENT, I was already "over it."  With Michele's assistance, I had begun to diversify my musical repertoire beyond Broadway cast recordings, Disney soundtracks, and Beatles albums.  Now I had the likes of Alanis Morisette, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and eventually Wilco to feed my angsty adolescent urgings.  However, I still wasn't above going to see a touring production of La Boheme and triumphantly exclaim in unison, "That doesn't remind us of Musetta's Waltz."

College brought me further away from my Rent roots.  While I had spent middle school and high school consumed in musical theatre land, for college I specifically chose a program that did not make musicals a main focus.  It was at Bradley that my "grown up theatre" repertoire expanded to include the likes of Jose Rivera, Maria Irene Fornes, Bertolt Brecht, and Sarah Ruhl.

I remember the first time I listened to RENT all the way through as an adult.  I was in grad school--around the time I was in LA for an internship where I also spent my days signing up donors to support gay rights post-Prop 8.  While it was extremely empowering to feel like I was contributing to a modern civil rights movement, the most fulfilling part about canvassing was it was it was the first time I ever earned something resembling a grown-up paycheck.  For someone who grew up hearing that a theatre degree meant I had no real skills, the fact that I could make $500/week talking to people outside of Whole Foods was pretty mind-blowing.  So I could be forgiven for being less than sympathetic to the concerns of a bunch of lazy idiots who spent all of their time doing drugs and expecting to live for free. "Get a job," I shouted at the at my car's CD drive.

And then graduation happened.  And I didn't get the theatre grant I thought I had been a shoo-in for.  And then I got rejected from several other emerging writers programs.  Not having received my teaching contract yet, I took a job street canvassing for Amnesty International.  When I finally did get my contract, I was teaching in Jersey two days in the week and asking rich people for money on the streets on the New York four.  With only one day I was so physically and mentally drained most of the time I couldn't even think of writing.  Even though I was more than paying my bills, I couldn't help but envy my friends on the brink of poverty friends couch-surfing and making indie theatre about social justice in parks.  And all of it made me feel fucking shitty.

Things got better when I finally got the courage to leave my canvassing job.  It wasn't as dramatic as Mark's "Alexy--Mark.  Call me hypocrite, but I need to finish my own film!  I quit!"  But magic brownies and the Poconos were involved.  I found a new apartment with an photographer friend from high school, and made a concerted effort to surround myself with the kind of artists whose paths I wanted to emulate.  Gradually, I found the mental space to write again, even if sometimes the 1am closing shifts sorting spoils at Trader Joe's made me want to die.  And there was still the tension about what kinds of artistic opportunities I was sacrificing by wanting to earn a steady paycheck.

Listening to RENT now, I am more likely to identify with Joanne and Collins, who serve as our interlopers between the "grown-up" professional worlds of law and academia.  While Collins values and priorities seem clear, throughout the play we see Joanne wrestle with the decision to involve herself with these unstable weirdos.  We even see Joanne interfacing with her well-to-do parents, who clearly raised their daughter for great things that don't involve "stage managing or something" in an empty lot in the East Village.

I was thinking that empty lot when my train passed 5Pointz.  And every time a glass condo building rises, making a neighborhood unaffordable for those who grew up there.  At the same time realizing that by moving to areas for the hip vibe and cheap rent, I am part of the problem--the sign to the one percent that an area is safe for rich people to colonize.   We'd like to thank you Michael Bloomberg, for essentially turning New York City into Benny's "Cyber Land."

I think about the concept of "rent," this idea of transience.  Whether it's jobs, restaurants, theatre companies, relationships.  "I know they meant it, when they said you can't buy love" Angel and Collins sing, "But I know you can rent it, a new lease you are my love."  In the play, they are talking about their HIV-positive status in a time when the diagnosis was a death sentence.  And while I am fortunate to not have faced such a tragedy within my social circle,  I have experienced how the departure of one member of a group can severely alter a group dynamic. Sometimes someone gets a job out of town, or gets divorced, or joins a prestigious theatre organization.  And even if the person doesn't become a horrible jerk who doesn't have time for you anymore, you might start to question your worth to that friend.  Luckily in my life out here, for as many times as people have left my life, an even greater number have boomeranged back unexpectedly, thereby resurrecting parts of myself I may have thought I lost.

"No day but today," is the refrain of RENT's reckless bohemians.  A fitting mantra for those battling a disease that is taking their friends by the moment, but a bit pat and simplistic.  A refrain like that can be an excuse to get out of setting and sticking to long-term goals and being responsible for one's choices.

Instead, thinking of the transience of life in New York today, and this economy, and the state of the world, I say:  Make use of today. Be present in and appreciate today.  And keep going.

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