Starving artists live in New York, while The Heartland’s artists are fat and happy

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Welcome to Iowa. We have ample square dancing and corn. I live in the star between the lady’s legs. Original photo by Marxchivist. Remixed under Creative Commons license.

I never fit in in my hometown. My parents did. They were two farm folk-become schoolteachers. Probably the weirdest thing about them — at first glance, at least — was that they only had one kid.

I mean Christ almighty. Look at me, aged 16.

Even when I was small, new people quickly identified me as the weird one. First I was precocious, then a tomboy, then a smart ass, then I hit high school, cut all my hair off, dyed what was left, and got piercings (eartop cartilage piercings in Norfolk, Nebraska 1998 were like becoming a flapper in 1926). I became an art kid.

And that’s why I always always always wanted to live in a big city. But five years in college and a degree in Painting later, I live in Des Moines, Iowa — a metro of a whole half a million. It’s no cultural mecca and I’m still closer to weird on this town’s spectrum. I get a lot of questions about why a creative would want to stay in flyover country.

Every week or so I absolutely fantasize about getting on a bus to NYC. But in day-to-day life I really, really like living in Des Moines. There are ticks under the “pros” side of living in a smaller city. It helps that Des Moines is, once you burrow into it, a very wannabe-hip city. We aspire to Portlandism so we have our share of quirks — like the zombie-themed restaurant a fabulously-talented chef is opening this year, or my favorite bar, or the just-outside-the-metro stop animation community group housed in an Airstream trailer. And we have our offbeats. And we’re very, very proud of our marriage equality.

But even if Des Moines wasn’t drifting towards cool, there are perks to living in flyover country, and it certainly doesn’t hold creatives back to stay here.

First, it’s effing cheap, yo.

Real estate here is CHEAP. The average rent for a three bedroom apartment in these parts is $800. You don’t even want to hear about my mortgage. If you’re sticking to Des Moines proper and not venturing out to the ‘burbs, you’d have no problem finding a fab house between $130,000 and $160,000. When we bought a house, I felt like a sellout — but we can afford to own a home because we don’t live in San Fransisco or Miami. I don’t have to sacrifice as much for my career here.

Property taxes are low. Registering a car is cheaper. FOOD is WAY cheaper. And so is going out, though if you’re a fan of douchey bars you can pay big city prices on booze. This is great, because my two favorite things to spend money on are food and art supplies, and I have more cash for both.

Every day I wake up and write or draw or paint or wrangle artists, and every day Scott works in an office fully-stocked with Wii games and beer. It’s awesome to be able to work like we do without having to scrounge. We don’t make the big bucks, but staying in Iowa allows us to do what we love. Every day.

There’s room for experimentation.

Materials or access to facilities is often cheaper in The Flyover. More importantly, as a friend said, people are less jaded here. That has its downsides, but it’s nice to have people enthusiastically and nepotistically cheering you on when you announce your next hairbrained plan.

Flyover Country has short travel times.

I also don’t think people from large cities get the size difference between a big town and a small one. Here in the Midwest, we spend less time getting from place to place. There is NO TRAFFIC HERE. Over and over I’ve heard newcomers remark on our rush hour with a scoff. Saves a load of time. That, and flyover cities often have a network of nearby cities within driving distance. A friend pointed out that you could be stuck in traffic in a city for the entire time it takes us to drive to Minneapolis.

And then we have big fish syndrome.

I will be the first to admit it’s nice. People are, again, less jaded, and there is simply less competition. There are fewer events or people or products to divide your audience’s attention. And because it’s cheap you can just do new things all the time and fuck up faster.

The Internet exists.

I absolutely couldn’t have stayed here in a time before the WWW. But now we can enjoy our flyover state cost of living and sell goods worldwide. Artists in my city are showing in Toronto and Chicago and GENEVA and Miami and LA — and making a living on Etsy and cleaning up at Renegade Craft Fairs.

Creatives all over the country are flocking to cheaper cities. Detroit is this unreal “blank canvas” where artists are buying homes for as little as $100. Even Silicon Valley-types see the potential in towns like mine. We’re not even a second-tier city, but we still have creatives moving in.

I had to think long and hard about what I wanted to do when I graduated. Staying in Des Moines meant I’d work harder in a few areas than other artists. I’d have to meet people on my own, instead of networking organically like I could in person. I have to be a lot more self-driven to be a creative in flyover country, but that’s the main pitfall. We all have high speed internet now, and if a painter scrounges together the money to buy a ticket on the Megabus to Chicago or to pay FedEx to take a painting to Toronto, creatives in flyover country can show internationally while reaping the benefits of smaller town life.

At the root of things, an artist’s job is to tell stories about their culture. I have to go so far as to say we shouldn’t be bunched up in three or four places in a country. Luckily, it’s not such a bummer to live in my bitty metropolis.

Comments on Starving artists live in New York, while The Heartland’s artists are fat and happy

  1. Woohoo! Both my fiance and I live in and are from CT. He’s lived in FL and I’ve lived in CA and we both agree that two years from now we will be moving to IL. My mom is out there and although she lives in a small town, she’s only an hour from Rockford, the second largest city in IL, 3 hours from chicago, and 30 minutes to Iowa. Oh yeah, and we will be able to buy a home for under $50,000 that will rival our friends $200,000 homes here. We will be able to send our kids to schools where they will get a good education and won’t have to worry how to afford to pay for private school because public school in this area is a joke.

    My mom is also planning on buying a deli/bakery/something you can make food in so that when my fiance and I do move out there we can start making our dreams of owning a sandwich shop/place to feed people a reality. We would NEVER have that opportunity here in CT. I can’t wait to start my new midwest life!

  2. I’m a professor who researches and teaches web development, and I moved here to central Iowa in 2003 from Seattle. I enjoyed being a professor of new media there, but couldn’t afford to live as a junior faculty member in Seattle. It was just too expensive. Here I have more and better students, and a MUCH better quality of life. My students do better work here than many did in Seattle. And here I get to keep in touch with my students after they’ve graduated, at events like Des Moines Tweetups. I have a small consulting business and my clients on Coasts sometimes try to make Iowa jokes, but they hire me to come fix their problems, I get to visit their cities from time to time, and I get to live here. This is definitely the way to do it.

  3. I’m from Wisconsin originally (a town about 90 miles east of Minneapolis), and now live in Vancouver, British Columbia. Man do I miss smaller communities! I love Vancouver to death: Ocean! Mountains! But whenever I travel back to the midwest I love the hospitality, lower cost of everything, and general support. A lot of times I feel that people do want me to fail in Vancouver. I’m a filmmaker and the competition is tough. But when I go home they give me that extra can do attitude. Thanks for your post 🙂

  4. I grew up in Martinsburg, West Virgina, a very small town in the eastern panhandle of the state. While I did have a pretty good life there (something I didn’t really appreciate as a teenager), it was the lack of cultural diversity that made living there difficult. It was tough sometimes being one of only a handful of ethnic minorities (that I wasn’t actually related to) and dating was……well complicated. Moving to Atlanta for college was the best decision I ever made. It is a big city with a small town feel – cost of living in the south is relatively cheap and middle-class African Americans are actually thriving here. I feel like I’ve had the best of both worlds in my life.

  5. Being an Iowan native I took much of the lifestyle for granted… my big surprise enlightment came after the installation of the Pappajohn sculpture park. I felt as if our city finally excelled. I knew as I grew older and was raising children that this was a great, great place to build a nice foundation for them. Now that we are older ( way) I appreciate that the cost of living here affords us the ability to freely travel the best cities in the world, while enjoying a simple life here. I do miss oceans and mountains, but wherever I am a tourist in a gorgeous part of the world, I am so happy DSM is not overrun with tourists. Also love not having risks of natural tragedies. I so love all the stories of rags to riches benefactors who so generously donate beautiful art and scholarships and lecture cities. And yes, I am depending on Cat and Scott to stay here and reinvent the art culture.

  6. LOVE! I live in Lincoln, NE currently and am contemplating a move. This post came at the right time. Thank you for it!

  7. I live in Minneapolis and I love it. My husband and I both grew up in the area and have lived here our whole lives. I even went to college just across the river in St Paul. We have a lot of Minneapolis pride.

    He plays music and the indie rock scene is thriving and amazing. We can go out nearly every night to grab some cheap beers and see a great band, and it’s pretty unusual if we don’t know at least a couple of people in the crowd (or even in the band). I create art and it’s overwhelmingly awesome how many galleries (many DIY) and coffeeshops/bars there are to showcase work, and we have, like, six art crawls a year in various art districts, and at least two big indie craft fairs that have vendors who are just as creative and quality as any Renegade fair.

    I could go on and on about all the great things here, but it’s just so beautiful with all the lakes and parks and bike lanes and skyways. It’s just big enough, I’d say.

    Sometimes I can imagine myself living in a bigger city, but I know I couldn’t afford to have my wonderful two-bedroom 100-year-old condo with a yard and a garage less than a block from a huge park, especially not with this kind of community feel.

  8. w00t, go Hawks!

    Des Moines is better than some places too – my hometown in Iowa has no good place to eat 🙁 Especially for vegetarian. I LOVE Iowa City, though!

  9. As a midwesterner living in New York, I have to say that I find New York to not be creative AT ALL. It’s true there are a few creative niches, but generally I find that all the creative types/artists are moving to Philly or elsewhere. Hell, we take weekend trips to Scranton, PA! Ha!

    I grew up in Chicago, which I loved and miss. I also lived in St. Louis (closer in size to Des Moines) which I hated. My hubs grew up in rural Missouri and his tolerance of NYC has waned must faster than mine.

    I’ve thought a lot about the small-city (never heard the flyover city term) low-cost vs big city thing. My big thing is travel and not having a hub-ish airport might feel really limiting to me.

    One nice thing about the east coast vs. the rest of the country is just that all the big cities are SO CLOSE together. NYC to Philly = 2 hours, NYC to Boston = 3-4 hours, NYC to DC = 4 hours etc vs. Chicago to St. Louis = 5 hours, Chicago to Minneapolis = 7 hours etc.

    Anyway, we could probably wax poetic on this topic over a full night and a bottle (or two) of wine. 🙂

    • OMG. One other thing. Do you know how many people try to tell me that there are no vegans or artists or whatever-sub-culture in the midwest? I then I’m like ‘um when have YOU been to the midwest? oh wait. You’ve never actually left the city you grew up in …”

      Ok. End NY bitch. 🙂

      • You know, it’s tiny, but the Quad cities do have a good airport that connects to everything AND has international flights?
        Want to be my neighbor now? Eh? Eh?

    • I live in St. Louis right now, grew up in rural southeast Missouri, and I HATE IT SO MUCH HERE.

      Should probably move, but all my family/friends live here and stuff. D:

  10. Oh, this post made me so nostalgic and jealous. I grew up in WI and would love, love, love to move to Madison (currently in NJ, NYC area), but I just can’t. WI is crap in terms of legal recognition for same-sex couples, and while Iowa has marriage equality now, it’s still too precarious. And even outside of the level of legal recognition, there’s a cultural acceptance on the East Coast that just doesn’t exist many places in the Midwest. But I miss friendly people and low prices so much! And don’t even get me started on real estate…

  11. Woah thanks for the awesome post! My fiance and I aren’t creatives but “professionals” (lawyers-to-be) and get similarly baffled looks from people when we reiterate our desire to move home to mid-Michigan. But it’s great: cheap homes with beautiful old construction, community, cost of living, lots of room for gardening. And hey, these cities need young people and are glad to have you, unlike some of the larger places everyone flocks to.

    My partner and I came to live in Minneapolis by way of Wyoming/southwest Nebraska and tiny towns in southeastern Minnesota, respectively.
    We are not creative people, but man our world would not be as amazing without all of you out there and we greatly appreciate each and everyone of you. The creative class is the beating heart of this city, especially the area in which we live. I’m thankful everyday I hear about the ability of the artists to live, work, and succeed here. For me the cherry on top is the relationship between art and bicycles in Minneapolis. <3

  13. Thanks for this post. I love the offbeat sites, but I feel that it caters to big city gals. Des Moines is still HUGE to me, but it’s nice to see posts about the other kind of life. I live in a small town in Kentucky and love it, for many of the same reasons you love Des Moines. Only here it’s even cheaper! I hope this is the start of more posts on offbeat home about those of us who don’t live in places like Seattle.

  14. I didn’t read all of the comments here, but this doesn’t just apply to flyover cities. We live in Albany, NY, and my husband is a writer/academic while I do my career bureaucrat thing (which I actually quite enjoy) – neither of us makes a ton of money, but we can live really well on our incomes while doing work that is meaningful to us.

    It’s not *quite* as cheap as Des Moines (for example, $800/month is more along the lines of 1br prices; for 3br you’re looking at closer to $1200), but it’s still way cheaper than NYC or Boston – both of which, by the way, are an easy drive down the highway (we’re about 3 hours away from both).

    • Hooray for the Capital Region! I’m moving back home to Columbia County in July. Can’t wait!

  15. I grew up in New Jersey and spent my 20s in Boston. Now I live in a great neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side, and I feel the same way as you all about your smaller midwestern cities. It’s for sure a matter of perspective! My Mom thinks it’s amazing that I was able to buy a house in a major city for under $250K, can easily drive and park my car, have tons of awesome free cultural events (though sadly those are diminishing), and can still be at their house in a few hours via airplane.

  16. Another Iowan checking in and heaping praise upon Des Moines. I currently live in Ames which is my perfect city and close to Des Moines for anything we don’t have here in Cyclone Central. I will leave Iowa at some point and live somewhere else, but I have a feeling I’ll be back. It’s perfect in so many ways.

  17. Thanks so much for this post! This gives me a lot of encouragement, my fiance and I will be moving coming up within the next six months after we get married and he finishes his phD and are looking at moving to WV or KY possibly for a job (more mid-western schools seem to welcome a baby doc). Which, for a kids originally from outside of Seattle (myself) and from New Jersey (fiance) was seeming a bit daunting. Now I am more excited about this prospect than ever. Even if it means moving away from my beloved mountains. Thanks!

  18. Yay! I love this post, and I have to put in a good word for Kansas, too! I currently live in Lawrence but grew up in Kansas City Metro (part of which IS in Kansas, not just Missouri, contrary to popular belief). You have no idea how many cracks about Fred Phelps or creationism or Dorothy and Toto we Kansans have to face when we travel, but I love my town! It has a great art and music scene, a lively farmer’s market, people are down-to-earth and friendly (even to strangers) and drinks and housing are cheap! Oh, and we have the biggest, most beautiful skies I’ve seen, and I’ve done my fair share of traveling, both domestic and abroad. Of course, Lawrence is EASILY the most liberal, offbeat town in Kansas, so I’m not sure I can speak for the entire state, but I always feel that those on the coasts don’t know what they’re missing when they pity us for living smack in the middle of the country. Sometimes I do wish for an ocean mountians, or SOMETHING, though.

    • Both UMKC and University of Kansas are on my husband’s list for doctoral schools. (We plan to move summer 2012). I fell totally in love with Kansas City my first time there this fall, and now I can’t wait to visit Lawrence!

      • Yeah, midtown KCMO (right around UMKC) is a great area for young, offbeat folk, but you should definately check out Lawrence before the Kansas/Missouri rivalry crap is thrust upon you. Both places are cool in their own way. Lawrence is a bit more hippy/indie while KC is more punk/hipster. Just depends what you like.

    • I went to school in Lawrence (GO KU!) and then took a job in Baltimore. Five years ago I wanted big city east coast life, now I can’t wait the 4 more months (115 days! who’s counting?) till my Baltimore-native husband and I move to KCK (That’s Kansas City, Kansas) at the end of this July.

      For what we pay for our teeny tiny crappy (seriously our kitchen and bathroom are the same size!) apartment here, we can afford a three bedroom fancy apartment there. All our insurance costs decrease, food is cheaper, services are cheaper, and the international airport has direct flights to anywhere we need/want to go. I hear ya on the Dorothy and Toto and “tornadoes oh my!” commentary – that’s all anyone here knows of Kansas, but flyover country is the life for me.

      Thanks Cat for a great article. 🙂

  19. It’s just so *flat* though. The land, I mean. I honestly don’t think I could live somewhere so flat.

      • What part of my life is do dependent on hills??

        I LOVE hiking. It’s the best way for me to relieve stress and be at peace. I just love the mountains and climbing and exploring. I currently live in Houston d/t school, but I can’t wait to get out of here because it’s just too flat for me. I have nothing against flyover country, but I know what works best for me as far as inner peace.

        • There isn’t good hiking to be had in flyover country? Maybe not in the middle of Des Moines, but certainly within the state, and most every other state I can think of that people consider flyover country.

          Depending on whom you ask, even Colorado is flyover territory. Certainly South Dakota, parts of Nebraska, Minnesota…

          For example:

          But to each their own, I’m sure you know what kind of area you need better than I. I just wanted to try and get the endless-fields-of-corn image out of your head, it’s certainly not all like that.

          • Kansas has a reputation of being flatter than a pancake, but as the posters from Lawrence can tell you, that’s far from the truth!

            I’m not saying that these states don’t have flat areas, but there’s a lot more geographical variance than you might think. Missouri’s considered flyover country by most and southern MO has the Ozark mountains.

        • The perfect small city/hiker’s paradise is Tucson, Arizona. We are surrounded by so many national parks and mountains!

    • I’m with Cat! Lawrence, KS is surrounded by the Flint Hills. Granted, they’re not mountains, but they are beautiful. And if you come here and want drama, all you have to do is *look up.* I can’t imagine living somewhere that I couldn’t see the stars.

  20. Thanks for the post! It helped to settle my mind and my heart about living in the midwest. I always dreamed of escaping my small hometown/ county, but after I did for a little bit a shocking thing happened. I missed the midwest (more specifically Minnesota).Right now my fiance and I are trying to decide where we are going to establish ourselves after he graduates, but if we do end up leaving the midwest… I know that both of us will miss the affordability, the lakes, the community, and the ability to see many miles in any direction.

  21. I totally feel you on wanting to live in a mid sized city!! I live in Erie Pa now and it’s not the worst place to live on planet earth but it definitely leaves a lot to be desired. My boyfriend and I have plans to move right after I’m done with college and I would LOVE to move to Pittsburgh! It’s such a nice city and the people are kinda rough and tumble but friendly. Plus you can buy a gorgeous house for very little money and there is plenty to do and little artsy neighborhoods and such. Plus its on the way up and it’s home to my favorite sports team….go steelers! 🙂

  22. YES! THIS!

    I *also* grew up in Norfolk, left as fast as my little legs would carry me with big dreams about mountains and oceans and people who didn’t actually know what a “hog future” was, and moved back here last year (more than 20 years later) after coming to visit the fam over Thanksgiving. (Seriously…we came to visit, and two weeks later, were moving all our stuff from NC to NE.)

    When you can get a *house* for $450/mo, know ALL your neighbors (some of whom bake far too many cookies, just sayin’), and the markets are just opening up to both ideas and commerce via internet — it’s like the Perfect Storm of Awesome around here now. It’s not DSM…you don’t get zombie bars or anything, but you can get a pretty decent glass of wine and a decent savings account by living here. ($450! a! month! for a! HOUSE!)

    Ever get back here? I’d love to take you for coffee for writing this. 🙂

  23. I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and then moved to Seattle when I had finished college and grad school. I had a great time out there, but after ten years grew weary of the fast pace of the city, the jaded hipsters, and the debt I had accumulated. I started to dream about moving back to Little Rock.

    My relationship with my boyfriend ended and I moved back home. It was one of the best moves I’ve ever made. The pace of my life has slowed down and I’m happier than I’ve been in years. The stress just isn’t there anymore. I make the same amount of money I did in Seattle, but my cost of living is a fraction what it was. I’ve paid off all my debt and I’m living debt free! There aren’t as many opportunities for music and art, but there are some if you know where to look. I don’t go to clubs to hear bands every week here, but I do get to see shows that I didn’t expect to this far off the beaten path. Life is good here!

  24. No way! I’m a Norfolk, Nebraska transplant to Iowa, too! I’m in the Quad Cities area though. I love this article, and it’s a nice reminder that there are many offbeats living here in Flyover Land. It’s a great place. I wouldn’t want it any other way!

  25. So I grew up in the Pacific Northwest (the part that’s not Portland or Seattle) and I have to agree about the small-town/city atmosphere being SO much more beneficial for artists… and even scientists. Where I lived, there was a cadre of marine biologists that did all this amazing work with the local schools. I want to move back into that kind of atmosphere again, and soon.

    I have to ask, though, as a non-midwesterner – do you guys have trees, as a rule? I’ve always heard that there are pretty much none, but I’ve also always heard that everything is flat, and that’s clearly untrue.

    • Depends on the part of the midwest. Much of Nebraska is plaaaaaaaaains. Flat and treeless (but still beautiful! Don’t judge it by the I-80 corridor!) But parts — the Northeast and the East — are full of trees. Most of Iowa is very treeful.

    • Just depends, really. I love just west of Ames, IA – gorgeous rolling hills and woods that remind me of growing up in the Appalachian foothills. We’re currently in the Twin Cities, and I would love to be in a farmhouse somewhere around there in Iowa.

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