The lie sold to young wanna-be urbanites

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"When you get here, just come yell at the Walgreen's sign," Travis said
This is me visiting my old San Francisco neighborhood a couple years ago.

When I was 21 years old, I decided it was time to move to a REAL city. Sleepy Seattle felt too small, too familiar, and not nearly international enough. I wanted something grittier. Something faster-paced and higher density with glamorous nightlife and world-renowned music. I’d spent most of my life in a region known for rock — but it was 1996, and I wanted a city known for House.

So I moved to San Francisco.

Or rather, first I moved to Hayward, a working class city in East Bay, where I squatted in my aunts’ guesthouse for a couple months to save up money. THEN I moved to San Francisco. Specifically, I moved into the Lower Haight.

Everything was in order for my new glamorous big city life: I had a sweet inner-city pad, complete with roommates from Paris and Brooklyn. I was up to my elbows in my music scene of choice. I lived within walking distance of hundreds of amazing restaurants and bars, and had my tiny little Honda CRX to get me to the thousands more within driving distance. I was a glamorous big-city girl and I was ready to LIVE THE DREAM!

…oh, except for the fact that my $11/hr file clerk job barely paid me enough to cover rent and food. I wasn’t living the dream. I was living the lie of being a young, struggling urbanite.

There’s a lot of pixie-dust that gets sold to all of us in college about how we’re going to move to the big city and make it big. Certainly New York and LA are especially guilty of this crime, since the cities are fueled by selling a dream-version of themselves to up-‘n’-comers of all kinds — but they’re not alone in the deception.

It’s not that I didn’t know that moving to San Francisco was going to be expensive. Of course it was going to be expensive! That’s part of what attracted me to it. The glitz and glamour and nightlife and Easter-egg-colored Victorian walk-ups with their secret garden back-patios. Of course it cost to live amongst all that fabulous.

I knew it cost, so I got myself a good job. I’d been working retail for minimum wage, so entering the white collar work-force with all its vacation time and insurance benefits felt like a MASSIVE step up. My income almost doubled when I moved to San Francisco — I felt confident that this increase would cover my living expenses.

But the cold reality is that, if you’re living in one of the most expensive cities in the country, an entry-level office job just doesn’t get you very far. It’s absolutely a livable wage, but it’s not going to get you the kind of glamorous life that attracted you to living there.

I was in a state of constant budgetary crisis during my time in San Francisco. In fact, my first EVER published article was called SF LOW BUDGE and was all about doing things like stealing toilet paper from public restrooms to make ends meet. When I tried to live within my means, it meant eating at home (which I could have done in Seattle) and not going out (the whole reason I’d moved there!). I tried focusing on free events (parties in Golden Gate Park were awesome!) but lived in a state of constant frustration over not being able to actually enjoy the arts and culture I’d moved to the big city to enjoy.

Now, I don’t want to misrepresent the situation here: this was far from poverty. My point here isn’t to say WOE IS ME, EDUCATED WHITE GIRLS IN THE BIG CITY ARE SOOOOO POOOOOOR, but rather to say that the big city dreams that are mass-produced and sold off-the-rack in small towns across the US (and around the world) just aren’t tied to reality. They are romanticized fantasies, and it’s important to recognize them as such.

Chances are that if you’re in your early 20s and you move to the big city, you will not have the glamorous life of your dreams.

Reality check: Chances are that if you’re in your early 20s and you move to the big city, you will not have the glamorous life of your dreams. (Exceptions for those who sell drugs or skin, have a trust fund, or are independently wealthy, or run a profitable side business.) For most of us in our early 20s who move to the big city, it’s about being in close proximity to glamour, and getting tantalizing tastes of it here and there. Eventually (if you work hard and/or get lucky) you might get to the excitement that pulled you to the city in the first place. But initially? You’ll probably live in a building that looks like this, eat at home most nights, and be frustrated. Or, you’ll wrack up crippling debts. (I did that in San Francisco, too. It took me almost 10 years to pay off the debts I incurred in my year of living there. I do not recommend this method.)

Is this a reason not to move to the city? Well, maybe some of you want to follow Cat’s lead and trade the starving urban artist routine for the non-starving smaller-town artist routine. For me, however, I love my big city life, and the scrappy years were totally a part of the journey. No regrets. (Well, other than the credit card debt. That was just stupid.)

I just wish that someone had told me, in words that I could understand, that scrappy wasn’t like Rent where everyone squeaks by in gorgeously decrepit artists lofts. For me, scrappy was being the bored artist in the office working mundane day-jobs. Scrappy was living in ugly buildings and missing amazing cultural events happening a block away because I couldn’t afford it. Scrappy wasn’t about high city fashion — it was about spending too much of my paycheck on khakis to wear to the office jobs that helped me barely pay my rent.

So this is me saying to all the young Offbeat Homies dreaming of a big city life: it may not be glamorous, but if it’s what you want, it’s so very, very worth it.

Comments on The lie sold to young wanna-be urbanites

  1. I feel the need to point out that San Francisco, my my beloved home, is actually overflowing with free or cheap stuff to do. And that’s where all the cool (aka poor) people are anyway. For example:

    FREE concerts at Stern Grove
    FREE opera performances (Stern Grove, Golden Gate Park, and AT+T Ballpark)
    Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
    Oakland Art and Soul Festival
    Go see a screening of The Room at the Piedmont Theater in Oakland – you will never laugh so hard in your life

    And look, a whole website:

    Living on the cheap forces city types to get creative with their entertainment. I’ve always found this to be a ton of fun, hunting out cheap stuff to do. I imagine it must be similar in cities like Seattle and New York?


    I just turned 20 and after realizing that I hate dorm-life (not the small shared space and bathroom part, that I don’t mind; the sub-standard boxed living for $10,000 a year part– wtf, I ALREADY have loans! Gimme a break!) I decided to make the leap early and find my own apartment. About a billion Craigslist ads later and being flat-out rejected by the bland complexes mentioned in your other post, I managed to find this AWESOME apartment in an “ethnic” neighborhood on the west side of Buffalo, NY. If any young artists need to flee NYC, don’t be afraid of the snow! Buffalo is awesome, and the rent is cheaper than Williamsburg, ha ha!

    Also, whoever said Pittsburgh– YES. Pittsburgh is my favorite city EVER. If you like steampunk and zombie apocalypse, move to Pitt to make your fantasy come true.

    What I’m trying to say is that it seems like New York and San Francisco are creativity and quirkiness for people who are… not. Suits, to use an archaic term. Toronto, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh are all great, though! Cheap rent, great people. Let’s all find the new Greenich and live there!

    • Blah! I am from Rochester! Western New York rocks! But I just moved to Boston to fall into the hole this article warns of! Why doesn’t WNY have more grad schools offering my program!!

      • What’s your program? To be honest, this was my technique: I went on Craigslist, I made a list, and I called every single owner multiple times until they told me to stop. Finally, one of them had an apartment that was taken by someone else, and I asked if she would keep me in mind if another came up. Right away, I got a call back that someone was moving in July, and I could have her apartment. It was luck, but luck with a lot of legwork. It took me 6 or 7 months to catch a break but it CAN be done.

  3. God this is so depressing. I graduated a month ago (YAY!) and am starting grad school in Boston in a month. I am shopping for an apartment and last night had a crisis while holding a calculator, realizing that if I live in the dump I didn’t like when I went through I still will only come away with $3,500 of living money (money minus rent alone). Guh. I wish I saw this a year ago.

  4. I know the feeling! After graduating, my boyfriend and I moved to Ottawa (which is NOT at all on par with NY, LA, etc – it’s more like…. Minneapolis?) to look for jobs related to our degrees. Luckily, we both found some within 6 months, but those first 6 months working retail were scary – nothing ever quite added up, and we had dwindled our savings down to nothing by the time that we found our current jobs.

    Luckily, things are a lot easier now, but rent here is so expensive, I’m not sure how people working retail/restaurant jobs manage. We do have a ton of free stuff in the city, though, and it’s small enough to not need a car.

  5. I live in the DC Metro area … well, sort of. I live in Reston. It’s 18-20 miles west of DC, which makes it about a 35 minute drive on a weekend and an hour and a half drive on a weekday.

    We came out here in search of jobs and found decent ones. The first couple years we scrimped and saved and by year three we were able to buy a condo. We lived in Ashburn first, farther out from the city, and hated it because of its lack of community. Then we lived in Oakton, a little closer in, and still hated it because it was too family oriented and still didn’t feel quite homey. Plus our apartment was a dark cave of a place with no natural light.

    During the process of buying we looked in Alexandria and Vienna and Falls Church and other places closer to the city but they were either a little scary or out of our price range.

    Our realtor and I finally convinced my fiance that we should look at Reston. We were able to get a great foreclosure in Reston Town Center for a really decent price and in another two years there will be a Metro stop about a mile and a half from us. In another three after that (fingers crossed) there will be a stop three blocks from us and the value of our condo is going to go up quite a bit.

    I love living out here. We’ve been able to find a way to make everything work and because of my job (I’m a local news editor/journalist) and my connections and super-local knowledge we get to do a lot of stuff for free or for little cost, but we can also afford occasional dinners out, a movie here and there and hobbies.

    I truly, truly love it here and I cant imagine leaving… but at the same time this article has me wondering what it would be like to be making a similar salary in a smaller town. I’m thinking our next town will be slightly farther out from the city yet, or maybe somewhere in North Carolina, or even just Richmond.

  6. I was lured by the bright lights of a big city.
    Right after highschool (at barely 17 years old) I decided that town life wasn’t my thing and moved my butt to the big city of London. This is huge because A) Im Dutch and B) I was doing it by myself.
    I wanted that exciting city life with all the glitz and glamour, but I really did find out quickly enough that it’s not like that at all. In total I lived there for 8 years, I had part-time jobs to make ends meet besides running my own business in makeup artistry. Only after the 7th year did I end up with awesome housemates, but with higher rent and bills, living that dreamy city life.
    However, in the end, after all those years trying so hard to get that kind of life I figured out that it wasn’t what I wanted after all. It was the illusion that drew me in and after working my butt off I didn’t want it anymore.
    Now I’m back home in Holland, close to family and loving the simple life 🙂
    But hey, atleast I tried it and I will never regret doing it!

  7. I’m joining the conversation a bit late. But I moved to Seattle from a Midwestern small town almost two years ago now, and this article hit close to home.

    I left because there were no jobs. About 20 jobs were listed a day in my greater-metro area on Craigslist, and I was lucky if one of them was even in my field–let alone my career path. So 50-100 jobs a day being posted in my field out in Seattle was great! I knew I’d struggle for a while, but figured I’d make some friends and settle in.

    And that’s exactly what happened! I went through a couple crappy jobs before I found my groove. I ended up “couch” crashing at a couple people’s houses whom I’d just met, and free-loaded off a guy who was way too sweet for me.

    We fell in love. I found a job two hours after I agreed to move in permanently. Debt was getting paid off, savings was racking up, everything was great.

    Except that my job was working me ragged, and I was so frustrated. Here I had moved to this great city, and I was doing the same things I’d done in my hometown, without even a patch of grass to call my own and try to build a life for myself. Instead of my cushy bed in my grandma’s spare bedroom where I was surrounded by family and friends and helping her out, I was struggling with crappy roommates and pets I hadn’t signed up to have. Then I had a complete emotional breakdown. And now I’m stuck unemployed, on temporary disability, living in a city where everything is 2-3 times as expensive as I’m used to and trying to budget for a wedding so I can get married to the only bright spot in this whole scenario, since moving out here is how I met the love of my life. I moved to the land of foodies and now I can’t even afford to eat at the awesome restaurants because I get most of my food from the food bank (although to be fair, if it weren’t the land of foodies, my food bank food wouldn’t include fantastic crusty breads, gorgonzola pear ravioli, and usually-organic produce).

    Sooooo glamorous.

  8. There are certainly ways you could have fun even if you are struggling. First did those Khaki’s have to be new? I bought many work clothes at Salvation Army’s, it’s a great way to save money. Sometimes when single eating out is more cost effective then eating in. It seems counterintuitive but it’s true. Why did you need to go to cultural events that cost money? Even back then they had open studios. (Boston did in the 1991-1994 time period I lived there.) Did you ever think about getting a second job? Did you need to live in the Lower Height area? When I went to college most of my peers didn’t have credit cards so we had to get by without having that crutch. In the end you have to think was is important to you in the short term and long term. Gallery night was always fun, and friends of mine had stairwell galleries and in fact pioneered the concept. We were DIY and made our own scene.

  9. I feel you =( I’m living in Paris and when I planned coming here I thought of all the concerts and museums and nice cafés… no deal: this month we couldn’t even make rent! I wish we could really live this city and everything it has to offer…

  10. I can totally relate to this post. My husband and I live in the Asheville, NC area. VERY cool city with tons of things to do, hiking, festivals, amazing eateries… but because we spend all our time working to get by with the bills we rarely get to actually ENJOY where we live. We’re seriously considering moving back to the Midwest, where we’re both from and where we have family, in order to be better off financially. We’ll miss the AVL a LOT but in the end it just isn’t practical for us to keep scraping by here. 🙁

  11. My partner and I aren’t from the same area and neither of us wants to live where the other grew up. We now live in Oakland, even though we’re both more country than city people. Our difficulty is in finding jobs in small towns and in finding a rural area or small town that’s right for both of us. How do you seek these places out on a budget? There are so many small towns; how can you decide where to begin?

  12. I have lived in London for the past 8 years- and only this month moved RIGHT into the centre of the city, as a friend needed a flatmate. I have shared houses in rather dodgy areas, taken an hour on transport to get in, etc. And still, even when more than half my income is going on rent (and transport- Good GOD this city has expensive travel), I wouldn’t trade it for the world. And I only make £21,000 a year, which is not bad, but not all that much. Even if I don’t go out all the time, I still go out enough to appreciate the marvellous things here. Will I go shopping on Bond Street? No, but I’m not a fashionista, so that’s not a hardship. Will I eat at fancy glamour restaurant? No, but there are so many amazing, affordable restaurants including every type of cuisine imaginable. For me, the benefit of a city I love is so much more than the sum of its expenses. I feel myself relaxing just walking through the streets, enjoying the people and the buildings, and just the general ambience.

    For me, it’s home, and I’ve realised I will never be able to buy a house. Or a flat. Or even a shoebox, really. And I’m ok with that. Of course, I grew up poor in both LA and Rome, so I think I also had different expectations- and certainly never had the “big city glamour” lie that Ariel’s talking about. ..

  13. It’s so funny to hear someone speak of Seattle as sleepy, small, and not international enough. Where I’m from (Kentucky), every single one of my friends would probably cut off their right arm to be able to move to the Pacific Northwest. But, a combination of costs, and being 35 hours from our families keeps most of us here. Le sigh…

  14. Ok, I’m reading this years after it was written, but I want to click “THIS” a million times. I left suburban MA to go to college in the East Bay, and right after graduating moved to SF, where I’ve lived since. However, I have lived on the outskirts of the city since I lived here, at first with roommates, in an in-law style unit below my landlord down by city college, and later in the avenues with my BF and now husband I spent a lot of my 20s very frustrated, because I thought your 20s were supposed to be a fun, crazy time full of concerts, bars, clubs, restaurants, etc. I couldn’t do much of that for several reasons, and a big one was money. I have a master’s degree, but it’s in music, and combined with that and an abysmal job market, even my office jobs have been enough to squeak by, but not much more. Now in our early 30s, the husband and I have what is an insanely good deal for SF in an apartment waaay out in the avenues. We like our place, which is good as we couldn’t afford a different place in the city, or to buy. I do feel like we don’t take much advantage of everything SF has to offer, largely because we just can’t afford to. We make enough to cover essential expenses and business costs, but we eat out very little, and go out very little. I still wouldn’t want to leave SF, I love being able to run along the ocean, being so close to the park, and having a little backyard garden, and we’re close to friends, but we’re totally not living the dream. With the cost of everything in SF rising so much, it does seem like fewer and fewer people who aren’t involved in the tech industry can.

  15. My big city dream was less about living a glamorous life and more about having anonymity. I grew up in exurban Florida and made a mistake in my early teens that made me kind of notorious. Combine that with a bad breakup toward the end of my senior year of high school, and I wanted out. Not only did I want out of that town, I also wanted to make sure I went somewhere that most of my peers would avoid (or at least was large enough for me to hide from them). I ended up moving to Miami primarily because I had felt at peace there. I lived far from the beach, which was fine by me. I could concentrate on school and not be bothered by what my former schoolmates were doing. I later moved to Minneapolis because my husband was born and raised there. For me, it offered even better opportunities to live anonymously. I’m finding that by avoiding the glamor I’m so happy in the city and want to move somewhere even more populated as I get older. I joke with my husband that we’re going to move to Shanghai for retirement. However, if he dies first (which is very unlikely), I’m pretty sure I’ll be moving to the Orient because there are more people in the big cities, giving me even more opportunities to live under the radar.

  16. A part of me wants to write the article that’s this, but for the mountain/country life. The basics are the same regardless of where you’re drawn – the beauty, the mysticism in the IDEA of what is drawing you.

    A good way to express this is house-hunting/ownership. I’m not in the market for a new place (our house is mostly great and we own it outright), but a house near mine that I have had my eye on for about two years recently came on the market. We went to check it out. I’m the type of gal that sees the potential in a place (in this case – 4,000 square feet! $165K! Indoor swimming pool! Set up for a horse! Solar panels!) and, fortunately, I married a man who sees the reality of a place (in this case – roof caving in in places! Downed power line in the yard! Pool pump collapsed 5ft into the ground! Infested with spiders!). Should I ride on potential alone… well, I wouldn’t have gotten that place. But that’s where I was when I bought my place. In the almost eight years since I bought it, I have dealt with things that I had never imagined would be a part of owning this home. Perhaps it’s BECAUSE of the trials and tribulations that I’ve endured with this home that I am now thoroughly enamored with the place. Regardless, I am better for having lived here.

    I guess my point is that the fantasy will rarely align with reality. But if you stick it out, your fantasy will become more refined by what you learn of reality. And eventually, you’ve got it.

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