Where Can Creative People Afford to Live These Days?

Today, artistic friends, my question is are there more affordable cities in America where writers, musicians, poets and artists can thrive? Do we always have to pay most of our income to rent and food and work multiple part-time jobs that pay little just so we can have the flexibility to write or play music?

I currently live in the Bay Area. I’ve been here my whole life, aside from the year my parents were attending the University of Texas in Austin after I was born. I love the abundance of hiking trails and the proximity to the ocean. I like that people are interesting and educated and into books, art and music. I love the historic houses. San Francisco will always be my one true home.

What I don’t like is how expensive it’s gotten here, how everything feels tooth and nail, and many people around Berkeley/Oakland/San Francisco drive like assholes, treat each other like crap and don’t even smile.

We moved out of San Francisco for the same reasons. Too competitive, too overcrowded, too expensive. You had to fight to get anywhere or do anything. To live here, you need to be a type A++ personality. Bigger, better, faster, more competitive than everyone else. I love that people are multi-faceted and interested in a million different things. What I wonder about is where they find the time and how they got all of this money. The working class is slowly being pushed out of the Bay Area.

The economy tanking in 2008 didn’t help matters. Since then, I’ve picked up freelance work and part-time gigs, but each time I’ve worked for someone else (albeit once, when my friend worked at the place I applied and told me they were desperate for staff) I’ve had to persist at trying to get the job for up to a year. And this is for COFFEE SHOPS. On top of that, I’m allergic to the oaks and the cedar and the grass and the pollen. As a writer who is figuring out what I want to write about and how to make enough money doing it without getting burnt out, I don’t barely break even and to live here, you need a two-power-couple income, no car and inherited real estate. IMHO.

Because of the rough times of the past few years across the board, we all seem afraid to move. “Last year, the Census Bureau’s national mover rate—which represents the percentage of Americans 1 year and older who moved within the past year—hit its lowest level since 1948, when the bureau began tracking the data.” Wow.

Where could we go? I used my experience here to elaborate on an issue facing many, many people in this day and age. So are there any places left that might afford a better cost of living and ability to spend time on creative pursuits?

Here are some ideas I’ve come up with so far:

  • One could move to Paducah, Kentucky, as detailed on The Abundant Artist here. The city decided to experiment by offering help to established artists wishing to relocate. The experiment appears to be successful so far. You can find out more about Paducah here. $1 subsidized living? Tell me more!
  • One could also move to Austin, which boasts a vibrant music scene: over 1,900 performing artists and bands live near or in the city. Move To Austin is a blog detailing all you would want to know about moving to this sunny, humid, hot bed for artistic people, good eats and culture. Unlike other parts of Texas, Austin has an abundance of outdoor activities including rivers and hiking.  I do hear that the allergy season is worse there than other places, which might be a deal killer for me.
    One of my college buddies blogs about her recent move to Austin here. I’d be lying if I didn’t say she almost has me convinced. To play the devil’s advocate here though, not all places other people like are great for me. Some people express on a forum discussing the city the problems living in a hip place come with. They are the same problems I am facing here in the Bay Area. I am sick of the cooler-than-thou attitude, the competitiveness and the cliques. Be yourself people! Don’t be a snot!Let’s explore a few other places.
  • Boulder, Colorado was always a great place to visit in my traveling days. Interesting people flocked there to drink good beer, hike in the mountains, see live music and go to college. On the city website is an extensive list of articles describing it as being the best city to retire in, the best artistic destination, the best food, etc. Check it out yourself here.
    In addition, the links listed there led me to a great article on the top 25 small cities written by American Style Magazine.
  • I’ve often fantasized about moving to Taos, New Mexico. Taosis.com offers an artists guide to Taos, and professes that not only does Toas have great rafting, hiking and skiing, it is a mecca for the artistic.
    When I visited Taos a number of years ago I found it to be beautiful, with an enchanting spirit that pulled me in. It was very warm, and beautiful orange sand stretched on for miles outside the city limits. I found hidden nooks and adobe-style buildings.I really do love Victorian and Art Deco architecture as well, though, and have found that it is important to me to live in buildings that inspire and motivate me, or at least be around them. Which is one reason why I wish the San Francisco Bay Area were not at such a high (almost double) cost of living index compared to many other places in the U.S. And a reason why I’ve often considered Portland, Oregon.
  • Portland, Oregon is a hotbed for artistic people, including writers, yet it does rain many months out of the year. I always found it lush, green and inspiring when I traveled through the state and I wanted to explore Mt. Hood and bunk down in an old Victorian somewhere to collect books and write. My friend lives there, and has enjoyed being around similar-minded people, reading books, driving a cab, going to school, enjoying good music, and has been experiencing all the good and bad of being young, free and awesome in her twenties. Bike trails and healthy local food abounds. And c’mon. Powell’s Books and bacon donuts?
  • Seattle would almost be an option, if it wasn’t so damn rainy all of the time there, too. I remember my aunt moving there for a while when  I was growing up and how depressed she got living in the downpour all of the time. But the music scene is booming. There are jobs. I have friends there, even. Arts, culture, food? Check. Just wet. Very, very wet.
  • Ashland, Oregon is one of my favorite places for food. It’s a small college town, but I love the hiking trails and good eats that abound virtually everywhere. While visiting I went white water rafting, had great fish and chips at an English pub and amazing scrambled eggs at a local diner. It’s a big tourist destination with plenty of small businesses and boutiques. The Shakespeare Festival contributes largely to the bohemian and theatrical crowds visiting on and off throughout the year, and it is also a college town at heart, with Southern Oregon University offering undergraduate programs in many liberal studies. The unemployment rate there is comparable to California’s, though, hovering at around 11% as of 2010.
  • Lexington, Kentucky was listed by Kiplinger as a great place for single artistic people (I would include people who are married but still act single to that category). The area, according to this article, has 15 colleges and universities, a young crowd, horse and bourbon scenes, affordable housing, a large gay community, a nude art scene, ($650 for a two-bedroom!), an underground art and music scene and jobs. Hmmm.
  • Knoxville, Tennessee is another place I visited while traveling that just felt different. It had a thriving culture, beautiful buildings, young people everywhere, a music scene, art and good food. It felt like a creative place to be and had a good energy. It wasn’t as overwhelming as Nashville and seemed like a place where you could grow. The living expenses are lower than the average, and the unemployment rate is below average, though the job growth has stopped, according to the data I could find. It’s a pretty place, big enough to get lost in, but warm as well. I found the state of Tennessee to be absolutely gorgeous, with green trees, subtle fog and rolling hills.
  • Funny, reflecting on this article I wrote about Oakland in 2007: In the last couple of years, Oakland has become a mecca for people looking for an artistic bohemian lifestyle. I’m over it. I don’t think I ever want to live in West Oakland again. If I can’t walk my dog at night, what’s the point? Beautiful Victorian flats abound for OK prices, but not near parks or walking distance to stores. When I lived near West Oakland, one neighbor got mugged by kids and another with a brick over his head. Not something I want to calculate into my already mounting stress of living in an area I cannot afford. To play devil’s advocate though, most of the creative people I associate with live in Oakland, and I often consider moving back there because of the rents, the shops and the potential.

I’ve stayed here in the Bay Area for this long because I love the ocean, the mountains and the people. My immediate family lives here and my extended family is close by. I’m kind of a type A personality, so I do OK with competition, I just don’t like it very much. And living on top of so many people just isn’t ideal. I like to spend lots of time alone where no one can see in my window or hear me practicing guitar through the walls. Still, there are still many opportunities and resource available if you are energetic enough and willing to fight for them, so I remain. As do many others.

If I had it my way, I would pack everything up and spend a year traveling in a van across the country until I found a viable list of meccas. Funding that project is going to take some more brainstorming, though. Any observations from your travels to different locales are much welcomed here.

16 thoughts on “Where Can Creative People Afford to Live These Days?

  1. As someone from Colorado, I can tell you that Boulder is a pretty expensive place to live. Perhaps not as expensive as San Francisco, but it’s still pretty expensive. I lived in Fort Collins for a while and I loved, loved, loved it! I would check it out if I were you.

    • Thanks for your input Becca! I’m sure that Boulder, being such a hub, has been increasingly expensive over the years. I’ll look into Fort Collins. I’m trying to explore facts about as many places as I can.

  2. Asheville, North Carolina is a good place and rents are fairly cheap ($400 for a one bedroom!) Another good area is Northampton, MA, which has consistently ranked on the “Best Small Arts Towns in America” lists. It’s not large but its near big cities (NYC & Boston, also two or three hours from the Cape) and some other nice creative areas are nearby. The rents are lower than in CA but if you’re willing to live a little further out of town, nice places can be had for even less.

    • I’ve heard things about Asheville, and even Raleigh…400 for a one bedroom?
      Sold! I’ll check out Northampton, too. I’d like to cultivate a comprehensive list here
      in another post. Thanks for the input!

  3. I think the people in Austin are pretty nice. There is a separation from the south (artsy, hippie area) and the north (tech, money). I think it’s fun to bounce back and forth, and I can blend easily with any crowd :) No matter what you think, come visit me!!

    I met this couple a few years back who was traveling cross country. They would pick up jobs in whatever town they were in or going to, and stayed in hostels or at friends’ houses. You could also get writing gigs about your trip. Think about it.

    • It’s good to know I have friends in Austin. I really do want to visit Austin, since I was born there and many
      of my favorite people have moved there over the years.
      Also, now that I’ve researched it due to the advice
      of Delaney I’m fascinated with going to visit all the old Art Deco buildings in Asheville. Rolling Stone called Asheville “Freak City” recently. Someone else, Frommer perhaps,
      called it “The happiest place to live in the US” or something to that effect.

      I would love to travel around the US investigating livable cities and get paid to write about my travels. I’m not sure how that would look yet, but I am working on a way to manifest it. And I want to see if I can disprove the belief that the Bay Area is the only place I’ll ever belong. I want to find out where other people thrive, without any knowledge of the Bay Area’s bounty. Is it possible? Dunno.
      over time.

  4. Thanks for writing about this!
    I found your blog through theabundantartist.com and the posting about housing at http://preview.tinyurl.com/8a85ena
    My husband (video/music/sound artist) and I (writer/director) currently live in Baltimore, which has some interesting artist housing stuff starting up these days. We love our quirky city and our home, but are looking at all these same questions, whether it means living in Baltimore or elsewhere.
    We’re especially interested in what it could mean to be a part of an artist community in the “intentional community” model (owning your own space but utilizing some shared labor and resources, with all participants committed to building a successful shared community, not just their own careers). We like that this could keep costs down and help foster collaboration and mutual support in a culture that’s pretty darn hostile to artists.
    Some of the places we’re currently thinking about are Berkeley Springs (WV), Pawtucket (RI), and areas closer to Balto/DC, but we are interested in hearing how others are thinking about arts and community. We are cautious about leaving an area where we have our arts and education jobs and contacts (given the difficult job market), but are in full-out research mode and considering all options for now, including international options.

    • Hi Juanita!
      Thank you so much for writing our your reply. I’m thinking about updating my blog with a new post about where to live for artists and it’s great to hear from other people in different places about the struggles they are having and the options they are considering. Myself, I’m still struggling with where the best havens are in the Bay Area. It’s become very expensive and dirty, but there is community in pockets if you look hard–and if you can find enough people, I have seen some warehouse/loft spaces that are seemingly successful (been trying to get in one myself, but it’s a little too expensive, so I’ll probably be subletting my friend’s space for a month or two to get my foot in the door!)

      I’m into sharing space if I know and trust the people. Problem with the Bay Area (and perhaps elsewhere, too) is the rampant amount of drugs and general slacker attitude, which is different from the hard-working artist attitude I strive for!

  5. Thanks for the article. As a photographer, I’m looking to book out of the NY/NJ area (over priced and hyped) for somewhere cheaper, yet still can feed my creative side. We’re looking at Taos as a possibility.


  6. I know your posting is a bit old now, but I wanted to comment as I’ve lived in many of the places you mentioned. I lived in Austin off and on for many years, but left almost a year ago. Austin has become expensive and crowded, they have a zero vacancy rate, it’s VERY hard to find a good rental. I went to college in Knoxville, it’s very conservative and being from the south, I think Kentucky would be a nightmare for an artistic type. I currently live in Portland, OR, I love it here but it is very expensive here and very, very competitive. We were ranked 5th most expensive city in the U.S. this past fall. I have 2 roommates and have been working 50 hrs a week, but I am getting by and having some fun. Not much energy for art/creative stuff though. I think probably the best artist havens now are smaller, less popular places that don’t cost much, not even sure how one would find those. The person who mentioned Northhampton, MA, was probably on the right track, you need a place that is not popular or pricey. If you have moved, I hope you are happy with your choice.

  7. Hi, found your blog entry by chance.
    Living in Copenhagen Denmark, Europe for more than twenty years, trained as a fine artist…. and having EXACTLY the same problems as you write about…gentrification…cost of living exploding…competitive environment…a-hole attitude everywhere…no jobs etc…etc…
    Now considering moving to one room cabin on the South Pole, I hear the fishing is really good.
    (and BTW: Copenhagen is a great town to visit but now ridiculously expensive..)

    • So interesting because I’ve thought about moving to Copenhagen for a few months :) my good friends have a house there and have invited me to move there. Maybe this is a sign…. ;-)

  8. Where Can Creative People Afford to Live? (Part 2) – Thestifledartist's Blog

  9. Awesome article. I love this. I’m from the Bay Area as well, living in Utah right now (so cheap, gorgeous mountains, but doesn’t quite feel like home!). I have considered a lot of the places you’ve listed, and it’s interesting to read about the others as well. I keep wishing I could go back to California, but I get discouraged whenever I look at apartment prices. It just doesn’t seem worth it; pretty much giving up on that for now. Thanks for the article!

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