Urban Wanderers: The Itinerant Lives of Artists in the Modern City

Brooke Berman is lucky enough to be living in Seventh Heaven this week. That’s the name of the dormitory rooms that New Dramatists, a non-profit center for playwrights housed in an old church on West 44th Street, offers to its 49 artists-in-residence for short stays. Ms. Berman, who is now 38, has made the small garret room feel homey by decorating it with a few of her warm personal objects: a necklace of buttons hanging from a nail, her laptop computer decorated with stickers and a collage of words and pictures, across the middle of which is glued the word “HOME.”

Ms. Berman came to New York when she was 18 to attend Barnard College. Seven years ago, she won a $20,000 playwright’s grant, the Helen Merrill Award. She has had some recognition for her playwriting over the years. Some of her plays have been workshopped or produced in cities like Chicago, New Haven, Los Angeles and London. Three years ago, she sold the film rights to one of her plays, Smashing, to Natalie Portman and wrote another screenplay for Ms. Portman.

Her new play Hunting and Gathering has just opened at an Off-Broadway theater. The idea for Hunting and Gathering came six years ago when Ms. Berman was asked by an arts organization to write a 10-minute play on the subject of home. “I listed every apartment I’d ever lived in,” said Ms. Berman. She was 32 at the time and already had 15 addresses behind her. “I was interested in the juxtaposition between our home life and our ability to connect with other people. And I was just beginning to realize that after 30 an air mattress isn’t charming.” Reviewers have described Hunting and Gathering as a saga of artists who go through sublets and house-sits as if they were Kleenex, which also speaks to the lives of many young and youngish, apartment-seeking New Yorkers who either don’t have trust funds or jobs on Wall Street.

At this point, Ms. Berman has lived in more than 30 apartments during the last 20 years, three in the last six months alone, and she has become superbly adept at rapidly making herself feel comfortable almost anywhere. Living on money from unexpected grants, temporary jobs and teaching positions, she is symbolic of a modern urban wandering clan. Theater people have long been considered to be an integral part of the original urban nomads, and they are currently clear examples of the increasingly unstable domestic lives of artists who are trying to continue living and working in New York City today.

A well-publicized example of this plight being experienced by artists in Manhattan is the story of what has been happening at The Chelsea Hotel on West 23d Street, an elegantly shabby Victorian-Gothic hotel, which is registered as a national historic landmark. The Chelsea has had a long history of serving as a sanctuary for the avant-garde. Last year, a corporate management team took over running the Chelsea, and its artist-residents have correctly worried that the plans are for the hotel to be transformed into a posh New York “boutique” hotel. The corporate team has already expended a great deal of energy finding ways to empty the hotel of its artist-residents.

Another illustration of the obstacles confronting the artistic community is the present-day rental market: rent for a studio or a one-bedroom apartment in the East Village alone has more than doubled in the last 10 years. When the rent on Ms. Berman’s Mott Street one-bedroom apartment, where she had lived for three years, rose to $1,550 from $1,350 a year ago, she just gave up her lease, beginning another bout of itinerancy. “It’s all about money,” Ms. Berman said cheerfully. “It’s not like I have a penchant for the transient life.”

According to Emily Morse, the director of artistic development at New Dramatists, “You used to be able to work a 20-hour week, pay the rent on your tiny studio, and still have the time to write your plays. That’s no longer possible.” New Dramatists, which Ms. Morse described as “part hotel, for people who are in transient positions in their lives,” allows its artists-in-residence to stay in the Seventh Heaven rooms for three weeks at a time. “They are always full,” she said.

Brooke Berman: Life as an Urban Artist-Nomad

Readers who are interested in learning more about Brooke Berman’s story, as well as the difficulties faced by other artists trying to live and work in New York City today, will find a detailed account in The New York Times here.

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