Working-Class Artists Still Exist in Philadelphia

It's not New York—and it's not trying to be.

There’s a common perception among artists and makers that you have to move to New York or Los Angeles to really make it in 'the business'; the romanticized image of the starving artist dominates the way many see what it means to be a successful creator. But in Philadelphia, the cost of living and a welcoming artistic community screams that there’s more to life than scraping on by. To find out why creative people living in Philly love it so much, The Creators Project spoke with artists, DJs, and makers about carving out a happy life in the City of Brotherly Love.

Rose Luardo’s been living and working as a performance artist in Philadelphia for over a decade. Her work, a combination of fine art, comedy, and performance, has been featured in places like LA, NYC, and Costa Rica. “At the end of my schooling—I graduated [from NYU] in 1996—you had this feeling that the world was kind of paved with gold bullions,” Luardo explains. “And there was something about New York; I still really enjoyed my time there, but it wasn’t as weird, and creative, and gritty as I had fantasized it to be.”

Luardo found that grit on a visit to Philly, “When I visited Philadelphia it had this really grimy, underworld, crazy, bizarre, art culture happening. And it was inexpensive to be here. And I thought: Wait a minute, here are my freaks. This is not something I’m able to access in New York.” After moving to the city, she was amazed by the low cost of living, “You can really afford to live here if you’re a creative person. You can buy a house.”

Rose Luardo with cat. Photo by Andrew Jeffrey Wright

This low cost of living trickles into every aspect of Philadelphia life. Pennsylvania minimum wage is $7.25 an hour and an average one-bedroom apartment ranges from $900-$1100 a month. Everyone I spoke with mentioned how cheap it was, and how that affordability means there’s more room for experimentation. “There’s a lot of saying ‘yes’ to really new and different projects,” Luardo explained.

That’s a sentiment that’s shared with a lot of artists in Philadelphia. “We started coming downtown and going to parties and going dancing,” explained James of the DJ group, Broadzilla, “and then one night the DJ got sick and the owner said can you fill in? And we said sure.”

The lines between the different scenes, including performance, dancing, fine art, completely blur in Philly. Broadzilla—made up of local indie heroes James, KT, and Thom—spoke to me over speakerphone while driving around the city looking for a Dairy Queen. “I had never touched a record until then,” James continued, “but we cobbled together a collection, and a bunch of people we knew came and had a great time, and they kept asking us back.”

“In other cities,” Thom added, “we would have never gotten that first gig. Well, we definitely wouldn’t have gotten that second gig in any other city.” But why stay in Philly and DJ? They’ve performed with MIA, Diplo, LCD Soundsystem. So why not move? “As far as New York and LA,” KT chimed in, “New York is too damn expensive, and LA is too damn far away. And it’s really cheap in Philly to get really drunk, to get really messed up. [Laughs] No dancing and music scene can really compare to Philly. People are so full of themselves in other cities, but in Philly people are really just trying to have fun.”

But Philadelphians aren’t just in it for the party. They’re also interested in changing the city. Illustrator Melissa McFeeters lives and works in Philly’s Fishtown neighborhood: “I started working at a local magazine, and it opened my eyes to a lot of the inner workings of the city and how people work to make it better, supporting small businesses, making it more sustainable.” McFeeters’ work focuses on sustainability and social change, “And that made me really appreciate Philly and the way that it’s changing the story of the city. And that made it harder to leave, I think. Because now I’m finding a way to be a part of its changing.”

“Rent is affordable, but studio spaces are really affordable. You can get huge working spaces for almost nothing,” says McFeeters, who shares a 500-square foot studio for $500 a month with another couple. As for the strength of the community, “It’s like a never-ending cycle of referrals. And I feel like that’s something that can only happen in a smaller city.”

Wedding Weather, published in Philadelphia Weddings, 2014

Though painter Rebekah Callaghan left Philadelphia for grad school a few years back, she quickly found herself returning. “Workspace can be rented cheaply, and there are several large warehouses being repurposed into studios,” Callaghan explains of the continuing push for creative space. “And similar to a pre-revitalized New York, Philadelphia offers an affordable and dynamic environment for working artists.”

“The art community in Philly is really robust,” adds Fred Frederick of FF Knives, “and I made a lot of connections through that, and Philly still allows me to work a job and pursue this craft.” His craft, making custom, bespoke knives from scratch, started as a hobby and is quickly blooming into a full-time job. “I have a space to work. And it’s one mile from where I live. And it’s cheap. I don’t see that happening in any other city.”

Art handler by day, Frederick’s still able to find time to run a full side-business. “It’s a place where you can succeed being a small-time guy,” he explains. “You can get away with working other jobs, supplement your income, do it all without having to work 80 hours a week. It’s a lot easier to buy yourself some free time.”

And free time, for the artist trying to live a comfortable life, is rare in most places. But in Philadelphia, they don’t believe in the “starving artist,” and they sure as hell don’t believe in going it alone.

Untitled (MP at night), oil and tempera on canvas. Courtesy of the artist

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