This is my old college room mate Dimitri. At the end of my first year in the dormitories he approached me and asked if we could share a place in September. We didn’t know each other very well. We were vague acquaintances. We said hello to each other in the corridor, but that was about it. He was a bad ass and a ladies man. Or more accurately, he liked to think of himself as a bad ass. He had long hair and he rode a motorcycle. You know the type. But I knew him well enough to think he would be tolerable as a room mate and it was better to choose your room mates than to pull them off the street from a bulletin board or newspaper ad. (This was pre-internet mind you. Yeah, I’m getting old. I have very few photos from those days since this was also pre-digital smart phones as well. Anyway…)
I didn’t think too much about Dimitri that summer. I had a job waiting tables at an Italian restaurant and I found a cheap but sturdy apartment near campus that I scrubbed clean, painted, and furnished on a tight budget. There was a tar paper roof outside the bedroom window that I pressed into service as a garden and there was a little fire escape off the back kitchen door that was just big enough for some outdoor furniture. My boyfriend and I settled down and were pretty happy for the first couple of months. Then school began in September and Dimitri appeared. We got him set up with a bed and he began paying his share of the rent.
Dimitri became my best friend and we’re still extremely close. I was at his wedding a while back and started to reminisce with some other folks from our university days. The guy sitting next to me at the wedding banquet was a regular at our apartment back then and he explained to his wife how he would come to dinner at our place to escape the instant ramen he usually subsisted on in college. He then explained to her why Dimitri had specifically asked to live with me as part of a plan to live a better quality of life while he was in school.
So here’s how it works. The standard eighteen year old straight boy arrives at university fresh from suburbia and heads directly to the frat house where he expects to be up to his chin in alcohol and girls. But what generally happens is not exactly what he was hoping for. The frats are full of guys who are a bit older, a little richer, better looking, more charming, and/or more experienced. The girls appear as scheduled and there’s immediately a great deal of competition. From the girls’ perspective it’s less than ideal. The typical off campus accommodations of a pack of straight boys smells like a bus terminal bathroom and is decorated with rows of empty beer bottles and posters of Lamborghinis and buxom women in bikinis. Dinner consists of cheap greasy pizza eaten directly out of the box. There’s no toilet paper and the floor has never been washed. Ever. Furniture is mostly plastic milk crates and things with missing legs propped up with concrete blocks. If the evening does finally go as hoped for the most likely scenario is for folks to get intimate on a pile of dirty laundry while a dozen other people play video games in the next room. And there’s no lock on the door. Perhaps this is a slight exaggeration, but I witnessed many variations of this sort of thing in my younger days.
Dimitri took one look at his options and did a jujitsu. By living with gay guys he immediately eliminated the problem of competition. The house was clean and nicely furnished. We sat down and had real home cooked meals on proper dishes. He’d bring girls over and they were instantly disarmed and relaxed. Instead of a beer keg and plastic cups (or perhaps a funnel) there was wine and cocktails with a bit of Billie Holiday playing in the background. Cliche? Stereotype? Maybe a little. But it worked. Dimitri did pretty well for himself in college as I recall. The primary draw back to this arrangement is that other straight guys would often assume that Dimitri was gay. For the typical frat boy that was intolerable. But Dimitri didn’t care. His destination was clear and he knew the most efficient route wasn’t necessarily the one everyone else was taking. He found a niche and used it to his advantage and it just happened to be less expensive and more pleasant.
This blog is about urbanism and how places adapt, thrive, or fail, as the larger world shifts. There are many towns that could take a lesson from Dimitri. Odd subcultures can be the savior of declining places if they are embraced rather than made to feel unwanted. Immigrants are at the top of that list. Religious and ethnic minorities can often transform a community in ways plain vanilla folks just can’t or won’t.
Please note that I’m not making a Richard Florida style “Creative Class” argument for economic development. The idea that gays or immigrants can create economic growth out of thin air is a bit of a stretch. Opportunity either exists in a place or it doesn’t. If the territory is barren nothing will grow. And this isn’t a liberal argument about a particular kind of “diversity” with all the political baggage that now comes with that term. I’m personally very keen on the power of Mormons to transform a town since they’re a magnificently well organized and productive group. It’s a big country. There’s room for everyone. There are many places where all the right conditions are present but where middle-of-the-road people simply don’t leverage them to good purpose for all sorts of cultural reasons – inertia and a lack of imagination top the list. It’s that vacuum that subcultures often fill where new possibilities can emerge. Be open. You might be pleasantly surprised at the results.