New York Jones-in

by Liz Garone

San Francisco is home to artsy SOMA, its own copycat version of Soho. While SOMA (South of Market) may have lofts and warehouse galleries, it contains little art of real substance. San Francisco is also home to its own film scene. But no matter how much hype or fore-talk, films don't sell out, not even on opening night.

Reminders of New York can be found in every corner of the city. And with these reminders are a number of ex-New York artists who have decided for various reasons -- not always the most poetic or virtuous -- to make the long trek west. Despite their "getting the hell out of New York," they miss it, they crave it, they just can't get it out of their systems no matter how hard they try.

Photographer Lesley Frowick felt the need to escape from New York before it was too late. Fiction writer Mike DeCapite left less than willingly -- a girlfriend, whom he didn't want to lose and who had a Bay Area job, was the only factor compelling enough to force him to uproot and leave "the center of the cultural universe" after five years. Eric Kroll, a fetish photographer, left simply because it was time.

"You have to be old enough to appreciate the place," says Kroll, who was 47 when he left New York two years ago, "but not too old to constantly have to watch your back." With the work he was doing, Kroll would often have to leave his midtown studio at 3 a.m. "It was too dangerous," he says, "to look too tired on the street." For Kroll, getting out of New York meant finding "different people and different light" for his non-exploitative, non-confrontational erotica. "I didn't want to repeat myself," he tells me from his Victorian, sun-soaked, Pacific Heights studio. "You can get burned out on New York."

For DeCapite, the author, the "burnout, the rawness" of New York, the "feeling vulnerable all the time and needing to erect psychic defenses," are some of the telling characteristics that separate it from any other place in the world, especially somewhere like Northern California, which, in his book, misses some of the essential elements needed for good writing. "San Francisco is like Prozac," says DeCapite. "Too much mildness. Very lax. Bland." Even Los Angeles, DeCapite says, would be better -- but still not New York. L.A. offers him the same plethora of "crazy juxtapositions" he constantly experienced in New York: "people, architecture, scenes, all jammed up against each other." Still, L.A. pales in comparison, says DeCapite. "It's all artificial. What New York has is the rawness to it."

"In a way, New York sort of spoils you for any other city," he says. DeCapite spent five years in New York, a writing locale he would return to in a minute. "It's a rush," he says. "There isn't anything to compare. You feel like you're in a movie there."

For Lesley Frowick, a photographer and a niece of the late designer Halston, that "rush" is what caused her to hightail it out of New York six years ago, and plant herself in St. Helena, an hour's drive north of San Francisco. She calls it "Hicksville."

"I always wanted to live in New York," she says from her studio, which is housed in a barn on the 1.3 acres she shares with her husband, photographer Peter Stein, and their toddler,. "New York definitely has its own pulse to it. But it's a pulse that never ends. It's constant. It's 24-hours-a-day. It meant putting on my combat boots and getting ready to go out," she remembers not so fondly. "For me personally, I couldn't do it. It was too tough. You had to be hard all the time." Despite talking of "having" to get out of New York, Frowick still has a last tie to New York. She keeps an apartment in Manhattan.

Whatever their reasons, no matter how much they trash the city and its grittiness and pain, these artists -- and it seems, any artists who have done time in New York -- can't rid themselves of it. It's like that small scar from the leg operation I had five years ago. No matter the excessive amounts of aloe vera and vitamin E cream, its image remains, permanently etched on my body. Days will go by, and I don't notice it. The weather warms; I decide to wear a skirt, and there it is, protruding from my skin, reminding me of the place I once was.

Independent filmmaker AK spent years dreaming about New York. Seeing Star Wars at age nine, he knew that he wanted to make films. By freshman year in high school, he knew that they were not the kind of films made in Los Angeles but the kind exclusive to New York: films with a particular edge to them. "In New York, film is an art form mixed up with everything else that's going on around it," AK says. "Films there are less commercial, more artistic, grittier, grainier. New York is trying to look at life through a less gauzy lens."

Even New York actors, he says, are more interested in the craft of acting. "Actors make it as actors. They love acting," AK says of those who remain faithful to the east coast. "They're going to L.A. to make it in movies and commercials," he says of the others, the L.A. crowd. "It's a totally different group of people."

Despite his own decision to return to San Francisco after NYU film school, AK says New York will remain with him eternally. "I definitely have it in me," he says from his two-bedroom, North Beach apartment. "I've taken it back with me."