Neo-bohemian rhapsody

Neighborhoods like Chicago's Wicker Park and San Francisco's Mission District -- where I lived in the '80s -- once teemed with hipsters living cheaply and making art. But should we be nostalgic for a life we ourselves transformed?

Topics: Nonfiction, David Brooks, Books,

Neo-bohemian rhapsody

In the fall of 1984, when I was a few months out of college, I moved out of my dad’s suburban house (after discovering one of his graduate students in his bed) and into an enormous, ramshackle apartment in San Francisco’s Mission District with a bunch of people I barely knew. I’d hardly ever been to the neighborhood before, but it was obvious that people more or less like me — middle-class kids from suburbia who wanted to be musicians or writers or artists — were starting to congregate there.

In fact, I was by no means an early arrival. It took me a while to figure out that our scummy apartment was a quasi-legendary crash pad well known to a certain self-selected rock ‘n’ roll circle. (Bono once dropped by for a visit, and the bass player for the Go-Go’s stayed with us for a few weeks.) One of my roommates was the singer for Wire Train, a moderately successful ’80s college-radio band that still has a cult following. (Their commercial high point came when they landed a song on the soundtrack of the 1991 Keanu Reeves surfing film “Point Break.”)

Another roommate and good friend had been the leader of an arty punk band called B Team, and went on to found a much less dour pop-rock outfit called the Naked Into, which really should have made it big but never did. (I honestly think it may have been that name, Todd.) We also got mail for various former occupants well known in the insular San Francisco hipster scene, including members of the classic punk band Flipper and the machine-performance troupe Survival Research Laboratories; as I recall, the Rhode Island student-loan authorities were especially frequent correspondents.

As distinctive, even magical, as that apartment and the neighborhood around it seemed to me at the time, they weren’t. The Mission District exuded the combination of “grit and glamour” that sociologist Richard Lloyd cites as crucial in the creation of the urban culture ghettos he dubs “neo-bohemia,” but it was just one of many such inner-city districts being colonized in that decade by young wannabe rebels with ambiguous motivations. My roommates and I were participating in a ritual more than a century old, in which the children of the bourgeoisie live out a largely symbolic rejection of their own class and capitalist society as a whole. But as much as we were connected to generations of bohemians past, from the students of 19th century Paris to the beatniks of 1950s Greenwich Village, Lloyd would also argue that we stood on the cusp of something new.



Lloyd’s groundbreaking study, “Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City,” focuses on Wicker Park, on the west side of Chicago, which in the early ’90s brought the indie-rock world Liz Phair and the bands Urge Overkill and Veruca Salt. It tells a compelling story of one idiosyncratic neighborhood and how it changed; after reading Lloyd’s analysis of how the service economy of Wicker Park actually functions, you’ll never undertip the multiply pierced waitress at your favorite bar again. It also connects Wicker Park to a larger narrative of the American urban economy, which over the course of 40 years or so has shifted its focus from heavy industry to image production and high-end consumption, a process in which hipster neighborhoods like the Mission and Wicker Park have been crucial.

Lloyd could just as well be writing about Manhattan’s Lower East Side (in many respects the ur-neo-bohemia), Capitol Hill in Seattle, Silver Lake in Los Angeles, Deep Ellum in Dallas or similar neighborhoods in cities from Atlanta to Boston, Madison, Wis., Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas. If you came of age in any American city in the ’80s or ’90s, chances are you did your time — as a resident, a visitor or a service-sector employee — in neo-bohemia yourself. There are even mini-neo-bohemias in places too small or remote to support a whole neighborhood. I found the one in Utica, N.Y., a few years ago: a single block in an otherwise decrepit downtown strip that boasted an excellent used-clothing store right next to a Goth-inflected comic book and record store (right next to a kitschy but completely unironic “Catholic goods” store). Across the street was what I presume to be Utica’s only gay bar.

The Mission District wasn’t much different from most neighborhoods of this kind, although it was heir to San Francisco’s distinctive tradition of aimless bohemianism. It featured a volatile mixture of populations, cheap rent and a lot of places to hang out where the pressures of ordinary American commerce — not to mention the Protestant work ethic — seemed almost wholly absent. (This will seem hilarious to anyone who lives in the Mission or any other San Francisco neighborhood today, but the total rent for our apartment — which could comfortably sleep four or five people — was $550.) There were longtime Mexican-American families, new immigrants from Guatemala and El Salvador, gays and lesbians, and middle-class exiles like my roommates and me.

You could still make out traces of the neighborhood’s ethnic past in the Irish bars scattered along Mission Street or the Scandinavian restaurants on the neighborhood’s northern fringe (where I lived). The burrito parlors around the corner of 16th and Valencia offered the city’s best cheap food (and still do). That block also boasted the Roxie Cinema, one of America’s finest art-house theaters; the cavernous Cafe Picaro, lined with miscellaneous books and mediocre neighborhood art, where you could lurk all day for the price of a cappuccino; several secondhand bookstores and a truly terrible greasy-spoon restaurant whose name I forget, where my friends and I ate far too many late breakfasts. (If you got there before 11 a.m., you were strictly a poseur. If you got there after noon, you might not get in.)

When I moved in, that corner also featured a fenced-in gaping hole, where a landlord was rumored to have burned down his residential hotel, either for the insurance money or to make way for expensive yuppie condos or both. For all I know that was urban myth, but the point — which Lloyd’s book develops beautifully — is that from its inception neo-bohemia is plagued by paranoia, nostalgia and status anxiety. The neighborhood “we” have (very recently) settled, and in so doing profoundly changed, is at any moment about to be invaded and presumably ruined by “them,” generally meaning affluent professionals who will make the contradictions of “our” presence even more obvious than they are already. Lloyd quotes anthropologist Renato Rosaldo on what the latter calls “imperialist nostalgia,” which occurs “where people mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed.”

Hypocritical as it may be, this paranoia and nostalgia are not completely without foundation. The Mission District did change immensely in the 11 years I lived there, in much the same way that Lloyd saw Wicker Park transformed from “a relatively obscure and depopulated barrio into a celebrated center of hip urban culture.” Rents shot up, the population of the neighborhood shifted dramatically, and many of the funkier first-wave coffee shops and thrift stores gave way to trendy boutiques and upscale restaurants. (Even the beloved Picaro has been reincarnated as a “tapas bar.”) By the time I moved out in 1995, I could no longer afford an apartment in the North Mission on an alt-weekly editor’s salary. (There were years in the ’80s, on the other hand, when I survived on less than $10,000.)

As Lloyd puts it, this kind of transformation is customarily understood as an inevitable ecological succession, in which artists, musicians and the like serve as “the vanguard of a distinctive sort of gentrification.” They redeem underused buildings and spaces, make the neighborhood attractive as a nightlife destination, and then give way to the dreaded yuppie invaders, who max out the neighborhood’s economic potential, support numerous thriving businesses — and also make the neighborhood more “normal,” more homogeneous, more commodified. As every New Yorker knows, there are no artists left in SoHo lofts except long-established and wealthy ones, and most young rock musicians who would have inhabited the East Village a generation ago can only afford to live in Brooklyn or New Jersey.

How you view this kind of change is an inherently subjective question, and in my personal case the problem is not just imperial nostalgia but also the distorted lens through which we view our own youth. But here’s how it felt: For the first three or four years I lived in the Mission, nobody cared about us. We wore our retro, faux-adult clothes, went to see depressing bands in dingy nightclubs, drank our martinis and our French roast coffee (and I’m really sorry about the martinis, people), listened to our weird late-night radio broadcasts and sat through our David Cronenberg and George Romero and Godzilla movie marathons, while the rest of civilization pretty much ignored us.

In the go-go society of the mid-’80s, we had almost no consumption power, and few outsiders found our neighborhood desirable or interesting. Remember, this was an age before “The Real World,” before Nirvana, before “High Fidelity.” (Courtney Love was the friend of a girlfriend of a friend, but all I can remember about her is an Amish skirt.) MTV played videos by Ratt and A Flock of Seagulls. I suppose we felt superior to the yuppies of Pacific Heights and the rest of Ronald Reagan’s hopelessly bourgeois America, but the truth was that bourgeois America barely knew we were there.

I’m not suggesting this was a golden age. Like most of my friends, I worked at crappy, dead-end jobs and had no medical insurance, while my desk drawer filled up with unpublished poems. I didn’t go to the dentist for more than 10 years. The lifestyle of semivoluntary post-collegiate poverty, and associated irresponsibility, can be pretty dire: One of my roommates once stole toilet paper from a bar across the street because we didn’t have any, and another roommate once threw the dirty dishes out the window onto a neighbor’s roof because they were starting to stink. I don’t remember ever cooking anything in that kitchen that wasn’t spaghetti, canned soup or scrambled eggs.

Young bohemians have been living that way since the term was coined by Henri Murger in 1840s Paris, and I’m sure they still do. But the obscurity and economic marginality we enjoyed (if that’s the right word) on Valencia Street in 1985 are no longer available, or at least not in the same way. Whether we knew it or not, and of course we didn’t, neighborhoods like ours were about to play an important, if paradoxical, role in the structural transformation of global capitalism. This is the transition Lloyd documents on the ground in Wicker Park, and his central insight — that neo-bohemia isn’t just a zone of leisure consumption but also the locus for a new style of capitalist production — is both compelling and original.

Much has been written about the economic and social transformation of America’s cities in the ’80s and ’90s, often considered under the unhelpful catch-all rubric of “gentrification.” This stuff mainly cuts in two directions: neo-Marxist diatribes about how the force of capital is dividing the city into two zones, one belonging to a homogenized, yupscale Starbucks culture and the other a virtual prison for the dark-skinned poor; and sweeping neoliberal treatises arguing that the longtime contradictions between art and capital have been healed by a benign meritocratic culture of “bourgeois bohemians,” or by a “new creative class” that blends 1960s nonconformity with 1980s entrepreneurial ambition. Both of these arguments are transparently ideological, and Lloyd considers both while avoiding the pitfalls of either. Like most sociologists, he has one foot in the stream of post-Marxian theory, and his prose suffers from occasional outbreaks of academic jargon. But his goal is neither to praise nor to bury neo-bohemia, but rather to unpack and analyze its multifarious contradictions and possibilities.

I suspect it takes a genuine neo-bohemian to perform this task, and for all his skepticism and independence of thought, Lloyd is clearly a member of the tribe he is investigating. He weaves his own personal Wicker Park experiences into “Neo-Bohemia” with a grace few academics can manage; he writes fondly of his first expedition into the neighborhood in 1993 (to see a band called Lost Pilgrims at Phyllis’ Musical Inn on Division Street), and admits late in the book, “I myself experience almost unbearable bouts of nostalgia on return to the neighborhood streets.”

Basically, the problem with David Brooks and Richard Florida, the twin Jedi knights of the neoliberal end-of-ideology thesis cited above, is that they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Lloyd puts it a little more politely, but that’s what he thinks. Both Brooks’ “Bobos in Paradise” and Florida’s “The Rise of the New Creative Class” now read like utopian manifestoes of the late-Clinton-era economic boom, seeking to justify the sudden ascendancy of an unstarched managerial class that combined software-IPO millions with a taste for fresh-baked baguettes, extra-virgin olive oil and Velvet Underground reissue CDs. Among other things, both seem to argue that in this brave new world old-fashioned politics is no longer important, and American government will henceforth work from the middle, combining social liberalism with fiscal conservatism. Tell it to Judge Alito, guys.

Brooks and Florida were investigating a real phenomenon; there is no question that over the last 30 years or so mainstream American taste has become substantially infected by Euro-American elite influences, in one direction, and bohemian underground influences in the other. But their deductions about this are based primarily on sweeping ZIP code generalities and reprocessed infobytes from the mainstream media, rather than original research or reporting. Florida apparently bases his conclusion that artists are no longer alienated from society, Lloyd says, on the fact that Bruce Springsteen and Madonna work out at the gym. His “creative class” category is defined so broadly that it encompasses virtually the entire professional sector of the American workforce (some 38 million people, he says), including doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists and engineers.

Essentially, Lloyd argues that Brooks’ “Bobos” and Florida’s “creative class” are valuable pop-sociology concepts, but have almost nothing to say about how and why a neighborhood like Wicker Park exploded over the course of the ’90s, or how and why its inhabitants combine forceful anti-establishment views with a newly instrumental economic role. Traditional urban sociology, he suggests, isn’t much better. Old-line sociologists of the “Chicago school” focused on American cities as tightly focused centers of industrial production and highly segmented social universes; their successors have become hypnotized by the sprawling cities of the Sun Belt, which seemed to provide a decentered, postmodern model for urbanism.

As Lloyd explains, the reinvention of Chicago — formerly Carl Sandburg’s “city of big shoulders” — as a center for financial services, advertising, tourism and other intangible industries, and the emergence of a neighborhood like Wicker Park as a player in that economy, suggest that older cities remain surprisingly vibrant and flexible entities. Indeed, while it was widely presumed that the growth of America’s “new economy” would mostly occur in suburban office parks and Microsoft-style “edge city” compounds, one could argue that the real centers of innovation in graphic design, video effects, advertising and related fields are found in or near the kinds of neo-bohemian urban neighborhoods Lloyd describes.

Lloyd is certainly not the first to notice that there is a connection between the existence of neighborhoods like Wicker Park or the Mission that lure large numbers of young people with artistic talents and ambitions and an “increased concentration of high-tech enterprise.” Brooks and Florida both saw this as well, but Lloyd’s understanding of the relationship is far more nuanced. One should not conclude from this, he says, that young artists have abandoned all pretense of bohemian distinction and uncritically embraced capitalism. Indeed, his research in Wicker Park suggests that anti-establishment and especially anti-corporate sentiment is as strong as ever. MTV’s filming of a “Real World” series in Wicker Park was greeted with angry street protests, and the inevitable opening of a Starbucks in 2001 occasioned widespread laments that the neighborhood was “over.”

If anything, the anti-corporate fervor of Wicker Park’s bohemians (which, as Lloyd points out, imagines a paternalistic, regimented vision of the American corporation that no longer conforms to reality) has become more crucial to their identity as their neighborhood has become more tightly bound to Chicago’s economy. On the one hand, Lloyd finds significant ideological continuity between past and present bohemians; the “cumulative imagery of the artist in the city” remains important in Wicker Park. On the other, “the new bohemia of the late 20th and early 21st centuries plays a necessarily novel role in enhancing the interests of postindustrial capitalist enterprises, especially property speculation  entertainment provision, and new media production.”

Starting around 1990, give or take, mainstream society’s relationship to these new artists’ ghettos began to change rapidly. As Lloyd details in his fascinating interviews with longtime Wicker Parkers, in the late ’80s the neighborhood remained a dilapidated, crime-ridden zone divided between Mexican immigrants and an older generation of Polish-American residents. The newly arriving artists often affected “street” mannerisms, dabbling in hard drugs and often fetishizing the hardscrabble lives of working-class inhabitants, even as they began to change the neighborhood’s character and reshape its nightlife, opening cafes and bookstores and taking over the old Polish bars.

As Lloyd acerbically puts it, this “aesthetic relationship to urban vice” is a key element in neo-bohemia, as well as an obviously hypocritical one. Anyone who has done time in these neighborhoods will appreciate his dissection of the racial fetishism, misogyny and masculine bravado that characterize Wicker Park’s pioneers. To a person, they tell him they lament the passing of the old neighborhood and dislike the new “yuppies” in their midst, although by almost any cultural measure these neo-bohemians have far more in common with young middle-class professionals than with the poor Mexicans and Eastern Europeans both groups had displaced.

But the economic marginality of neo-bohemia didn’t last long, which is after all what makes it “neo.” (Lloyd makes the often neglected point that older bohemian districts like Greenwich Village were viewed with disdain by America’s puritanical establishment, and to “slum” there was a sign of moral dubiousness.) By the early ’90s — and somewhat earlier in environments like San Francisco and New York — these neighborhoods had become, Lloyd writes, “distinctly themed spaces of consumption fawningly advertised by the mainstream media.” Exactly why magazines and newspapers became so universally entranced by the hipness factor of the East Village or the Mission or Wicker Park is perhaps a subject for another book, but it’s clearly not unconnected to America’s decade-late discovery of punk rock, in the personage of Kurt Cobain.

Wicker Park, as Lloyd tells the tale, was a relatively late neo-bohemia; no sooner was the “scene” created than it was discovered. He recounts an amusing anecdote about several neighborhood locals, some of whom had lived there as briefly as six months, deriding the crowd of “708ers” (invaders from the northern suburbs) outside a Veruca Salt show. Obviously, Lloyd’s friends don’t really know where the Veruca Salt fans live; given the rising rents in Wicker Park, many of them may live there. But “the performance of cultural distinction,” that is, the ability to define oneself as a member of a select in-group, has always been important to bohemians, neo- or not.

Contrary to the way some of its residents feel (to the way I felt in 1995, for instance) neo-bohemia is not “over” when it has been discovered by hordes of Oxford-clad yuppies and blathering newspaper reporters. In fact, it’s only coming into its own. Neighborhoods like the Mission and Wicker Park (and even older bohemias like Greenwich Village or San Francisco’s North Beach) retain much of their power as bohemian signifiers even when they’ve become too expensive for many young artists. This is just another of the numerous contradictions they embody; to be neo-bohemian at all, they must remain superficially hospitable to anti-establishment values while becoming both a “bohemian-themed entertainment zone” and a site of postindustrial production.

Some of Lloyd’s best work comes in his dissection of Wicker Park’s economy, which depends largely on its hip, young residents either working long hours as bartenders and wait staff or working long hours in various digital-design occupations. This is fascinating, original and deeply humane sociology at its finest; he demonstrates that in the name of freedom, young people working in allegedly relaxed service-sector jobs waste years of their lives in a whirl of drugs, alcohol and deceptively low wages. It’s a classic example of a circular economy: While a bartender at an upscale Wicker Park club may earn $250 or more in tips from a shift, he or she is likely to go right out to an after-hours club with friends and spend it all on lavish tips to another bartender on the circuit. To anyone who’s ever worked in the nightlife business, all this will ring sad but true.

Lloyd also explores how Wicker Park’s digital-design sector came into existence, as a sort of hipster offshoot of Chicago’s downtown advertising firms. (San Francisco’s neo-bohemian fringe also helped fuel many “new-economy” businesses, most of them infamously short-lived. The publication you are now reading could be viewed as a survivor of the early neo-bohemian era.) Companies that began by designing Web sites for artists, or fliers for neighborhood hip-hop shows, became avatars of the street-level authenticity now so desirable to multinational marketers.

One of Wicker Park’s hippest graphic-design shops designed a recruitment campaign for Nike at just about the time the company’s brutal East Asian sweatshop practices were being revealed, which occasions one of Lloyd’s most important sections. Torn between a commitment to bohemian values and a contemporary ethic of success, the designer Lloyd interviews can only mouth generalities: “OK, there’s more to these companies than what they’re going to tell you. I think there was a certain level of naiveti that was going on for us.” As another one says, Nike may be controversial, but it also allows “artists to do cool stuff and pay them lots of money to do it.”

Of course these designers in a funky loft in a onetime barrio in Chicago’s urban core are not responsible for “the new spatial links and displacements of contemporary capitalism,” as Lloyd puts it. It’s undoubtedly cheaper for Nike to subcontract to a firm like theirs than to a major ad agency, and more to the point, their neo-bohemian heritage and artsy, “edgy” design aesthetic lends Nike something it can’t easily buy elsewhere. Neighborhoods like Wicker Park must remain linked to the bohemian past even as they become image factories producing goods (including the manufactured entity that is the neighborhood itself) for “the global swirl of commodified signifiers.”

“The traditions of dead generations,” Lloyd writes, in the closest he ever comes to a moment of judgment, “are what make it possible to understand oneself as resisting the stultification and injustice of corporate capitalism while working 12-hour days making recruitment ads for Nike.”

Neo-bohemia is always contaminated by nostalgia, by the belief that the scene is over, and has been over since the yuppies moved in, the old bookstore closed, the Starbucks opened and so on. Lloyd writes that bohemia dies a thousand deaths and is always reborn, and that “bohemia is always already over because it always already falls short of its adherents’ fantasies of social autonomy.” Social autonomy would mean both artistic freedom and cultural power. In the Mission District of the 1980s, we enjoyed a species of freedom, but with it came powerlessness, even meaninglessness. The Wicker Park bohemians of the ’90s, in Lloyd’s account, gained cultural significance and a kind of power, but lost much of their freedom. In a capitalist economy — or any other kind one can imagine — bohemians don’t get to have both.

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