January 20, 2004

Manufactured Bohemia

Where are the cool places today? This question has come up a number of times, but most recently in a conversation I had with Jesse, Rebecca and Peter back in October. For Bohemians there have been many cities that serve as the icons of their age, where "interesting stuff" was happening: Picasso's Paris, Weimar Berlin, Beatnick San Francisco, Swinging London, Post-Wall Berlin, dotcom San Francisco. What's the cool city today? San Francisco currently seems spent (for the purposes of this discussion—there was disagreement around the table) and there must (it's felt) be the next big thing, but where is it? Where is that cheap/creative/liberal/exciting cultural space where people stay up late talking big ideas and "subverting the dominant paradigm"? Could it really be....Portland?

We didn't know and I wonder if that place can exist anymore. The dynamics that led to many of those places were caused by influx into inexpensive urban centers, often emptied because of war or shifting population dynamics. There are few inexpensive urban environments left as cities have gotten popular again, victims of a reversal of the mid-century suburban exodus, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the general rise of the standard of living among the middle class in Europe in the 90s. Certainly the "good ones"--the traditional centers of Western culture--are now too expensive to live in for someone trying to make a living selling abstract watercolors on the street to tourists (I'm using that as a caricature of Bohemian life, but it's the romantic ideal that fuels this desire for a cool place, so I think it's appropriate).

We're designers and designers are second-wave Bohemians. Designers come after artists, who come after musicians, who come after junkies, who generally live in transitional neighborhoods of first-generation immigrants, who have lived in neighborhoods abandoned by the middle class as they moved to the suburbs in the middle of the century. Or at least that's a rough approximation of the pattern I've seen in many places. It's a fascinatingly aspirational cycle, with each cycle aspiring to be a bit like the one before it (the exception is junkies, whose horizon is so short that their aspirations don't generally extend to examining the lifestyle of those who came before). As designers, we have the dubious honor of being the first group of people with stable incomes to move into a neighborhood, and therefore the ones who actually represent the beginning of the end.

But now the cycle has almost run it course, at least as far as coastal urban centers in the go. Designers are everywhere. Sure LA's downtown is still primed for gentrification, Philadelphia and DC are still only patchily gentrified, but almost everywhere else I've been, both in the US and Europe, urban renewal has actually happened. So where is the next generation of disaffected creative youth aspiring to go? Where is the 1966 Haight-Ashbury of 2010? The current trend is to inhabit second-tier cultural centers, places where there is not a history of being a major cultural center. So Portland and Pittsburgh are acquiring their share of boho life, even Detroit is experiencing a revival of sorts, but it's seeming like a major migration has ended. Now all of the "prime" places have been taken by those with six-figure paychecks and it's up to the secondaries to pick up the, er, slack. ;-)

So what happens next? I'm betting that the movement moves back out to the suburbs. New Urbanism, which has been simmering for 20 years, seems to be gathering steam and, frankly, it's not because people are suddenly realizing how much more sense it makes; I think developers are realizing that there's a growing market for a new suburban Bohemia, a brand new, prefab, simulated, yet comfortable environment that symbolically links the values of the urban creative class to the manufacturing technology of the burbs. There are already loft-style developments in non-urban settings and I've heard of a suburban development that attempts to mimic the loft-style architecture of downtown, which—at least in San Francisco—is already a copy of actual loft spaces. From there it's only a matter of time before someone starts building suburban developments that refer to the symbolism of artist colonies in the same way that retirement villages refer to outdoor living. Kerouac Court, here we come!

[Or, at least, that's was my thinking about the US and Europe back in October when I wrote this. Since then I've read a bunch about the growing middle class in China and I think that the real next cool place is going to be there. The educated classes are becoming sufficiently affluent to be able to have the time to create a Bohemian intellectual environment, an artist/rebel/philosopher class. I wouldn't be surprised if there was already an expat community in Shanghai and Beijing.]

[2/19 addendum. Jon Logan, a DJ living in Shanghai, sent the following in response to this post:

in fact, shanghai already is ostensibly the hot hip
city of the new century... or, perhaps, was. the crest peaked in
2002, they say. real estate is skyrocketing and people are falling
all over themselves to get rich. car ownership is exploding and the
advertising industry is the biggest growing business here. mobs of
money is moving from hongkong into the mainland by way of shanghai.

kind of a bittersweet situation, actually, seeing this relentless
drive for development.

there's a *huge* expat community here. funny thing is, most people
dont know that china slipped out of its mao-suit wearing,
chickens-in-the-street guise fifteen years ago. while america was
busy downplaying china as backwards communist, they were busy
converting to 100% capitalism in everything but the name.

shanghai is like any other international city now; there are
starbucks on nearly every corner and i swear something like 90% of
the population has cell phones. the cool thing though is that in all
the alleys and side streets, you can find the old china, which means
friendly old folks who've never talked to a westerner, or bowls of
steaming fresh noodles for 25 cents.

cool place. feels like san francisco a la 1999, except its the full
spectrum: everything is booming here, not just the IT industry.

some sites to prove my point:

Thanks, Jon!]

Posted by mikek at January 20, 2004 10:50 PM | TrackBack

Berlin is still the cool city, at least in Europe. It's so cheap that you can live there as an artist and not need a lot of money. Plus there's so much empty retail, warehouse, and other space that it's a bargain to rent somewhere for a gallery show, dance party, or whatever you and your friends want to do.

If they can lick the 20% unemployment, and figure out how to sustain a city that survived on two governments' subsidies for decades, they'll be set.

Posted by: andrew at January 22, 2004 06:43 PM

brilliant post. i'm not sure bohemia transfers well to new suburbanism. you can slap a front porch onto a tract home and even build back alleys, but put a barefoot performance artist on the sidewalk and someone's calling the cops.

Posted by: joe newman at January 25, 2004 09:33 PM

Kerouac Court, here we come!

Nah, we're gonna call our current exo-urbanist projects "Beer Lane" and "Gin Alley."

Just blogged on a similar topic here about a Richard Florida article on the export of creative jobs, if not the exodus of some of the creative class itself. Way-ginchy digs may be the last of our worries.

Great post, Mike. I might mumble some on this later today.


Posted by: fouroboros at January 28, 2004 06:41 AM

oops....dropped html link: http://www.alchemysite.com/blog/fouroboros.html

Posted by: fouroboros at January 28, 2004 06:48 AM

A year or so ago I went to a wedding in Memphis and I couldn't believe the deserted downtown, the magnificent buildings, the for sale for rent for lease signs. Somebody start something! Hurry! And bring all those asphalt-encircled suburbanites with you!

Posted by: Caterina at January 29, 2004 06:24 PM

On that note, closer to home (well, my home ;-) is Vallejo, which is a 40 minute ferry ride, or a 30 minute drive from San Francisco. It has many of the hallmarks of "ready to gentrify": it's old, it's still relatively inexpensive, it's historically notrivial and it has a supply of medium industrial space (on and near the former Mare Island naval station). It's also warmer than San Francisco. Here's a link to some history: http://www.vallejomuseum.org/vallejo_history.htm
Now, that said, when Molly and I visited there recently on a near-home tourist jaunt, it didn't have the feel of a place that would be gentrified by Bohemia. It was more like a sleeping Sausalito than Brooklyn in disguise.

Posted by: Mike at January 29, 2004 07:58 PM

Berlin and Barcelona. In Aorth America, Montreal and Mexico City, the energy is still there, just no place near SF or Portland... Actually downtown/chinatown LA has way way more of a creative pulse then SF at the moment...

Posted by: Abe at February 2, 2004 04:39 AM

I've heard about LA's Chinatown having been occupied by the art world recently. That's interesting and, I believe, may be the beginning of the gentrification of downtown LA that has been so long in arriving (it happened to Pasadena when I lived there in the early 90s and I fully expected it to happen downtown by now, but it hasn't yet).

As for Berlin, here's what I wrote in an email to Andrew last week: yes, Berlin is still cool, but the coolness is moving further and further out from the center. (I'm defining "cool" as "cheap to live in for artists and the center of cutting-edge cultural activity"). My theory is that it'll have run its course of Bohemian attractiveness in 3-5 years and will have settled down as a cultral distillation center--for lack of a better term--rather than a Bohemian cultural breeding ground.

As for Montreal and Mexico City, they're on my list of cities to visit in the near future (as is Shanghai).

Posted by: Mike at February 2, 2004 09:05 AM

oh but you didn't mention the internet. an aggregator of kindred and dissonant souls debating and mulling over ideas...it too is a place, no? anyways, what a goose chase!

yuppies --> designers --> artists --> musicians --> junkies --> 1st generation immigrants --> suburbanites --> yuppies --> designers

anyways, i don't think bohemia is about lofts or cool abandoned buildings or cheap rent...i think it is a state of mind...a willingness to experience things outside your general realm of knowledge and comfort level...gaining a different perspective, empathy...that is going to be a different place for different people (for example, moving to the inner city is not likely to be an enlightening experience for me as I come from the inner city and could count the number of caucasians on both hands at my high school of 3000...suburbia on the other hand is a far more exotic place...though for now, I am resisting.)

Posted by: May at February 5, 2004 01:11 AM

Sadly, I think that on some level Bohemia is ALL about "lofts or cool abandoned buildings or cheap rent." That's part of what makes it an aspirational lifestyle. Yes, some people do load furniture during the day so they can spend their nights writing poetry, but most of the people who live that way only want to do that, but rarely accomplish it and instead have mundane lives that look exciting for the next generation of people who end up living in this neighborhoods.

Maybe that's too cynical of me, but it seems to be the case in a lot of places I've visited.

And, yes, there's no denying that the Internet is a place, maybe THE place for the kind of idea exchange that used to happen only in specific physical environments, but you can't get a get a cup of tea and watch the river on the Internet.

Posted by: Mike at February 5, 2004 10:33 AM

Hello folks nice blog youre running

Posted by: lolita at January 19, 2005 04:37 PM
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