A couple of days ago I visited some friends, all artistically-inclined, who live in a converted factory in a remote corner of Brooklyn. They have a tree house and no bathroom door and someone plays the lute. It was all very countercultural and very bohemian and Vogue would have adored it. I was reminded of this as I read through this month's Vanity Fair, in which Christopher Hitchens waxes nostalgic about his days as a youngish Trotskyite living la vie boheme in Soho and the Village. The piece is a meditation on the vanishing world of bohemia, and a call to save the Greenwich Village block (Seventh/Greenwich/11th/13th) threatened by a massive and soulless hospital building. "Every successful society needs its Bohemia, a haven for the artists, exiles, and misfits who regenerate the culture," claims the piece.
Now, it's no secret that Hitch phones it in a lot of the time (drink in hand, one assumes.) And it's also absolutely true that the new building will almost surely be a monstrosity that wantonly destroys old, attractive blocks and succeeds in further eroding the character of the city; the Apple could stand to profit by London and San Francisco's more civic-minded example in this regard. But to claim such destruction has one whit to do with the preservation of New York's bohemia - or anything other than nostalgia - is disingenuous in the extreme. Not only is the West Village one of the most expensive hoods in a very pricey burg - no secret there - but New York hasn't played host to a real bohemia for decades.
I dig the idea of the Boho west village as much as anyone: who doesn't like the idea of Edna Saint Vincent Millay and Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas leaping around in romantic squalor, tripping over each other on cobblestone streets? It's so appealing precisely because it doesn't exist anymore. Even those well-preserved Greenwich Village streets in no danger of demolition are now thronged with Marc Jacobs stores, the former tenements selling for millions, the White Horse Tavern and Cafe Wha? thronged with NYU boys swilling Heineken. I really don't know what Hitch is on about.
More to the point, New York bohemia itself is a lost world. The whole point of bohemians is that they were a true counterculture (and if you like this stuff, I really rec Among The Bohemians by Virginia Nicholson.) Their ethos depended upon butting against a status quo that was entrenched and rigid in a way we can't imagine. It was actually a societal risk in the 19th and early 20th centuries to pursue a career in the arts, to say nothing of a financial one. Anyone living in New York today does not have the luxury of poverty; you have to be somewhere cheaper. If you can manage it on a starving artists's ducats, you're not gonna be anywhere picturesque, that's for sure: most of the artists I know don't fancy themselves as denizens of Staten Island.
Obviously you can still make art here. And you can certainly be poor. But the classic bohemian ethos has been embraced by the mainstream, which kinda ruins everything. Books like The Bohemian Manifesto and Simon Doonan's latest, Eccentric Glamour, break down bohemian lifestyle into an easy-to-replicate formula, describing the various types and subgenres upon whom to model oneself ("The Beat", the "Simone de Beauvoir" etc.) In the current Lucky Jean Godrey-June rhapsodizes about the 60s boho influence on fashion. While Bohemianism always had an aesthetic element to it, and a good deal of silliness, too, it was still about forging paths, backed by (often vague) principles.
My friends' space is neat. I think one of them even has parents somewhere in the Midwest who disapprove of his lifestyle; the others only wish they did. But they are hyper-aware of the lifestyle they are replicating, the bohemians who came before, and the fact that one can't help, today, but have something of a safety net. That building's going to go up, and that makes me sad. But the fact that it feels like there is so little left to be discovered - that we can only reinvent - makes me sadder.
Last Call, Bohemia [Vanity Fair]