Last Call, Bohemia?

Greenwich Village, 1960

Will New York City recognize the importance of “Bohemia” in societies, including its own?

In a July ’08 Vanity Fair article titled “Last Call, Bohemia”, Christopher Hitchens observes how London, Paris and San Francisco — renowned for neighborhoods which foster climates of creativity and culture, havens for “the artists, exiles and misfits” — have “learned” and adopted a hands off policy towards building un-affordable, big box monstrosities in these areas.

What will it take for real-estate-obsessed New York City to do the same?

Hitchens’ focuses on these havens as places for people who “regenerate the culture.”  He targets the St. Vincents/Rudin Management “plan” to remake a large swath of the West Village for “luxury housing” and a new medical building as exactly the type development that should be stopped. He explores what it means not just the Village, but for the City at large.

Hitchens writes:

It isn’t possible to quantify the extent to which society and culture are indebted to Bohemia. In every age in every successful country, it has been important that at least a small part of the cityscape is not dominated by bankers, developers, chain stores, generic restaurants, and railway terminals.

This little quarter should instead be the preserve of—in no special order—insomniacs and restaurants and bars that never close; bibliophiles and the little stores and stalls that cater to them; alcoholics and addicts and deviants and the proprietors who understand them; aspirant painters and musicians and the modest studios that can accommodate them; ladies of easy virtue and the men who require them; misfits and poets from foreign shores and exiles from remote and cruel dictatorships. Though it should be no disadvantage to be young in such a quartier, the atmosphere should not by any means discourage the veteran.

In her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs argued for the need for “the old” amidst “the new.”  She wrote:

To be sure, city areas with flourishing diversity sprout strange and unpredictable uses and scenes. But this is not a drawback of diversity. This is the point, or part of it. That this should happen is in keeping with one of the missions of cities.

Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, there is the homogenization factor going on in our city… certainly our bland Mayor doesn’t get that “mission” that Jacobs refers to.  And our NY City Council, led by Speaker Christine Quinn, just falls in line with her friend and benefactor, thereby eliminating any protection or preservation of the unique in our city.

The City’s redesign plans for Washington Square Park further illustrate no understanding or acknowledgment (perhaps, indeed purposefully) of the “strange” (Jacobs’ term for something worth preserving) or the unique, bohemia or diversity.  The design, by landscape designer George Vellonakis, seems to purposefully gloss over – almost sneers at – what made the Park unique.

Instead of Mayor Mike’s emphasis on protecting Wall Street, real estate interests and tourism, wouldn’t we like to live in a place where the historical buildings throughout the West and East Village that NYU has subsumed would be off limits to being altered … forever

Hitchens concludes:

Those who don’t live in such threatened districts nonetheless have a stake in this quarrel and some skin in this game, because on the day when everywhere looks like everywhere else we shall all be very much impoverished, and not only that but-more impoverishingly still-we will be unable to express or even understand or depict what we have lost.

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*This is a revised and edited version of a post first published on June 18th, 2008.*

Photo: Ed Yourdon

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