Everlasting Realities of the Bohemian Lifestyle

As writers in New York lament the "de-classing of intellectuals," a reminder that creative types have never had it easy.

The Chelsea Hotel in 1978 (AP/G. Paul Burnett)

NEW YORK -- Is it still possible to be a bohemian in today's New York City, where average rents now surpass $3,000 a month? Or are the rents just too damn high? And -- if they are -- what does this mean for the future of artists and intellectuals of the sort who have long been as much a part of the natural order of the city as pigeons and locust trees?

These are some of the questions provoked by an article in the Spring issue of N+1 magazine on "Cultural Revolution" signed by "The Editors." There's far too much Trotsky in the piece for my taste, but it does raise some interesting points about the arts and the way we think about social class. The piece is the latest item in a long New York tradition of articles describing the status anxiety and actual difficulties of people with top-shelf educations who are among the minority of their college classmates to take on risky individual creative ventures that are not particularly remunerative. Observe the editors:

We are witnessing and sometimes personally experiencing a sharp
de-classing of intellectuals. Our precious credentials are
increasingly useless for generating income and -- let us hope -- social
prestige, too. This should mean that most intellectuals view ourselves
as sinking, economically, into the lower-middle or working class, and
that "meritocratic" markers -- the contents of our bookshelves and
iPods; our degrees -- accord us less and less social status in our own
and others' eyes. Not to say there won't remain a self-protective
cultural elite hoarding its prestige: the hostility to criticism among
mutually appreciative writers, artists, and academics -- an aversion to
meaningful disputes -- is contemporary evidence of such a siege
mentality. But we can also hope for something else: perhaps
intellectuals' increasing exposure to socioeconomic danger will give a
new political dangerousness and reality to what some of us produce.
Might the continuing commitment of de-classed left intellectuals and
radical artists to their vocations, in spite of withered prospects and
eroding prestige, give our work an antisystemic force, and
credibility, it has lacked?

The piece makes for an interesting, though not particularly easygoing, read. From the decline of commercial book publishing to the massive expansion in adjunct positions at universities (as well as people with PhDs vying for them), the article explores changes in the intellectual economy that mirror changes in other fields. Yet there is a nostalgic quality to the piece that is hard to take. Added to the analysis must be a central and unspoken concern -- one that's been an issue since Rent (1996) and Slaves of New York (1989) and even the mists of history (1968). Namely, how to finance a life in bohemia while creating not just novel works but novel audiences. It has always been a struggle -- especially on the housing front.

And really, a bit of perspective is in order amid the general bemoaning about the decline of affordable housing in New York: Anyone who thinks bohemia always involved great safe cheap housing needs to go back through the collected film works of No Wave cinema in the city. The safe affordable housing neighborhood of the Basquiat era of bohemian Manhattan, for example, looked like this.

By the mid-1970s, New York was nearly bankrupt. Large parts of it took on a bombed out appearance. People carved new bohemias out of neighborhoods that looked like today's Detroit, but worse, because of crack, heroin, and epidemic crime. Some of the causes of New York's decline were the same as those that have created today's Detroit; the fact of the matter was that the NYC of that era was shrinking, losing more than 800,000 residents between 1970 and 1980.

Flash forward two decades: There is a reason "low-rent" remained the byword for low quality. I remember going to people's places on Avenue D back in the day where they had those police locks with the giant bar that braced the door against the floor of their half-renovated loft space. Enormous 4th and 6th floor walk-ups in Tribeca that were $500 or $750/month, sure, but you had to put the kitchen and lighting in yourself. Lower East Side apartments with walls so thin you could hear neighbors pissing, and crazy supers you couldn't talk to without a knife behind your back, just in case. East Village railroad flats with bathtubs in the middle of the kitchens, because of the odd plumbing configurations that were common there. A "posh tenement apartment" -- that's what the ad said -- with the original gas lamp piping still in place, extending up the walls from where the gas flowed into the stove to aged pipe-caps in the ceiling you always worried maybe didn't fit quite right going on a century later.

I think people used to have lower standards for housing and for safety, and the housing laws were enforced more lightly.

Even where my folks now live -- the heart of the hyper-gentrified West Village, across the street from some of the most expensive apartments in lower Manhattan -- wasn't always so safe and so clean. Midday two Sundays ago Marc Jacobs jumped out of a Bentley and dashed passed me into Barbuto, where I'd just had brunch with my parents. He owns one of those new $10.5 million townhouses directly across the street from my folks that developers put up after tearing down the ink factory whose smokestacks anchored the view from my Westbeth window as a child, and whose beeping, backing-up trucks loading their haul daily punctuated my early morning sleep. When the first wave of artists moved in (my parents among them), before the city tore down the old collapsing West Side Elevated Highway, it was sketch over by the Hudson River. I remember seeing the hookers coming off their shifts when I was going to elementary school, done up in their miniskirts and rabbit fur jackets. Transvestite prostitutes -- and the johns who trolled the streets for them -- were a part of the neighborhood a few blocks north, along with the stench of rotting meat. Blood actually used to run in the streets of Manhattan's meatpacking district when it was still a dismemberment zone, and great big beef carcasses hung from awning loading zones on hooks. My brother worked in one of those meat factories one summer to help pay his way through Columbia. My sister sewed ribbons by hand onto pointe shoes for money when she was training to be a ballerina until her fingers were as calloused and pricked as her feet, before switching direction and going into the sciences. That's how the kids of artists lived when artists could afford to live in that neighborhood outside of the few low-rent pockets where they still, like my parents, remain. And they (we) went to public schools.

Years later I went to college with several of the N+1 founders. Perhaps we simply studied different things, but I do not recall any promises of the fantasy world they posit as an ideal in their article, where you can be bourgeois and artistic and bohemian and have no inherited money and no involvement with a boring straight job all at the same time, and the whole thing is a reliable enterprise in which everyone succeeds financially, and manages to change the world in some fundamental fashion on top of that, while still giving their children a comfortable life. Their complaints are far larger than one about the New York housing market, or the academy, as well -- they are about the relation of the intellectual and the artist to society, about the lack of recognition except by "the Happy Few." But the art and literary worlds have always been a total crap shoot, and far too many artists and writers reach old age as impoverished and unknown as when they began. There is nothing new in the failure of that dare. Even those who have one wonderful glorious moment of fame and fortune are rarely set, because a moment is not a life, and life is longer than most forms of renown these days.

T.S. Eliot worked as a banker. Wallace Stevens was an insurance company vice president. There are others who have carved memorable careers out of evenings and weekends. But there have always been more who began adult life as artists and intellectuals only to find themselves 25 years on somehow being mainly a teacher at a D-list college in a place they never wanted to live.

I'm not saying any of this is good, only that it is hardly new. This great New York Times piece on Gabby Hoffman growing up in the Chelsea Hotel illustrates perfectly the great class disruption of life in bohemia, where high culture meets low incomes.

Of her childhood, Hoffmann says now: "We lived in a classless society. We'd spend a summer at Gore Vidal's house in Italy, but we were on and off welfare" when she was a baby.

Or read Patti Smith's Just Kids. God was she poor when she came to the city. "New York has closed itself off to the young and struggling," Smith told the New York Observer in 2010. "New York City has been taken away from you ... So my advice is: Find a new city." Her recommendation then is now back in the news: Detroit.

The N+1 authors write: "Artists and intellectuals, to go on existing in serious numbers without much help from universities, corporate publishers, wealthy families, and rich patrons, will be groups marked by some sacrifice."

Is this really that different from the way things have been for well over a century now, since Jules Valles described the bohemian life in Paris? Or even the way they were 20 or 30 years ago? It is never easy to be poor, or to spend a life creating something the world will value only in retrospect. There are people who surf the success of the present, which rewards some richly. But there are also those who doggedly pursue a vision in defiance of their times, convinced the world will eventually come around. This does not alter the economic life of nations, for it cannot. But it does, sometimes, alter the course of art or literary history.