Last Call, Bohemia. Or, As Jane Jacobs wrote, the benefits of the "strange"

Greenwich Village, 1960Will New York City recognize the importance of “Bohemia” in all societies, including its own?

In “Last Call, Bohemia” in this month’s (July) Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens observes how London, Paris and San Francisco – also 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.” Within the article, 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.

Jane Jacobs in 1961 argued for this same importance: the importance of retaining some of “the old,” buildings which allowed for greater diversity of uses (and lower costs), amidst the “new,” construction which would need high end and less unique businesses to support it.

When your whole city begins to look overrun with the “new,” then what do you do?

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs 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.”

Yet how do you regulate that? And should you have to?

Certainly, under Mayor Bloomberg, there is the homogenization factor.

The City’s redesign plans for Washington Square Park illustrate no understanding or acknowledgment (and, perhaps, purposefully) of the “strange,” the unique, bohemia or diversity.

Shouldn’t we live in a society that values places like Washington Square Park as is? Instead of protecting Wall Street and tourism, wouldn’t we like to live in a place where the quaint and historical buildings around Washington Square and throughout the West and East Village that NYU has subsumed wouldn’t be touched?

Hitchens continues, “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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Photo: Ed Yourdon