Bohemian Eclipse

Kate Millett is unpatriotic. The author of one of the defining books of feminism, Sexual Politics, for years has enjoyed a large Bowery loft and pays the un-Manhattan rent of $500 a month. So what else can a red-blooded landlord do other than throw her out? Nobody should pay that kind of rent for so much space in the 90’s unless it is in Mount Olive, Illinois. If everybody adopted Millett’s attitude of fighting to stay put, slackers would again dominate lower Manhattan and money would be crowded out. After all, hordes of young professionals and business people are coming to the East Village neighborhood and are happy to pay $2000 a month for a one bedroom railroad flat; if the landlord succeeds in evicting Millett he’s likely to get $4500-$5000 for her loft. Millett has been living off the past for too long. It’s time to declare the Bohemia to which she came thirty years ago dead and buried. If Kate wants to live cheap she might consider Jersey City. Or better yet, South Orange. As the conservative ideologue and city planner Peter Sahlins wrote in his 1975 dead-pan piece, ‘New York in the Year 2000,’ Manhattan, meaning almost every inch of real estate below 125th street, is reserved for the rich, not even for the famous.

My first reflection on the end of New York’s Bohemia came in the late 80’s when my friend and former editor Joyce Johnson published a memoir and post-mortem of her life with the Beats, Minor Characters. It won the National Book Award and, I suspect, the recent film documentary on the same bunch will be a strong contender for an Oscar. (A sure sign of a cultural dead-end.) Whether clear or blinky-eyed, these recollections established that Bohemia was then, and this is definitely now. Living creatively on the margins was never a picnic in Eden. And the ways of bohemians tend to look better in retrospect. But there are good reasons to wax nostalgic about this almost vanished breed.


Bohemians have been the gypsies of late capitalism. For a century they set down their tents at the heart of cities only to be upbraided as exemplars of sloth, celebrated as nouveau romantic heroes and then, finally, uprooted. The everyday life of classic bohemians was a monumental struggle to beat the ‘system’ by winning and reconfiguring urban space in ways that were simply unavailable to those caught in the job machine. Bohemians attempted to enter the realm of freedom — life minus (much) wage labor — without the material means.
Bohemias have been located in less coveted urban neighborhoods for one simple reason: cheap rent. Cheap rent meant that the artist or would-be artist could survive on part-time and occasional wage-work and whatever their art or music or writing might bring in; less than splendor, but with luck, more than subsistence. Some lived in communes (in effect, if not in name). Railroad flats might be shared by a floating cast of tenants, the rent shared haphazardly but somehow.

Greenwich Village has been the echt Bohemia of the 20th century (though it now lives on only in the collective imagination of its former residents, scholars and tourists). At the turn of the 20th century it bordered on the old Canal Street Irish ghetto whose residents worked on the bustling West Side docks and as lorry drivers. The Village’s inhabitants then were chiefly the Italian immigrants who came to sweat in Lower East Side garment shops, other factories, and in construction. These working-class precincts were the model for bohemian enclaves — shabby housing, mean streets and, of course, cheap rent. In this era, Bohemia was informed by a commitment to sexual liberation and radical politics. From the turn of the century to the 1920’s, the Village was a haven for rebel artists, politicos and patrons like Mabel Dodge — that notorious class traitor to the Establishment. Militant labor leaders like Big Bill Haywood were regulars at Dodge’s 5th Avenue Salon along with figures like Masses editor Max Eastman and the political artist, John Sloan. It was a moment when novelist Floyd Dell (along with many others) advocated ‘free love.’ While feminist Margaret Sanger (another Dodge regular) provided the technology — and modeled the awareness — to make it feasible.

In the 1920’s the Village was discovered by mainline culture vultures. It became a chic neighborhood. New money converted the old working-class boarding houses into town houses and built large apartment buildings above 8th street where, even in the Great Depression, rents were too high for most bohemians. A few artists and writers managed to stay put, though, and through the 1950’s the Village served as something of an ideal for similar neighborhoods in other large cities.

Dan Wolf helped promote that ideal by founding the Village Voice in 1955. The Voice would become closely associated with Bohemia, but it began as a vehicle for political reformers. The Voice was originally the mouthpiece of (relatively affluent) promoters of civic virtue who fervently sought to upgrade their neighborhood and replace the old Tammany machine headed by Carmine DiSapio. The Voice spoke through and for figures like Ed Gold, a journalist at Fairchild Publications, shoe fortune heir Stanley Geller, the high-strung (and ambitious!) attorney Ed Koch, Sarah Schoenkop (like Koch, a migrant from Essex County, New Jersey). People who came together to support Adlai Stevenson and found in his losing campaigns hope for a new reform politics in New York City. (An inspiration that led to them to lay the groundwork for the eventual victory over the machine.)

But political commentary by these relatively staid types didn’t make for a lively newspaper. And Dan Wolf realized he needed to recruit real writers and reporters. Soon Norman Mailer, Michael Harrington, the jazz critic Nat Hentoff, the poet Joel Oppenheimer, and political cartoonist Jules Feiffer — from the dwindling ranks of the Village Bohemia — joined the paper, giving it a more radical (and imaginative) cast. Reporters Stephanie Harrington, Jack Newfield, Susan Brownmiller and Mary Nichols came along to help the reform movement by exposing the shady dealings of city and state government. And, of course, the Voice became the newspaper of record for counter-cultural art movements — the exploding Off Off Broadway theater, avant garde film, downtown galleries (which were challenging the hegemony of 57th Street), and the Jazz scene (which gradually settled in the Village after being run off 52nd Street).

When a new Bohemia began to emerge in the Lower East Side, the Voice seemed to break its back trying to respond. In the early 70’s — and in ensuing years — more than half of the paper tended to be counter-cultural, much to the chagrin of those on the staff who wanted the paper to follow a narrow economistic line and pursue the kind of anti-corruption reform agenda that still dominated the front-of-the-book.
The Voice, of course, was never the voice of Downtown bohemians. During the mid-60’s, the East Village Other managed to make the Voice seem square. The Other wasn’t just hip; it excoriated gentrifiers and tried to reconcile Bohemia with blacks and the barrio. There were other radical papers located in the Lower East Side. On 4th Street, there was The Guardian — a national newspaper of distinctly Old Left origins that briefly became the chief paper of the New Left (though not of the counterculture). The Rat was a local sheet that tried to combine a counter-cultural esprit with revolutionary politics. Both papers failed to survive scorching splits over social issues, chiefly feminism. Women seized power at The Rat but couldn’t get it to fly after the conspirators split over ideological issues. The Guardian survived its own internal battles, but eventually folded after it lost Old Left financial support.


Bohemian desire and working class consciousness have (occasionally) melded in the Village. For much of this century, younger bohemians made hang-outs of the same old Irish bars that served blue collar workers. Despite the steady decline of the Manhattan docks, longshoremen and truckers remained a presence in the Village until automation ended up closing nearly all Manhattan piers for cargo.
For decades, the arts community in the Village (very much in the spirit of Jane Jacobs and her Death and Life of Great American Cities) joined with local working-class tenants in mounting fierce opposition to co-op conversions and other development schemes designed to make this area of little streets the Shangri-la of the real estate speculator. Working with residents of the Lower East Side and the few Italians remaining in the South Village, they beat back first, David Rockefeller’s plan for a lower Manhattan Expressway, and then, a proposed Beltway. These combined forces managed to save some of the besieged areas. But the gentry still encroached, and the bohemians were forced to pull back. To appease the protestors, the city erected Westbeth as artist housing in a sparsely-populated, hence more easily, cleared, industrial section of the Village. But Westbeth was no Bohemia. Soon enough, gourmet food shops and dry-cleaning emporia clustered in the neighborhood.

Rents rose; and the area was now beyond the financial reach of bohemians. The nearest available thing for them was the area south of Houston, down to Chambers street (by the 1970’s, experiencing its own deindustrialization) and more significantly, the area east of Third Avenue.

Well before this influx, the Lower East Side had had a bohemian flavor. I myself, in 1969, took an apartment on St. Mark’s Place (#26), a fourth floor walkup. The building, a few steps west of 2nd Avenue, had recently been cut up into studios and one-bedroom apartments. Across the street was the Dom, formerly The Polish National Home (whence the name), now devoted to loud rock music. Finding it hard to sleep (especially on weekends), I often walked the streets, until the streets absorbed me. I took my meals at Veselka’s, at the 2nd Avenue Deli, or at the many Polish and Ukranian Establishments so abundant in the area. Around midnight, I’d descend on Gem Spa to nurse an egg cream as I read the next morning’s newspaper. I could usually anticipate what was happening thanks to my night-strolls on the block.

Of an evening, Herbert Marcuse, the age’s brightest radical intellectual star, stepped out on stage at a filled-to-the-rafters Fillmore East. With his first words, a group of enragŽs — Up-Against-the-Wall, Motherfuckers — brought the program to a screeching halt. The group, led there by Tom Neumann, wasn’t happy; not with the academic character of the event, not with Marcuse’s prosperity, not with the fact that Marcuse had married Neumann’s mother and had even — according to rumor — had an affair with her while she was still married to Neumann’s father, Franz (who had been Marcuse’s best friend).

Up-Aginst-the-Wall, Motherfuckers regularly placed themselves in implacable opposition to the prevailing culture, expressing disgust for (what they regarded as) hypocritical liberals in the most direct fashion. The group rejected the application for membership by Abbie Hoffman (of 9 St. Marks Place) because he did not meet their high radical standards. After all, Abbie consorted with liberal lawyers and politicians (and was accused of pandering to the media). Abbie was furious at his rejection and wrote a passionate defense of his radical credentials in the Voice. The Motherfuckers never had more than a few members but they made a lot of noise and managed to influence hundreds of radicals who wished they had the nerve to go public with their politics and passions.

The Motherfuckers knew how to make a scene, all right. And scenes, being commercial draws bring in real estate developers. (As C. Carr has noted, the Lower East Side has gone the way of Greenwich Village of the 20’s and 40’s.) The area was gradually gentrified, and the Lower East Sider of today is more likely to be a financial analyst than a colleague of Tom Neumann. There, Bohemia has been priced out. The scene, what there is of it, has shifted to the peripheries: to Williamsburg, and elsewhere in Brooklyn; to Queens; to the South Bronx, where some young Latino artists have turned old buildings into new performance spaces; to Jersey City; and, in a move presaged years ago by Amiri Baraka, to Newark.

Bohemia today is hardly on the map. The question is, though, whether Bohemia was ever primarily about space at all. An identifiable placeable bohemian enclave offers certain benefits to its residents. Gregarious by nature, bohemians are simply more likely to bump into each other in their areas. Shared coffee shops, bars, laundromats, and parks are the places where ideas can be discussed, information exchanged, assignations proposed. Bookstores, newsstands, and record stores there will contain items of greater interest to the bohemian sensibility. And in a few cases, e.g. performance spaces for music and live theater, the bohemian enclave is a precondition for the bohemian’s artistic endeavors.

But space, important as it is, is less important than time. The space of Bohemia exists so that bohemians may there do what it is they do: lay claim to their time. This space may be occupied; you may move elsewhere, even if to a far less satisfactory where. But if this time of yours is taken from you; it is gone forever. Time colonized is not replaceable. The worse news for bohemians is not that they are scattered (unpleasant but bearable), but that economic circumstances have forced them onto the job market.

Is a bohemian in the job market still a bohemian? Only to this extent: the bohemian must still fight for control of her own time. Many have entered the job market as part-timers (e.g. adjunct instructors at universities) or as flexible timers. (Many of the self-employed, for example, in PC-related businesses, have gone this route.) But eventually, the colonization of time must be confronted. Bohemians, even while steering clear of the most obviously deadening jobs, have come under the yoke. Such supposedly congenial jobs as teaching (whether in the lower grades or in the university) or work drawing on writing or design skills is, ultimately, just labor, and tedious. Bohemians in these circumstances have been forced to do something very traditional: organize. For example, the film-maker Tami Gold, a full-time teacher, is an activist in her union chapter at Hunter college. Literary scholar Barbara Bowen, a former union organizer and now Queens College English professor, is running for president of the faculty and staff union at C.U.N.Y. And organizing today must address more than minimally defined conditions of labor; it must address the pointlessness of the labor that is on offer.
The older bohemian alternative to dead time has been free time. That alternative now less available, the better answer today, and it hardly matters where it happens, is the demand for — in true bohemian style — the time of their lives.


Stanley Aronowitz’s The Knowledge Factory: Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning will be published in February 2000 by Beacon Press.