Floridian America Redux?: Wicker Park, Hipsterdom, and Neo-Bohemia

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“Creative people have always gravitated to certain kinds of communities such as the Left Bank in Paris or New York’s Greenwich Village,” wrote Richard Florida in his ubiquitously referenced The Rise of the Creative Class. “Such communities provide the stimulation, diversity, and richness of experiences that are the wellsprings of creativity. Now more of us are looking for the same thing.”[1] With his 2002 work, Florida staked his claim as an iconic New Economy urbanist and laid out a vision for urban growth in the new century that if not completely accurate rings true in many ways.  In general, more jobs would be based on “creative” or intellectual, knowledge-based skills rather than the more physical demands of the industrial era. Moreover, workers in such fields search for a very different kind of urbanity than did their predecessors.

Sure, some may have slagged Florida’s work, arguing it too glibly privileged knowledge and tech workers over others, ignored the persistence of post-industrial decline, or even skirted issues of race, particularly the troubling, paradoxical issue of gentrification; this writer once heard a graduate student reduce the book’s ideas to the notion that all cities needed to do to reinvent themselves was to hold more gay pride parades, establish an art walk, and encourage retailers to sell more Birkenstocks. In the end, however, Florida articulated a vision of urban America that to a significant extent has come to fruition, and the book has received far more praise than criticism. While opinions vary (particularly among our editorial staff), when one considers his Citylab website, which has done fine work in regard to cities, whatever the flaws, the end result of Florida’s analysis this writer would argue has been a net positive.

Yet, The Rise of the Creative Class never investigated its assertions at the ground level. Rather, Florida provided readers with an almost SimCity view from above. It would be up to future urbanists to provide the more locally specific examples. One of those to take up this mantle would be Vanderbilt sociologist Richard Lloyd, who while a graduate student at the University of Chicago conducted a study of the city’s famed bohemian haunt Wicker Park (WP).

In 1995, known tastemaker USA Today labeled the neighborhood “the Windy City’s burst of bohemia” and seven years later the New York Times described it as a “hub of funkiness and creativity.”[2] Indeed, WP incubated bands like Veruca Salt, performers like Liz Phair (whose seminal Exile to Guyville turned 20 in 2013), and watering holes like Mad Bar. Even adjacent hoods like Ukranian Village (with the legendary Tuman’s Alcohol Abuse Center) benefited from WP’s radiation of hipsterdom. Today, the two communities operate like Williamsburg and Bushwick, err East Williamsburg, melding into a WWE wrestle-off for authenticity, though other observers maintain a far simpler take on the issue. “Wicker Park/Ukrainian Village play host to a brewing battle between shiny gentrified district and gritty arts enclave,” notes notfortourists.com. “The neighborhood’s cozy artist community warily eyes the yuppies inching their way westward, and local businesses are beginning to reflect these migratory patterns.” WP both depends on the labor and image of artistic bohemia while that same workforce resents the clientele it serves, namely perceived yuppies. Sound familiar? We’ve been here before and we will be here again. With Neo-Bohemia’s 10th anniversary on the horizon and Veruca Salt releasing a new album, Ghost Notes (I kid you not), why not take a deep dive into the former while listening to the latter. Ok, maybe forget the second part, but at least throw on some early Liz Phair.

“Turn on the bright lights”; the WP after dark

Wicker Park Redux

“There’s a sense of vitality in the streets,” a local entrepreneur tells Lloyd. “Along with the danger there’s a vitality that you lose when you’re sure about your personal safety. There’s a certain edge that goes away. And there’s something exciting about having that edge. There’s something [exciting] about having drug dealers right up the street.”[3] Ignoring the number of times the speaker uses terms like “edge” and “vitality” here, one understands his larger point. “Bohemian” life, or what we tend to call hipsterdom today, certainly pegs itself to a certain outside-the-lines lifestyle.

“After all, the ideology of Bohemian life has been constituted as oppositional to the propertied classes ever since it arose in nineteenth century Paris,” writes Lloyd. Casual drug use, a studied ambivalence toward ambition and success, and proximity to crime have all been longtime staples of Bohemian existence. However, in today’s economy, with “merchants of cool” harvesting trends from the “avant garde” for commodization, millennials’ dual comfort with corporate America and the fluidity of high and low culture, and the reemergence of urban America as a valued destination, hipsters and artists hardly seem so edgy.

The appearance of artists and creative types in depressed urban areas is now widely seen as the beginning of a process: gentrification. First, artists and hipsters move to a working-class or lower-income enclave in small numbers, frequently one populated by minorities, immigrant populations, or both. Second, they establish trendy businesses—restaurants and bars that draw white middle and upper middle class customers. Soon The New York Times, Curbed, or City Paper, sources all consumed by said middle and upper middle class populations, are writing stories about a “hip new enclave” where one can find “kimchi tacos” (a ubiquitous food item that has become both a tongue in cheek joke and signifier of this very chain of events) and artisanal egg plant smoothies. This all eventually corresponds to rising rents and new condo developments, which in turn draw in finance professionals, lawyers and the like, who then drive out long term residents, most often minorities, immigrants, and newly arrived artists who unwittingly started the process. Today, saying that artists and hipsters serve as the knife’s edge of gentrification amounts to a cultural axiom more than a deep insight. In Chicago, Wicker Park, Pilsen, and parts of Little Village have all battled this process to varying extents.

While Lloyd clearly respects Richard Florida’s work, he disagrees with some of the Toronto University professor’s views of bohemia, for lack of a better term. “Bohemians are an alienated people, living in the culture but not of it,” writes Florida—yet he argues the creative class “does not see themselves that way.” Instead the only aspect of stereotypical bohemia that they embrace is the creative aspect. They are not “drifters in our midst, nor by any means are they barbarians at the gates,” he continues. “They see no need to overthrow the established order when they will be joining [it]…” Hedonism and narcissism do not define them; they are neither “Baudelaire nor Babbitt,” Florida argues. Instead, they identify as creative people, with creative solutions, looking to lead creative lives.[4] Judging from Lloyd’s work, he sees more alienation and hedonism, circumscribed by the new economic reality of the 21st century, than does Florida.

For Lloyd, continuity exists between the alienation of past bohemias and that of today’s WP. Throughout the book, he provides glimpses into the economic morass of bohemian existence that the valorized image of artists and hipsters tends to obscure. Florida sees them as more integrated into the economy both ideologically and financially than does Lloyd. For example, WP food and drinking establishments do favor hiring bohemian types in order to draw in new economy professionals and socialites. Florida would argue said professionals see the presence of artists and fellow creative types as positive and enjoy claiming a proximity to a “scene.” In this way, WP provides status for clientele and laborers alike while enabling artists to get by on a livable wage with time to pursue more creative pursuits. However, Lloyd goes to great lengths demonstrating how casualized service jobs also lacks health benefits, pension plans, or any discernable professional ladder of advancement. Additionally, many service workers, wait staff by day and artists by night (or vice-versa), resent the very customers on which their jobs largely depend. Sure, these might be college educated, creative young adults, but they live largely working class lives, points out Lloyd.

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Take the vaunted place of “Startenders”, crack bartenders that bar and restaurant managers hire to lure in business. “There are bartenders that work at three or four different clubs [and] that promote their own nights, and people go there because they are working there,” notes local writer and recognized startender, Krystal Ashe.[5] They boost a bar’s “ambiance,” argues Lloyd and others. Keep in mind, however, if one is a startender in his or her twenties does that persist into the thirties? When one interviewee notes she doesn’t “look 33,” one can almost feel a collective groan escape from middle-aged America. Besides, have you ever seen the movie Cocktail? The film’s kind of a downer and one imagines that a startender that stays too long fares little better.

Add in the volatility of the bar and restaurant industry, the long hours, and the frequent drug use, and the deal looks dubious: if you’re an artist and you don’t break out in those first ten years, the food and drink business might not be the best long time career choice. The pay and status beats an entry-level position in the corporate world or teaching in the public schools, but there is no pay scale to climb, no real promotion to secure.

In addition, as noted bartenders and other servers frequently voiced critiques of customers. Traditional 9-5 types earn more than the usual ire, dubbed “’amateurs’ by the savvy industry professionals,” Lloyd observes. Holding a professional gig, living outside the WP or some other artistic enclave left such customers as little more than gauche patrons lacking the proper bar etiquette that fellow artists and service industry types display when out and about. As one bar manager noted, workers had to be reminded “[j]ust because they have suits on doesn’t mean they are jerks….”[6]

If this sort of creative class seems to have a great deal more agency in Florida’s view, Lloyd presents a more complex portrait, as the intersection of the “bohemian” ideal and the needs of capitalist post-industrial economy make for sometimes uneasy relationships. As noted, artists prove a remarkably valuable commodity for service industry employers, bringing with them a certain cultural cache and existing in seemingly endless numbers, particularly in neighborhoods like Wicker Park. Yet, Lloyd finds no end of ennui among artists regarding this relationship. “[T]he workplace norms of appearance usually require that workers display a honed neo-bohemianism fashion sense – at their own expense – in order to improve the overall ambiance of hipness,” writes Lloyd, pointing out that a fair amount of performance goes into even the daily grind of the service industry. The late night hours and the need to be seen as hip to other scenes require workers to hit the town themselves on a frequent basis. This of course takes a physical and emotional toll while also drawing them away from the artistic endeavors that drew them to WP initially.[7] Like fashion models who must be seen to be seen, it transforms “playtime” into labor: “it is a required supplement to work time, and relies on constant self-promotion,” suggests fellow writer, Gina Neff.[8]

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One of the more interesting threads in Neo-Bohemia focuses on the kind of unwritten rules of the service industry. One such example would be what Lloyd and others label “the shrink”—“a certain number of drinks given away, mostly to other local service workers and neighborhood hipsters.” Granted, the terminology might be new, but the practice isn’t. Anyone who hit the bars during his or her twenties in outer borough NYC might call this the “buy back.” The Irish Rover in Queens, a favorite haunt of this writer and San Francisco furniture designer and Varian Designs founder, Forest Dickey, used to give us a free beer for every two knocked back. Besides our undying loyalty, I couldn’t tell you exactly what the establishment got out of it. Perhaps in in the case of Forest—an identifiable creative type—the bartenders recognized his burgeoning design bonafides. In Long Island City, a community long scene as on the verge of hitting it big among creative types, he might have been seen as a valuable patron who could help bring the neighborhood’s cache to a cultural tipping point. Who knows? Regardless, we became regulars. In Neo-Bohemia, managing this practice forms a central aspect of the job.[9] The shrink boosts tips and draws a relished clientele.

Lloyd’s second overarching argument has to do with new bohemia’s role in “enhancing the interests of post industrial capitalist enterprises,” particularly in regard to real estate speculation, entertainment, and the production of new media.[10] Having largely discussed the first two areas already, real estate speculation/gentrification and entertainment, we now move on to the third, new media.

In 2001, the internet trade publication Industry Standard suggested that WP had become one of “the best new place[s] for media companies.”[11] Admittedly, points out Lloyd, tech industry exploits tend to be punctuated by more than a bit of hyperbole. One need take in a couple episodes of the fictional, but reasonably accurate, television comedy Silicon Valley for a sense of this. Still, according to Lloyd, as of 2002 about two dozen media firms operated in the WP neighborhood. However, unlike comparable tech ‘hoods like San Francisco’s SOMA or the ever expansive Silicon Valley, venture capital did not make its way into the WP corridor, which may have spared the community a more savage version of gentrification than one that developed.

Instead, the media companies inhabiting the area were smaller, more circumspect in their offerings, and privately owned, yet just as the community served and was served by the WP identity so too did these tech companies benefit. As in the case of its restaurants and bars, WP provided an attractive home for knowledge workers who valued its non-conformist bohemian image.   Florida’s “bohemian index” served as just one example of recent studies of the tech industry that assert the relationship between creative class types, community, and labor. Tech companies witnessed a “double advantage” as WP attracted younger, more technically savvy and hipper workers who just also happened to have lower salary expectations as compared to older, more experienced counterparts.[12]

That noted, said companies in WP could not simply lean on the shiny hipness of the neighborhood but also had to entice workers with more flexible work schedules and other perks, especially considering the lower salaries.

Unfortunately, it’s harder to judge this aspect of the book due to the volatility of the tech sector. Several of the businesses discussed by Lloyd in Neo-Bohemia such as Buzzbait are no longer in existence or if they are, they lack an internet footprint, which is an obviously bad sign for a tech company. Still, one can describe the general tension that arose among those businesses Lloyd studied fairly simply: the struggle to balance one’s creative impulses with the grind of a regular job that though certainly artistic remained in the service of larger businesses and corporations more concerned with pragmatic bottom lines than artistry. Similar to workers in the service industry, the very clientele that made the more adventurous tech jobs possible were the kind of people, at least in the abstract, that WP creative types resented.

It must first be noted, that whatever its flaws, Neo-Bohemia is worth a read. It provides a detailed ethnography of a fairly renowned Chicago neighborhood and one that in many ways embodies the Floridian landscape of urban America. Few writers have attempted to really analyze the cultural and economic life of these sorts of communities from a local vantage point. However, one would be remiss not to point out some questions that go unaddressed in Lloyd’s work.

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First, take the issues of race and sexuality, which receive very little attention in the book. Addressing the latter first, in Gay New York, George Chauncey made a compelling argument about the growth of bohemia amidst the burgeoning gay culture of the city. Gays found comfort in Greenwich Village in part because of bohemians’ own sense of sexual adventure, as rejection of traditional gender roles enabled a certain sexual freedom.   Nor is such an example confined to the rarified air of early twentieth century N.Y.C. In Bohemian Los Angeles, Daniel Hurewitz credits the interplay between homosexuals, bohemians, and communists during the 1920s and 1930s for helping to create modern identity politics. Yet in Lloyd’s Wicker Park, hipsterdom and Bohemia seem almost exclusively heterosexual.   Madonna may have frequented NYC’s gay scene in the ‘80s, pillaging it for musical ideas much as Lady Gaga did in the early aughts in her pursuit of new sounds and looks, but in WP no such interaction exists.

To be fair, in terms of race, Neo-Bohemia is not devoid of persons of color, but they only really exist within the whiter-than-white milieu of WP. Again in the interest of fairness, it should also be noted that few cities remain as segregated as Chicago, so the interactions of whites and persons of color is often limited by decades of segregation. Still, in places like Pilsen and Little Village, where artists and hipsters have also established businesses and communities, longer standing Mexican American residents struggle with increasing rents as the inevitable process of gentrification unfolds. Lloyd never draws any comparisons between similar neighborhoods in Chicago, nor do readers get any sense of the WP’s surrounding demographics. Assistant editor and sociologist Charles Lee adds that when Lloyd uses locales like Paris, European writers like Baudelaire, and high modernists like Jackson Pollack to connect WP to a historic bohemia, it forgets Chicago’s “gritty popular history of blues, jazz, rock, and house music … cultural forms distinct for their mixing of race and class and sexual experimentation.” Highlighting the bohemian aspect of WP and using terms like “Neo” could function as historical erasure in this context, ignoring how Chicago’s black communities have contributed to the kind of cultural and economic developments that have since unfolded.

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Certainly this is hardly unique to Chicago or WP. In Los Angeles, its downtown historic core has undergone a transformation as new gastropubs and other attractions have emerged to attract hip residents. Most establishments, points out Angeleno expert, Nathan Masters, bathe themselves in images from its heyday 75 years ago with framed photographs and pictures of “dazzling neon signs, trolleys, and sidewalks choked with men and women in hats.” Yet much as turn of the century Los Angeles evoked romantic “Spanish romance” rather than the more troubling history of Spanish colonization and American Manifest Destiny in its myth making, so too does modern day downtown L.A. traffic in similar erasure. Such examples ignore the area’s vital importance in the 1970s and 1980s for the city’s Spanish speaking population, when it served as vibrant retail corridor while Los Angeles’s department stores decamped for the suburbs. Now these new businesses, awash in imagery harkening back to the 1930s and 1940s, “quietly justify downtown’s reinvention as a playground for young urbanites,” writes Masters, as older Latino businesses have been slowly forced out. This kind of analysis is missing in Neo-Bohemia

In all honesty, few works have divided our editorial staff as much as Neo-Bohemia. Co-editor Alex Sayf Cummings found it an insightful work that revealed the intersection of authenticity and cynical commercialism that lurks behind terms like bohemia. For example, think of hipster couple Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) from the recent Noah Baumbach film While We Were Young. At once authentic and impulsive, Jamie collects vinyl records and likes films like Goonies as much as The Bicycle Thief, while Amanda makes her own ice cream that sells in Whole Foods. “We said our vows in an empty water tower in Harlem,” Adam tells their older counterparts Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts). Yet, it’s as much show as anything else as Jamie and Amanda’s friendship with the older couple masks a cynical but ultimately successful grasp at fame. Here, bohemianism functions as little more than performance for commercial gain, which one could argue exists in spades in Lloyd’s work.

Pilsen and the Latino/hipster mix

Pilsen and the Latino/hipster mix

Sometimes Lloyd’s subjects, particularly when bemoaning yuppies, sound like characters in an Onion article. “These fucking yuppies that come in now, they don’t know how to tip,” laments one bartender. Another identifies Lincoln Park residents as ascribing to “a weird kind of college thing” in terms of fashion, while WP locals “tend to be funkier and trendier; they have goatees, nail polish on men, earrings and tattoos, that stuff.”[13] Anyone who has been to Williamsburg on a Saturday night knows that it might be “funkier” than Manhattan, but when everybody’s rocking a beard, patterned thrift store flannel, and tight jeans, it’s as much uniform as college sweatshirts and jeans: Trustfundia instead of Portlandia, as an acquaintance once argued.

In contrast, the aforementioned Lee found Lloyd’s book more wanting, even questioning Wicker Park’s contribution to the city’s cultural production. Sure, WP incubated a number of bands, favored bars and small art galleries, but how long standing was this tradition in relation to the city’s deeper history of the same. “Chicago has long been home to musicians, architects, radicals like Afri-Cobra, anarchist troublemakers, Yippies, the industrial record label Wax Trax! and its own school of painters, the Chicago Imagists.” he noted in an email thread regarding the book. Today, the West Loop, River North, and a number of smaller locals dotted across the city feature as vibrant if not more so, art scenes “Beyond a local arts community and a few solid art spaces and literary presses, what artists, writers or film makers are associated with WP? If WP was a new hot zone of cultural production, what happened? A fetish for place emerges, but the main innovation is new forms of consumption.”

In the end, this writer can only say the book is worth your time. While the stench of pretension sometimes oozes from Lloyd’s subjects, they also embody a very real element of modern urban America. The book could use more discussion of race and sexuality, and some mention of parallel processes in other neighborhoods across the city like Pilsen would be welcome, but no work can do everything and Neo-Bohemia provides a great springboard into debates about those issues. Nobody ever admits to liking hipsters, yet their hoods are often coveted destinations on Friday and Saturday night; indeed, no one ever admits to being a hipster, yet somebody must be.  While We Were Young’s Josh and Cornelia learn a great deal from their time with Jamie and Darby, even if some truly embarrassing moments (for the former) occur along the way. Lloyd’s put the time in to see what it’s all about, and hating on hipsterdom only gets one so far. Besides, don’t worry—if you read Neo-Bohemia, you still won’t be a hipster, maybe.

[1] Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life, (New York: Perseus Books, 2002), 15.

[2] Richard Lloyd, Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City, (New York: Routledge, 2006) 10.

[3] Lloyd, Neo-Bohemia, 78

[4] Florida, Rise of the Creative Class, 210 – 211.

[5] Lloyd, New Bohemia, 138.

[6] Lloyd, New Bohemia, 139.

[7] Lloyd, New Bohemia, 183.

[8] Lloyd, New Bohemia, 198.

[9] Lloyd, New Bohemia, 187.

[10] Lloyd, New Bohemia, 17.

[11] Lloyd, Neo-Bohemia, 207.

[12] Lloyd, Neo-Bohemia, 217.

[13] Lloyd, Neo-Bohemia, 140-141.

Comments

  1. Interesting, but this feels like it’s about 10-15 years too late. I don’t know anyone who works in the arts or service industry that lives in Wicker Park. It’s been too expensive for ages. For a while it was Logan or Pilsen, but those spots are pretty yuppified at this point too. These days artists live in Garfield Park, or maybe Bridgeport.

  2. Hey Josh,
    Yeah I would agree. Garfield Park has been on that course for a bit esp. with the renovation of the conservatory, checked it out with my folks when I visited last. And no one would argue that WP has past this point already, I think the larger point of the piece was just to examine how Lloyd broke these things down and how they aligned with what we think we know about this sort of “bohemian development” ten years later. Thanks for checking it out.

    rr

  3. David Farber says:

    RIP Beth Bailey and I moved to Hoyne and Division in 1983. Dance Dance Dance Dance to the radio.
    df

    • Ryan Reft says:

      DF,
      Always dig work by Farber and Bailey, glad to hear the Chi played a role in it all in some capaity. Keep on Keepin’ on!

      rr

  4. I was a junior high school teacher. Very interesting to read what you write. This will be an inspiration for me to teach my students how they can become more creative.
    thanks for sharing …

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