Neo-Bohemia, Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City by Richard Lloyd is a very informative and introspective read about the factors that lead to certain urban neighborhoods becoming the “in” or “hip” place to be for artists and others living a Bohemian lifestyle. Drawing from parallels to 1920s Paris and New York City’s Greenwich Village, Mr. Lloyd explores the numerous facets that coalesced into creating a new Bohemian enclave in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood during the 1990s.
Meanwhile, the author also describes in detail the subsequent events that combine to chase Bohemian purists away from the very location they made nouveau-hip in the first place. As it turns out, when a certain neighborhood becomes well-known and cool due to its eclectic quirks, is exactly when it has passed its peak as a Bohemian enclave. Rents start rising to the point where artists can no longer afford residing there, gentrification becomes more pervasive forcing out the lower to middle-income families that once populated the community, and local businesses are increasing substituted by nationally known chains. In other words, the neighborhood becomes the latest convert to the bland, sameness found in “Everywhere, America.”
Needless to say, this is not the outcome that those living a Bohemian lifestyle were intending when they first moved into a down-trodden and forgotten neighborhood like Wicker Park in the 1980s. But, as economic developers, urban planners, tourism bureaus, art councils, local governments, and chamber of commerce jump on the creative class bandwagon, this conversion from Bohemian to trendy to gentrified will likely occur in more places and at a quicker pace.
One the biggest questions to come out of the book is how can enclaves for artists and other members of the creative class be nurtured without killing the proverbial goose that laid the golden egg? That is a question that remains largely unanswered in the book and to my knowledge, elsewhere in the planning realm as well. As an urban planner, the idea of revitalizing and reinvigorating our cities is an exciting notion. But, if it is done in a manner that arbitrarily displaces the less-fortunate, are we really doing society a service or are we just another participant in those social injustices that prey on the poor? Until we resolve that question, perhaps the “damn the torpedoes, full-speed ahead” ethos may need to be quelled to some extent.
Here is a list of a few possible ideas to reduce the chances of the less-fortunate being displaced as a neighborhood is rebounding economically:
- Require a minimum percentage of affordable housing be included in each residential development or redevelopment.
- Invest in job-training programs and create incentives for businesses to hire local residents in the food, service, technology industries.
- Adopt property maintenance codes which require property owners (including landlords) to maintain their sites at a certain minimum standard.
- Work closely with social service organizations and local religious institutions to identify those at risk.
- Consider placing limits on the percentage increase that rents may rise per year.
- Provide incentives for urban homesteading, particularly rent-to-own options.
- Work directly with credit unions and locally owned banks to create fair and affordable lending programs for low to middle-income families.