Is a bohemian lifestyle still possible in New York City?

Given the high cost of living and the other changes in society, can residents live as bohemians in New York City?

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…

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.

I wonder what Richard Florida would say about this. While he pushes a sort of modern bohemia idea through his concept of the creative class, that group is not lower-class in the same ways as bohemians. They may be creative types but they are primarily white-collar workers with means who have found ways to translate their creative expression into a certain professional lifestyle.

This could be extended to a broader question: is there much room in most global cities for those with less means, whether they are bohemians or immigrants or lower-class? And then going further, if there is some room for them, how much can they really participate in city life and influence decisions that affect them and the entire city?

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