Amor de Cosmos
Like you do, I was thumbing through an old copy of Life the other day
from March 1967, where I came across an article by Loudon Wainwright
Jr. It was on Haight-Ashbury, then in the process of becoming the
wannabe destination of every hip 'n' groovy kid in the western
hemisphere. It was a pretty good piece, catching the energy but also
anticipating the inevitable problems, and it got me thinking. The
Haight was perhaps the last great cultural Bohemia. The end of a road
that began with the Montmartre of the impressionists in the 1870s
perhaps? Moved on to Picasso's Montparnasse, the Chelsea of Augustus
John, Isherwood's Berlin and the Beat's Greenwich Village with lots
of smaller and less famous stops in-between.
Wherever and whenever they occurred the pattern was similar. Bohemias
start in neglected areas of a largish cities, somewhere the rents are
low but is still pretty central. A small group of artists, musicians,
writers and assorted oddballs move in, perhaps there's a café, a bar
or a club that becomes a hangout. Word spreads the area is "where
it's at," more people arrive, it becomes the neighbourhood to see and
be seen. The place where you meet like minds and sympathetic bodies.
Where conversations last long into the night and parties even longer.
Where you go to get fucked up, fucked over and just plain fucked. A
place to learn and to become experienced, to find friends and make
adversaries, a genuine university of the street. Soon businesses open
to serve the locals. Then lookie-loos arrive and more businesses open
to serve them. A few people get famous and move away from the
fishbowl for privacy. Property prices go up as money chases cultural
cachet, not realising it can do nothing but destroy it. And soon
Bohemia is gone.
In the past it's reappeared soon enough, along with another
generation, somewhere else, but now that doesn't seem to be
happening. For example when I arrived in this city in the early 70s I
lived in "Kits" (Kitsilano.) Known in the press as "Haight-Ashbury
North" it covered about 150 square blocks of mostly basement
apartments and communal living. By the end of the decade it had
become yuppie-central and is now, on a lot basis, is the most
expensive area of the city. The "Scene" moved across town to "The
Drive" (Commercial Drive) more concentrated than Kits, it too lasted
about a decade before increased rents drove out the young and poor.
By the mid-90s "Mid-Main" (Main and 12th) inherited the Bohemian
mantle but the burgeoning real-estate market ate it up within five
years, now there's nowhere.
But maybe this internet thingy means we don't need Bohemias anymore.
After all we can talk and fight right here. We can't dress-up or down
though, or party, or sit down next to a pretty girl in a café, or
meet a guy at someone's place who's read the same book you have and
gets it in just the same way. What's more he lives just around the
corner and has some ace Lebanese hash...