City Views


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There comes in the life of every city an era of unsurpassed greatness.
Whether it’s an aligning of the stars or simply a convergence of social
pressures, cultural influences, history, and politics, the city bursts
forth with great innovation, creative outpouring, and a lively sense of
community. They are exciting times to live through, if you happen to be
lucky enough to be there. Suddenly the world opens up and you are a
part of something bigger than your own daily life. You can talk of
revolution without having to use air quotes or a sarcastic tone, and
riots can start over a jarring new form of music. Cities such as
Bohemian New York, Weimar Berlin, Paris between the wars,
pre-Revolutionary Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and pretty much every
major Western city in 1968 brought into life new music, architecture,
visual art, scientific advancement, and social structure. Residents
watched as the ripples changed the world.

  • American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century by Christine Stansell. 432 pages. Princeton University Press. $24.95.
  • Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places by Sharon Zukin. 312 pages. Oxford University Press. $27.95.

Richard Florida seems to think he can recreate these moments of serendipity in any city in the world with his theories about the “creative class,” as if it’s all about finding the right formula of coffee shops, rock bands, gays, and art galleries. He has built an empire out of the idea that with proper urban planning, cities can entice large numbers of creative professionals, a group just ready to be exploited for their earning potential and their consumption habits. Florida writes books and gives speeches and advises urban planners, while also telling those creative professionals that if they move to one of these cities, they’ll live better, fuller, more important lives. It comes off a little like a home baker trying to recreate a magical dish from the restaurant the night before: OK, well, there was definitely some sexual liberation in there, and obviously the base of coffee shops and community meeting places, and there was an immigrant population with their ethnic food, we’ve got that…

But there’s always something you can’t quite place, or something you would never have thought of, like a little turmeric in the sauce or juniper hiding in the bouquet garni. At best it’ll taste off, at worst it will set your stovetop on fire. Hamburg, Germany recently began an effort to rebrand its city as an artistic haven, hiring the consultancy firm Roland Berger to assist them in applying Florida’s guidelines to the city. As part of this plan, affordable housing was set to be demolished and replaced by shiny, expensive condos. But the cost of living rose, and as more money was spent on development, money for artists’ grants began to disappear. The very people the city said it wanted to attract formed a resistance. During a showdown between the squatters and city management, a group using the monikor “Not in Our Name!” issued a manifesto:

We hereby state, that in the western city centre it is almost impossible to rent a room in a shared flat for less than 450 Euro per month, or a flat for under 10 Euro per square meter. That the amount of social housing will be slashed by half within ten years. That the poor, elderly and immigrant inhabitants are being driven to the edge of town by Hartz IV (welfare money) and city housing-distribution policies. We think that your “growing city” is actually a segregated city of the 19th century: promenades for the wealthy, tenements for the rabble.

Richard Florida is so popular not because urban planners really love artists. Artists tend to the poor side, they don’t live up to their earning potential, and they are not the world’s best consumers. The planners might use Bohemian New York as an example of what a great city can be and accomplish, but they seem to forget the poverty, the social repression, and the anarchist tendencies of their residents. Despite all that, you understand why that era still stands as the urban ideal. From the 1890s to about World War I, Greenwich Village was a beacon to the radical, the misunderstood, the rootless, the literary, and the geniuses of the nation and beyond. The modernists and their social experimentation set the stage for the radical changes of the 20th century. While the same time period in England and continental Europe may have produced a transformation of literature and the visual arts, the focus in New York was on social reform: birth control, the end of censorship, women’s suffrage, anarchism, communism, rights for the poor, open marriage. The strict social strata of the Victorian era dissolved into chaos, women entered the intellectual world, and the rabble started mixing with the well-to-do. Slumming became a new hobby, with new bohemian tours of Greenwich Village provided (for a fee) to the wealthy, who wanted to feel they had participated in the vibrant new underworld. This mixture of disparate populations — men and women, immigrants and native New Yorkers, rich and poor — gave Bohemian New York its power. They met in the coffee shops and restaurants of Greenwich Village, and they talked and argued and shouted and slept together. Once New York journalists began writing about the movement, souls from all over the country flocked to the city to participate, and the momentum took over.

Christine Stansell writes in her account of this era, American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century, that “The desire was not so much to be famous or rich… but rather to matter.” A few did become famous, notably Emma Goldman and John Reed, but everyone else seemed infused with the knowledge that everything they did — from the conversations they had to what they were willing or unwilling to do for money — could be meaningful. Stansell’s addictive story of Greenwich Village is an ode to the potential for greatness that lies dormant in many cities: For a few decades, it seemed like everyone, even the spoiled and the talentless, found a way to contribute to this destruction of barriers. If you had no artistic talent, you could set up a salon in your living room and contribute that way. The outsider, and not very good writer, Margaret Anderson founded the magazine The Little Review and poured all of her money into it, bringing James Joyce’s Ulysses and the poetry of Ezra Pound to the States. Even attending a speech by Goldman or being an unchaperoned woman in a coffee shop was a revolutionary act. Sometimes it was selfishness cloaked in importance — you know, if I sleep with women other than my wife, I am helping to bring about an age of sexual liberation. But for the most part, the intent was to destroy the staid, capitalistic 19th century and bring about something new. As James Huneker put it (quoted by Stansell), Greenwich Village was “the best stamping-ground for men of talent. Ideas circulate. Brain tilts with brain. Eccentricity must show cause or be jostled.” The era wore itself out with the dawning of World War I — suddenly anarchism, communism, and rabble-rousing was out of style as a raging patriotism took over — but there’s a strong nostalgia for those years, and you hear the promise of it echoing in Florida’s ideas of the new creative cities.


But as Sharon Zukin writes in Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, “New York City lost its soul.” She dates this event to the early 20th century, when authenticity became the newest marketing strategy. Communities and activists like Jane Jacobs fought hard to retain original buildings and room for pedestrians, but that just became a new reason to jack up rents and force out any original residents. Home buyers like the grittiness of the old facades, but prefer its interiors expensively rehabbed. The authenticity became surface-only, and the neighborhoods began to homogenize. It’s not a problem unique to New York, and as we become a more urban society, our cities seem to become more bloated and lifeless. There’s no longer any need to talk to someone who isn’t exactly like you. If your brain is tilting with a brain exactly like your own, you’ll probably just reach a consensus rather than a wildly original idea. Neighborhoods get divided by economic conditions, the way you make your living, and whether or not you own a collection of ironic T-shirts. It’s not just Richard Florida’s Who’s Your City? but Who’s Your Neighborhood? or Who’s Your Block?

Without the tension and the chaos, it’s hard to get a creative spark going. City dwellers become like the men and women on guided tours of Greenwich Village: Maybe they’ll get their tarot cards read, have a conversation with an actor posing as a poet, and then, after they feel they’ve had a real urban experience, they can sleep soundly. It’s no coincidence that the great moments in cities’ histories generally come between moments of poverty or cataclysm, but Richard Florida has that covered, too. In this time of economic uncertainty, unemployment, and abandoned houses, he is peddling a new book called The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity. The book description talks about “consumption patterns” and “smart suburbs,” with an emphasis on what you buy, what kind of house you live in, and how you make your money. That’s not how you recreate Bohemian New York, where it was what you believed and how you contributed that really mattered. Or as Zukin puts it, the desire for authenticity is all too often fulfilled these days by a little graffiti on the facade of your favorite dive bar — art commissioned by the owners, of course, and not a work of vandalism — rather than a sense of community.

The real hope for a new dynamic city life is more likely to come out of Hamburg, where the city planners and consultancy group have actually decided to talk and compromise with the angry squatters and put the pricey new developments on hold. Those conversations seem more likely to hold the ingredients Florida keeps missing: the clashing together of opposites and the rallying together for the good of the public, and not just for those who can afford a loft in contemporary Greenwich Village. • 17 February 2010