Bohemian New York
Writer Inigo Thomas explores the bohemian lifestyle, present and past, and its place in New York history in this tour of the city he knows so well. He pauses along the way to profile several legendary bohemians.
There's no bohemia in today's New York. Nothing resembles Greenwich Village in its various incarnations from the turn of the 20th century to the 1960s, or the art-scene East Village of the late 1970s and 1980s, or Williamsburg in the early 1990s. You can try to find bohemia in far-away Bushwick or Red Hook, both districts of Brooklyn. You can go over the Hudson to the disused warehouses of Jersey City; to Harlem; or even across the harbor to Staten Island, where, in the 1950s, in a house near the ferry terminal, the bohemian critic and Henry James scholar Marius Bewley threw legendary weekendlong parties at which he sometimes dressed as a cardinal, so legendary that I heard about these gatherings across the ocean, in London, 40 years on. But you don't come to find such a place, do you? You come to live the life.
Bohemia doesn't exist as a place. There's no point chasing after it. The bars, saloons, and clubs where bohemians once congregated—the Cedar Tavern on University Place (where the Abstract Expressionist painters met), Cafe Reggio on McDougal Street (a hang-out for the Beat poets, for Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac), CBGB on the Bowery (the punk bohemian metropolis of the '70s and early '80s)—aren't bohemian in any sense. Today, the clientele at these places are likely to be students or tourists.
That's not to say there aren't bohemians in the city. There are, but they choose not to live among each other, in a village or a quarter, where they would drive themselves, and those around them, near-mad; bohemians in group invariably do. Christine Stansell's entertaining American Moderns, a history of Greenwich Village bohemia from 1900 to 1920, chronicles the lives of a group of bohemian self-dramatists—Mable Dodge, John Reed, Max Eastman, and many others—who went about making their names often by torturing friends with their arguing and affairs. Whenever bohemians are together, they're likely to be indifferent to the feelings of others. They argue and coerce one another, though their arguing and coercing are sometimes distinguishable from their indifference to other people. Gary Indiana, who lived the East Village bohemia of the 1980s, says that after you've lived in New York for a time you end up liking the people you loathed. I might add that once you start liking those you hated, you're through with bohemianism.
Bohemians aren't necessarily preoccupied by artistic endeavors—or the doing or the making of anything. Not all artists are bohemian, though bohemians invariably live as if their lives were art. They live by love affairs and passions, art by other means, and, when affairs go wrong or passions fade, they nurse the maximum regret—the dramatic falling out, the theatrical breaking-up—with red wine or drugs or wanderings, the serious gloom a necessary counterweight to all the overexuberance.
In my experience, when a bohemian-minded friend arrives in New York, the entire city has tended to assume a more bohemian character: Bohemians are intensely influential, forever altering their immediate surroundings. They're always visitors, whether they live here or not, always unsettled. They're without ordinary troubles. They're out of touch with the life that's considered real. They're more anachronistic than alienated. They're hopeless, yet mysteriously capable of getting by without anyone knowing how they do so. They're people of impossibly modest means who nevertheless live often life more richly or vividly than anyone else. They're irregular in every habit and instinct save one—an irrepressible urge to move, against what appears to be their best interests, whenever they feel too comfortable. They shift from high life to low life and vice versa. One day they convince themselves they are tortured by love; the next they express their conviction that nothing is more enduring. Everything in their lives is animated by intensely felt subjective experience.
With a true bohemian, there's never a chance of assimilation; life is a condition of permanent resistance to belonging (to place, to family, anything resembling a home), though I've always believed they tend to be at their best in New York. It's a good city for émigrés, for those passing through, for the strays and the wayward, the people permanently estranged from home—until New York appears unbearably homely and domesticated, as it can when seen from certain angles.
Many New Yorkers complain that New York is not what it was—back in the 1970s or the 1950s, or in the Gilded Age. But that's because they are, or have become, New Yorkers, and it's a condition of belonging to complain. For those who don't belong, and in an era when border controls are fiercer than ever, when you're forced to belong perhaps more than you'd like, it's the bohemian's achievement (if they have no other) that they don't appear to belong anywhere.
Recently, I went to visit a bohemian friend, who had recently arrived in New York. He was at the Chelsea, the hotel famous less for its comfort—there's no room service, for example—than for those who have stayed in its beds, or who sometimes died en suite. It's where Sid Vicious killed Nancy Spungen, and from its front door Dylan Thomas walked out into a day and did not return. My friend was staying with friends who'd also recently arrived from London. (I've done the same myself, this staying with friends from out-of-town, in nomadic phases, and there have been several in my New York existence, months when I've not lived anywhere.) He occupied the sofa in the main room of a surprisingly elegant and recently restored set of rooms, so very out of character with rest of this legendarily shabby-chic hotel—the pleasantly seedy corridors, the dust in the lobby, the reassuring disorder at the front desk and the jaded spontaneity of those who work behind it. The artwork in hallways and stairwells, which once looked fresh to some, vibrantly colorful in an '80s way, is now catastrophically inert, speaking to no one, except, maybe, to some of the hotel's lifers—the people who live at the Chelsea, among them a few surviving Chelsea Girls of the Andy Warhol era.
You either like this sort of atmosphere or you don't, and the Chelsea is more expensive than it was—close to 200 bucks a night, including tax. You might prefer the Harlem Flop House, a brownstone with just four rooms on 122nd St., which is popular with a curator from Tate Britain, and close to Harlem jazz clubs such as The Lenox Lounge, Lucy's, Perk's, and Showmans, not far also from the white-stone tomb of Ulysses S. Grant on 123rd Street and Riverside Drive. In the summer, weekly jazz concerts are performed on the plaza in front of the Grant mausoleum, and on warm, clear, humid nights, when the fireflies are sparking, the light fading to the west over the Hudson, few experiences are as haunting and as beautiful as an open air jazz concert performed in front of the memorial to an American president and general who fought against slavery and for the preservation of the Union. There are jazz aficionados, many of them seated in folding jazz chairs, at their jazz picnics; others are dancing; the rest stand staring at the musicians (you can buy a picnic from the nearby Fairway Market on the river and 135th Street). These concerts aren't New York occasions, however, they're an American experience, in which you are thrown into the history of a continent and into the history of those Americans whose music is an expression of their experience of suffering and their triumph over the worst of it.
Inigo Thomas lives in New York, though from time to time he considers living elsewhere. He is a journalist, an editor, and has worked for Slate, George, and the London Review of Books. He has an enthusiasm for voyages of exploration and for 18th-century natural science.