What is it to be a Bohemian? The Where & When of Bohemian Culture

Counter-culture trends seem to repeat themselves throughout history. The cycle of the up and coming generation of youth latching onto a small established sub-sect of society is a familiar one. Trying to make their own place in the world, they identify with ideals that are in direct contradiction to the standards held by their parents. Increasingly aided by popular media, they discovered a world of artists unrestrained by traditional norms. Incredibly alluring to the new generation, the area where these original artisanal inhabitants lived are overrun. Ultimately leading to the decline and eventual break-up of what spawned the desire to flock to these boroughs in the first place.

Bohemian, a term that embodies certain notions of living outside of contemporary societal norms. A name that has its origins with the Romani people of Europe, commonly referred to as Gypsies. The Romani entered Europe from the East, through the land of Bohemia. Due to this and that the true nature of their origins being unknown to Europeans they were saddled with the moniker ‘Bohemians.’ Nomads remembered as eccentric circus performers traveling the countryside in their wagon caravans. The term ‘bohemian’ would be used from the 20th century until now to mean a slew of different things. Ranging from the jazz era where people were judged harshly for living a lifestyle full of partying and debauchery to later when the next generation came of age, participating in the same behavior yet embracing the term. Into the present day where the phrase has been co-oped by marketing strategist selling colorful floral patterns in the pages of high gloss magazines.

The Water Drinkers were the first popularized Bohemians

Scene de Boheme

The Water Drinkers earned their moniker due to the fact that they were so poor the only thing they could order at the cafes was water. This small collection of friends were artists who lived in the same district of Paris. A run down district notorious for cheap rent. They embraced an impoverished lifestyle mostly out of necessity. One of the members of the Water Drinkers was the author Henry Murger. An ambitious writer searching for notoriety. He saw his lifestyle as a means to end, one that would allow him the opportunity to devote himself to his writing. While writing a series of articles, the majority of them autobiographical, he titled one of them Scenes de la Vie Boheme this term struck a chord with audiences. It’s unlikely he was the first to coin the term, but after a musical was made from his piece, it’s place in the popular lexicon was established. The attention he garnered from his stories about this Parisian subculture brought him the success he had been searching for. A publisher released a collection of his work, allowing him to live a life of comfort, rather than one of subsistence.

The mystique of this group of poor artists was alluring to the public. It fuels the popular interest in this previously unknown lifestyle. Many people start to move into the area around Cafe Momus. They didn’t share the idea that this lifestyle was a means to an end. The population of this new influx was instead looking for an escape from the rigidity of their lives in the cafes and avenues of ‘Bohemia’. Many people from this second generation fell victim to addiction and criminal behavior. One extreme example of this was Paul Verlaine. He became heavily addicted to absinthe. One day in a drunken stupor he shot and killed his wife. His troubles followed him into prison, where his behavior continued to be problematic. The original members, the ones who had been described in Murger’s stories became disdainful of the new additions. They saw the vibrant lively scene being turned sour and ugly. The author Gabriel Guillemot wrote that ‘which one might call the Bohemia of legend, is well and truly dead.’

Greenwich Village wasn’t always Greenwich Village

Before Greenwich Village became a mecca for the U.S. Counter culture, it was the sleepy Latin quarter of New York City. As the bohemian scene in Paris began to wind down, a new one was beginning here. Beginning in much the same way as the scene in Paris had, by a tight knit group of artist and political radicals. They met in the local bars and restaurants to discuss their views on the arts and to share their work with one another. Less concerned with profits and more focused on getting their work performed, a counterpoint to the Broadway theater scene began to take shape. Early writers of the American naturalist movement, along with the first published female photographers also lived in what would become Greenwich Village, but at the time was dubbed the ‘American Left Bank.’ One block in particular earned the title of ‘Genius Row’ for the concentrated collection of artists who lived there. Madame Blanchard owned a ‘the House of Genius’ in the center of this block. She only rented to artists, who decorated the inside of the building with murals and poetry. When she died, the property was purchased and slotted for high rise development. The plans fell through and the property was sold to New York University.

As the scene in New York coalesced, coverage by local newspapers began to attract the attention of mainstream culture. Tourists began to flock to the neighborhood for a glimpse of the eclectic inhabitants. As word spread more and more people flocked to the area to become residents, and the dynamic of the area began to change. Coinciding with prohibition, the district became famous for its back alley speakeasies. Personalities reminiscent of the characters of F. Scott Fitzgerald became the new norm. While the area still was a mecca for artists, it was also punctuated by people looking for a good time. It all came to a close with the stock market crash of 1929, when the whole country was plunged into hard times.

 The Beat Movement which paved the way for the Hippie movement.

After WWII, New York saw the revitalizing of its arts community by a small group of writers who became known as the fathers of the ‘Beat Generation.’ Writers like Kerouac, Ginsburg and Burroughs were friends in New York, and served in the same way as previous groups of bohemians did, as sounding boards for their new ideas and projects. A love of jazz music influenced the style of their writing. They incorporated the idea of improvisation into their writing process. Kerouac wrote ‘On the Road’ in a furious spree of writing onto one long scroll of paper. They had disdain for traditional ideas of mainstream culture in the same way as previous bohemian movements. This feeling expressed itself heavily in their work. They pushed the limits of social boundaries. The controversy that ensued over this, cast their work in front of a much larger audience.

Once again the notoriety of this small band of artists spread. People began to migrate to the artistic centers in New York and San Francisco. Mainstream media capitalized on the popularity of this counter-culture movement more than it ever previously had. References popped up in movies and television shows with jazz club enthusiasts in berets and sunglasses using slang words like hip and square. The original members felt this co-opting of their lifestyle was the ultimate insult. Allen Ginsburg wrote to the New York Times to express his feelings about this saying ‘If beatniks and not illuminated Beat poets overrun this country, they will have been created not by Kerouac but by industries of mass communication which continue to brainwash man.’

Without the interruption caused earlier by both world wars, the coverage spread much further. After several years of promoting the ‘beatnik’ lifestyle, the idea became commonplace in U.S. Households. The youth of that generation flocked west as they came of age, searching for the freedom and beauty they had seen portrayed on screen. Their numbers swelling in cities like San Francisco, whole districts of flop houses and cafes springing up to accommodate the new arrivals. Over time, with drugs and alcohol playing a larger role in the lifestyle of the youth, the mood of the scene began to change; moving away from literature and arts to drug fueled exploration. Culminating in what became known as the ‘Summer of Love’ in 1967, and sparking the hippie movement that washed over California. A second wave of youth over-running the state, followed by another round of pop culture latching onto the promotion of this demographic. Combine that with the offspring of the Baby-Boomers becoming adults and looking to find their place in the world.

Currently we can see the rise of bohemian culture again. Marketers promoting the counter culture at levels never even imagined by their predecessors. Once more, people have embraced the idea of breaking with the establishment, all forms of branding have fostered this sentiment. Cities like Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas serve as the new meccas for these movements. Artistic communities, that are already beginning to struggle with the influx of people searching to express themselves in these counter-culture hubs. It’s likely that the function these cities serve will be short lived. There is no doubt however that new social circles will birth similar destinations in the future. The only question is where these new cities will pop up?


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