Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City

Richard Lloyd


Standing at the intersection of North, Damen, and Milwaukee one morning over Labor Day weekend, Richard Lloyd was surprised to discover that the Borderline had closed for renovation. He’s got a soft spot for the four o’clock corner bar: during the 90s it was one of many local nightspots he’d frequented, first as a regular and then as a researcher, taping interviews with workers and drinkers for what would become Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City, the first book-length study of Wicker Park. “I’ve got to come back here more often,” said Lloyd, who left Chicago two years ago. “This neighborhood’s always changing.”

How it’s changing, and what’s driving that change, preoccupied Lloyd on and off for a decade–from 1993, when he was a University of Chicago grad student hanging out in the neighborhood, to 2003, when he left town for Nashville and a job teaching sociology at Vanderbilt University. His 295-page book, derived from his dissertation, asks how the bohemias of today are different from their forebears. More specifically, it asks how historically antibourgeois, avant-garde districts, dating from 19th-century Paris, evolved into “bohemian-themed entertainment district[s] where patrons are not starving artists but rather affluent professionals.” He found his answer in what he calls the “aesthetic economy” of Wicker Park: the bars, restaurants, clubs, coffeehouses, galleries, and design firms that cater to the making and selling of “lifestyle experiences.”

“I came in wanting to write about resistance and subculture,” says Lloyd, sitting at an upstairs table at Myopic Books, which has been in the neighborhood (albeit at four different addresses) for 15 years, “and I came out writing a story that was largely about work and occupations. That was surprising. It evolved into a story about how these activities get incorporated into a new kind of urban economy, a creative work culture [with] artists as useful labor.” In other words, he adds, the book “became a study of all the things that artists do when they’re not making art.”

It seems counterintuitive that Wicker Park’s success as a purported bohemia may have had little to do with the actual art made by artists who’ve lived and worked there. But that’s basically what Lloyd concludes. “You have a bunch of talented, educated people who are underoccupied, underpaid, who need money because their art is typically not remunerative–or not remunerative yet–and so are available for work,” he says. “The money that they do make is mostly not from art, which means they’re doing something else,” like working as bartenders, baristas, clerks, waiters, or Web designers. Their menial labor–and not their art, he argues–has fueled the reinvention of Wicker Park as an entertainment destination. “You can think of its artists, in a sense, as an exploited, exploitable workforce.”

In his closing pages Lloyd calls the arts a MacGuffin, Hitchcock’s term for an otherwise meaningless plot device that motivates his characters. They’re the pretext that spurs the real economic action in contemporary bohemias like Wicker Park. “Indeed,” he writes, “if fields like theater, poetry, or the visual arts had a larger market and better-compensated participants, it would reduce the need and opportunity for artists to capitalize on their subcultural competence in the more commercially viable enterprises that have agglomerated in and around the neighborhood.” (And yes, that’s how a lot of the book reads, though Lloyd’s interviewees add some color to offset the academese.)

Wicker Park’s a touchy subject, and though Lloyd lived in the area and spent a lot of time twirling on its barstools, his perspective is an outsider’s. Nearly all the usual suspects come up for discussion: Nelson Algren, Wesley Willis, the movie version of High Fidelity, “heroin chic,” the Rainbo, Liz Phair, Veruca Salt, the Flat Iron Building, Around the Coyote, Urbus Orbis, The Real World. Lloyd’s accounting of the Wicker Park music scene could just as easily have been gleaned from newspapers, and his look at the visual art scene glosses over the specifics that seem to perpetually send Chicago artists packing for New York. As a reviewer for In These Times recently put it, “Lloyd’s analysis of hipster trends and attitudes is limited by its charming innocence, reminiscent of a ’50s reporter checking out the Village to see what those beatnik kids are up to.” But Lloyd doesn’t claim to be an old-timer or a scenester, and says it doesn’t matter anyway: “I wasn’t setting out to find the real underground, the most authentic thing.”

He also wasn’t trying to write the history of Wicker Park, or a Baffler essay about commodified dissent, or an analysis of gentrification, though he can’t avoid touching on these themes. At one point in the book he meets a musician at a loft party who, upon learning that he’s doing a study on Wicker Park, narrows her eyes and says, “Oh, gentrification. Are you for it or against it?”

“It’s a story that everybody knows–it’s just one particular narrative,” says Lloyd. “There’s more than one book contained in Wicker Park, and there’s no way in which I would claim to have written the definitive story.”

It took many years at many colleges before Lloyd settled on an academic path. He grew up in California and attended junior colleges in Santa Rosa, Sacramento, and San Diego. “I was a pretty lazy, unmotivated student,” he says. But reading Tom Wolfe made him want to write about contemporary American culture and to major in sociology at Berkeley. He came to Chicago for grad school in 1992.

“I hadn’t intended to do urban sociology, but at the U. of C. there’s a long tradition of urban studies and making Chicago a laboratory,” he says. “It was easy to get sucked into that.” Then in 1993 he went to see a friend’s band play at Phyllis’ Musical Inn and got sucked into the Wicker Park nightlife. “The way I justified spending time up here was to start thinking about writing about it,” he says. “I really didn’t have any sense of what was going to unfold–as a younger guy, I just knew it was interesting. It wasn’t like I had some big overarching question in mind other than ‘How can I get out of Hyde Park?'”

In ’94 Lloyd moved to River West and began spending a lot of time at Urbus Orbis, a storied Wicker Park coffeehouse that had at that point been open five years. His first interviews were with Urbus owner Tom Handley. “When he first started showing up, Wicker Park was going through its first big upheaval,” says Handley. “We talked a lot about things that I had ideas about, that were a part of the general conversational milieu anyway–artist communities and their positive social impact on neighborhoods, why they’re inevitably drawn to low-income neighborhoods and why they inevitably spell their own destruction. . . . A portion of that whole conversation with Rich ended up being a seed of what he did.

“What was ironic,” adds Handley, “was that he was such a straitlaced intellectual nerdy type, and there’s all these drug-crazed artists in Wicker Park at the time. You wondered what the guy was all about. To certain people he got labeled a narc right away, and he never forgot. I think being thought of that way colored his engagement with the community. But he found a safe haven with some folks who would become central to the Urbus thing in later years.”

In 1996, when a scholarship ran out, Lloyd left grad school and “went native.” He’d moved to Bucktown by then, went to galleries, plays, and parties, and was a regular at the Borderline, the Blue Note, and the Rainbo. He soon got familiar with a cast of locals, from waiters, bouncers, and bartenders to theater producers, Web designers, and “facile posers.”

He thought he saw a pattern. If Wicker Park was a bohemia, he thought, it was a newfangled one whose commercial cachet was tied in with the reinvention of cities–including Mayor Daley’s–as centers of culture, entertainment, and tourism. He observed that many artists made their rent in the trenches of such enterprises, catering to a new class of consumers perpetually in search of the next cool thing. He watched as businesses like Quimby’s and Earwax became good neighbors for trendy boutiques, restaurants, clubs, Web designers, and, eventually, luxury lofts and condos.

“It’s this transformation that distinguishes what I’d call ‘neobohemia’ from the Left Bank or Greenwich Village,” says Lloyd. “There’s always that tension, where you want to be pure, resist the market and the philistines, but you also want to sell your art–have it both ways. But capitalism works differently now than the way it did 150 years ago.”

Lloyd went back to the U. of C. in 1999, got his master’s, and, while lecturing full-time at Saint Xavier, continued his postgraduate work. “I was more focused,” he says. “What the book was going to be about was taking shape.” He researched scholarly and popular sources, returning often to Wicker Park to observe and do more interviews. “I was writing my bar tab off of my taxes,” he says, “or I would’ve been if I made any money.” Eventually he amassed a single-spaced typed transcript of over 1,000 pages. He defended his dissertation in 2002 and, after moving to Nashville, started trying to find a publisher. He credits a Routledge editor, David McBride, with helping him shape the “boring, brutal” paper into more of a narrative; some chapters (like one on the history of bohemia) were condensed.

Lloyd’s approach isn’t entirely new. It builds on pioneering work by New York-based sociologist Sharon Zukin, who in books like Loft Living, a study of SoHo in the 1970s, charted the impact of artists on the urban economy. Lloyd goes further, though, with his often exhaustively detailed accounts of service work–tending bar at the Borderline, managing Mirai Sushi, or, in an example of “digital bohemia,” concocting marketing campaigns for Boom Cubed, a Wicker Park design firm that went from making flyers for local hip-hop acts to contracting with global corporations like Nike.

This perspective impressed Lloyd’s dissertation director at the U. of C., sociologist Saskia Sassen. “It’s precisely because he started from the ground up that he produced a different type of analysis, and thereby added a new, powerful variable to the picture,” she says. Many other studies, she says, “start with the big picture and then go find the numbers and cases that illustrate the larger picture.”

In August 1993 Billboard famously proclaimed Wicker Park “Cutting Edge’s New Capital,” citing the musical triumvirate of Liz Phair, Urge Overkill, and the Smashing Pumpkins as proof. Months later the New York Times ran a piece called “Edgy in Chicago,” in which Red Red Meat’s Tim Rutili predicted Lloyd’s thesis, protesting, “It isn’t Paris in the 1920s. It really isn’t.”

The spotlight didn’t just draw art students and aspiring musicians. It accelerated the influx of interlopers, members of what sociologist Richard Florida would later dub the “creative class”–or, in Lloyd’s words, “latte-sipping weekend dabblers who want to live like artists but without the real sacrifices.” The “increasing number of young people that formed a second and third wave of bohemian aspirants,” he writes, “were more interested in making the scene than they were in making art.” The shift spurred the ongoing displacement of light industry and old-line businesses, not to mention many longtime residents, but Lloyd gives this process only cursory attention.

Neo-Bohemia’s time frame runs roughly from 1989, with the opening of Urbus Orbis and the inaugural Around the Coyote Festival, to 2001 and the street protests against The Real World: Chicago, which was taped in a loft in the Urbus Orbis building three years after the coffeehouse closed, unable to pay the rent. This late-80s start misses a lot of the groundwork for the transformation–like developer Wes Andrews’s efforts to fill the Flat Iron Building and the Northwest Tower with artists and arts start-ups years before Bob Berger did the same. What about the formation of the Near Northwest Arts Council? Marc Smith and the birth of the Chicago-style poetry slam at the Get Me High Lounge? (Well, OK, that was Bucktown.) What about Green, or Eleventh Dream Day? Why does New Crime Productions’ Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which inaugurated the Chopin Theater in 1991, rate but not earlier plays staged by the Curious Theatre Branch in a North Avenue storefront? What about Face the Street, an artist-organized studio walk and multimedia festival that disappeared when Jim Happy-Delpech launched Around the Coyote?

Such activities weren’t “visible to outsiders, or arguably to insiders,” insists Lloyd. “There’d been an artist presence going back decades . . . but there wasn’t a scene. For it to be a scene, it requires spaces that lend it coherence.” Urbus Orbis was the first space, he argues, that “allowed for interactions that fostered a sense of community and opportunities for mutual support and collaboration.” (Patrons of the Rainbo circa 1985 will no doubt take issue with that.)

He did make a point of seeking out people who’d been there longer, including sculptor and onetime Urbus Orbis manager Alan Gugel, Rainbo manager and sometime musician Jim Garbe, poet and Club Dreamerz bouncer Michael Watson, and a bar worker and poet identified only as Raul, who grew up in the area. “What was it like then,” Lloyd wanted to know, “when Phyllis’ goes from pumpin’ out polka to punk instead? How does this happen, where [the neighborhood’s] nothing and then becomes something?” But Lloyd could’ve talked to more established Wicker Park artists and musicians–those who actually make a living from their work. Surely they’ve had some impact on the local economy too.

urbus Orbis closed in 1998; the first Starbucks arrived a few years later. Lloyd’s penultimate point is obvious: the more investment moved in, the more “cultural producers” moved out. Of course some still live or work in the neighborhood. Some manage full-time careers, bearing the brunt of higher housing costs; others subsidize their work with outside jobs, art-related or otherwise. But “Wicker Park isn’t the same kind of vibrant platform now that it was ten years ago for new, innovative work–it’s too expensive.”

In The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida asserts that terms like “bourgeois” and “bohemian” are increasingly irrelevant because artists no longer feel alienated in the “creative economy.” As Lloyd explains it, Florida believes that bohemia has become the new mainstream. But Lloyd argues for bohemia’s continuing vitality, even if such vitality is in the service of capitalism, and faults Florida for not posing a crucial question.

“Who pays the price for the privileges of the ‘creative class?'” he asks. “Artists themselves are forced to bear the burden. In Wicker Park you have the displacement of a population who are unable to participate in the benefits of neighborhood renewal.” Wicker Park still remains vital, though, because “artists continue to come back here and act in ways that have a disproportionate impact on its ethos. They still decorate the sidewalks and work behind the bar and play at the [clubs] and show in the galleries….There’s still the Flat Iron, the Chopin Theater, the Guild Complex, the Double Door. They’re enduring institutions.”

Neo-Bohemia is ultimately a record of Lloyd’s commitment to Wicker Park’s value as a subject of ongoing study. His MacGuffin analogy isn’t very flattering to Chicago’s cultural establishment, which has finally got around to realizing it needs to support and nurture its artists to help fuel Florida’s “creative economy.” What Sharon Zukin said about art and commerce in New York ten years ago could just as well apply to Chicago today. “When push comes to shove, culture has been an interim development strategy, useful in periods of uncertainty,” she wrote. “Artists have been welcomed as ‘bridge’ gentrifiers–but not as statutory tenants deserving protection when property values rise.”

Lloyd doesn’t offer any solutions. Wicker Park, he says, “will always be a dynamic entity. It’ll always be vulnerable to rising property values or colonization….People will always feel it’s embattled. Even though artists who are committed to constructing this scene we might call bohemia want to feel a sense of autonomy or authorship, it’s always a contingent and vulnerable thing. They’re never masters of their environment in the way that they might hope to be.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry, Kristina Marie Krug.