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Bohemian Rhapsody: University of Chicago profs study the migration of hipsters and other urban phenomena

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By Sean Redmond

Entering Wicker Park by the Blue Line, you emerge into the intersection of Damen, North and Milwaukee to a long-familiar sight. There’s the Double Door across the street, Flash Taco and, until just recently, the façade of Filter, Wicker Park’s former hipster coffeehouse extraordinaire. These staples, like many along these primary roadways, fade into the background with repeated visits; yes, you know you can find Reckless Records and American Apparel and the venues and art galleries in the surrounding area, but getting where you want to go requires little thought once you’re situated enough to put your eyes to the sidewalk and your feet into autopilot. But then one day, you get off the train and, surprise, the boarded-up shell of Filter is replaced with an expansive Bank of America, and your mind jolts back into motion. Suddenly, a wave of thoughts bursts forth: “Man, there are a lot of banks in the area,”or “Wicker Park really is getting commercialized,” or  “Maybe I need to start spending more time in Logan Square.”

Yet, while city residents have been lamenting the gentrification of Wicker Park for some time, the fact remains it’s still one of the more creative and individualistic neighborhoods in Chicago. Yes, increasing rents and an influx of corporate mainstays such as the new Levi’s Store on Milwaukee may arouse hipster dismay and further shuttle habitants toward Ukrainian Village or Logan Square, but nevertheless, Wicker Park will likely remain the city’s go-to bohemian hotspot for the indeterminate future.

But what makes a neighborhood bohemian in the first place? The answer might seem obvious at first, and many would argue that its nature prevents a definitive response, but there are, nevertheless, certain characteristics that seem to make up the hallmarks of the “bohemian” distinction. What exactly those qualities are, however, is another question altogether.

Dan Silver sits back, relaxing at his desk, a wide smile stretching the edges of his dark goatee. He’s eager to talk about his achievements; working with fellow University of Chicago faculty members Lawrence Rothfield and Terry Nichols Clark, the three have recently completed a groundbreaking study on just what it takes to create a “scene,” whether it be bohemian or otherwise. The enterprise, termed the Cultural Amenities Project, is a product of the UofC’s Cultural Policy Center, which was co-founded by Rothfield, an associate English and comp-lit professor, in 1999. He teamed with Clark, a sociology professor, and Silver, a doctoral candidate in Social Thought, in 2003 in an attempt to evaluate the impact of cultural developments on a city’s growth. “The initial goal [was to see] to what extent do the cultural amenities drive urban development,” explains Silver of the project’s origins. The three men hoped that a crude count of amenities could be used to help guide policies with the aim of augmenting a neighborhood’s cultural strengths in ways that could help stabilize communities, attract businesses and spur economic growth. What the three ultimately ended up with, however, was a much more complicated quantitative rubric by which they could judge a neighborhood or city based on a number of categories, which, when compiled and averaged, could then be compared to other cities and to ideal neighborhood types, such as “cosmopolitan,” “urban” and, yes, “bohemian.”

It’s easy to scoff at the notion of scientifically categorizing the “bohemian” lifestyle. Much like when your father thinks it’s cool to name-check MTV shows, a red flag goes up at the thought of cloistered old academics trying to uncover the essence of what makes a scene, well, a scene. But these three have a greater direct involvement in neighborhoods and scenes than their ivory-tower pedigrees might portend. The 31-year-old Silver, for example, is a bass player who played in a band called The Groove Junkies while attending Berkeley, and has been with three other bands since moving to Chicago, including his current group, Call It Karma.

Rothfield, too, has found himself at the center of his fair share of bohemian excitement, although it first took some trudging through the whitewash of suburban muck. “My interest in scenes,” he intones, “probably goes all the way back to having suffered the trauma of moving at age 12 from New York to West Hartford, Connecticut, just as I was becoming aware of the existence of Greenwich Village in 1968. West Hartford in those days was the bedroom community for insurance-industry employees. You can imagine the excitement,” he deadpans. From there, however, he too would go on to spend time at Berkeley, where his sister remains “deeply caught up in the counter-cultural music scene”; his time in the Upper West Side of New York City at the end of the 1970s, amidst the heavy waves of gentrification, brought him face-to-face with the life of the scene as well. Clark is an avid bicyclist who’s done research in both LA and Chicago, leading bicycling tours around the latter pointing out landmarks of the city’s culture. He also serves on various planning and advisory boards throughout the city, and is a member of a TIF Board working to improve the commercialization of Cottage Grove.

These real-world experiences certainly proved helpful when what started as an exploration of cultural amenities and their relation to a city’s growth quickly shifted gears to focus more broadly on the nature of scenes and their composites. (For more information on the process, see information below.) “[The scenes we chose] elaborate the different modes of being on display that seemed important to us,” explains Silver. The concept of self-exhibition is central to the notion of scenes: “When you’re in a scene,” he explains, “you’re treating your life as if playing out a scene.” This realization provided the crucial step in shifting the project’s ultimate focus.

According to their report on the project, “The concept of scene…permits theorizing the internal character of urban cultural spaces in terms of the qualities participants deem valuable and the holistic networks within which any single cultural amenity is located” (their emphasis). Silver further illuminates the concept. “A theater is not the same as a jazz club…you have to see the qualitative experiences involved in participating in different scenes and try to figure out a way to map and model amenities in terms of the practices they make possible,” he explains. For example, “How many outlets does an urban space provide you to realize yourself through self-expression, to be near to charismatic figures, to feel like ‘everybody knows your name,’ to get an authentically local flavor, and how do these and other possibilities interact?” These are the kinds of questions that lie central to the notion of scene, and it is this approach that sets this project apart from the proverbial pack. “The kind of thing you’d get in the past is people just counting up the number of juice bars in the city and seeing who goes there, their jobs, etc.,” Silver and Rothfield comment. “[But] you won’t understand amenities unless you understand how they cluster—[understand their] context and quality of the experience that they invite participants to pursue.”

The categories which they used to evaluate the amenities, as well as the scene types they chose and the values that correlate to their ideal portrayals, were chosen and established by the men based on a history of socio-cultural research; but the final decision on the method and categories of classification were ultimately their own. “I don’t want to make the claim that these [categories] are exhaustive,” Silver admits. “It is a difficult and controversial thing to do, and many people could question our judgments.” Furthermore, “these [categories] are really attuned to twenty-first-century modern American culture,” he points out, but stresses that “the big three [legitimacy, theatricality and authenticity] travel well.”

The results generally fall in line with common conceptions, while at the same time shedding light on some less visible aspects of our various cultures. To illustrate this, the three men focused on the specific scene of “Bohemia,” which is defined in the report as follows: “The bohemian scene exhibits resistance to traditional legitimacy, affirms individual self-expression, eschews utilitarianism, values charisma, promotes (slightly) a form of elitism, encourages members to keep their distance, promotes transforming oneself into an exhibition, values fighting the mainstream, affirms attending to the local, encourages identification with primordial ethnic roots, attacks the abstract state, discourages corporate culture, and attacks the authenticity of reason.” The three then looked at Chicago’s most bohemian neighborhoods—those with average values that matched most closely to their ideal “Bohemian Index”—and compared Chicago’s bohemian scenes to those found in New York and LA.

The results were a mix of both the expected—Wicker Park, Logan Square and Bucktown all scored high on the Bohemian Index—and the unexpected. For example, while one might expect typical arts-friendly neighborhoods to be swarming with recent college graduates, their results show that these locations are actually home to more retirees than youth. This is a prominent find, for it refutes assertions by sociologist Richard Florida that the “creative class” rests entirely within the 25-34-year-old class of college grads. Clark uses his own term, the “gray creative class,” to describe older patrons who “foster and maintain the infrastructure [of the artistic scene].” Rothfield, too, is averse to Florida’s concept of a homogenous “creative class.” “The idea of a creative class that has a uniform set of tastes is a radical oversimplification,” he stresses. “There’s no one creative class.”

Other notable findings include the fact that, while most bohemian neighborhoods are averse to corporate culture, Chicago’s neighborhoods can actually be seen embracing it, as evidenced by high values of “corporate” under the “authenticity” categorization. “The Wicker Park scene certainly has a corporate element that has in some ways allowed it to thrive through, for example, offering many graphic-design jobs,” Silver explains. “When you study Wicker Park you see all these Internet start-up and designer-software companies and the goal there is to sell, however uncomfortably that fits with the values of individual expression and transgression which are equally present.” This portrayal of Wicker Park as an example of a neighborhood with close ties between culture and commerce was the focus of the recently published “Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Post-Industrial City,” written by one of Clark’s students, Richard Lloyd.

Chicago’s bohemian neighborhoods are also unique in that, as opposed to similar neighborhoods in NYC and LA, they do attract significant numbers of recent college graduates. While it may seem like the two go hand in hand to inhabitants of Chicago, the data suggests the national trend may be otherwise. Comparatively cheap rents probably play a considerable factor in the discrepancy. “You can live in Chicago’s Wicker Park much more cheaply than you can live in Manhattan or Hollywood,” Silver points out, “but not all cheap places have the right mix of amenities and people to create the right ‘bad is good’ feel.”

So what’s next for Rothfield, Silver and Clark? The three are currently working to publish their results in a book, a draft of which they hope will be finished this year. “We’ve got several hundred pages and we’re revising it but we’re not gonna rush,” Clark assures. “It’s just so big and original, we don’t want to rush it.” After that, however, the future is anybody’s guess—but rest assured, they definitely aren’t finished with the idea of scenes just yet. “What we’ve got now is an analytical vehicle that we haven’t perfected,” explains Rothfield. “It’s like a Model T—[not perfect,] but we can drive quite a long way with it, even if it is a bit clunky.” And considering the potential impact these studies can have on future neighborhood developments, it’s no surprise they’re in no hurry to move off the subject just yet. “[Our findings can] help people and neighborhoods better understand what they have, so they can better decide what they want to turn into,” he states.

This is especially true in the case of Hyde Park, which the three men obviously have a vested interest in. “Hyde Park is trying to make itself more attractive to potential residents and many people here say we should be more like Wicker Park,” Rothfield explains, “but if you actually look at the data, they’re totally different. For Hyde Park to look like Wicker Park it’d have to turn itself inside out.” Silver goes on to further note that “Wicker Park is a place with more opportunities for self-expression than most other places in the U.S… [while] Hyde Park [has] more like a smaller-town feel, more egalitarian and neighborly.” Granted, some might maintain that these kinds of observations are self-evident, but actually having a comprehensive composite of the amenities each neighborhood offers allows one to see the limitations in trying to transform a neighborhood into something that, as the results show, it is inherently not.

And of course, there’s a little bit of personal gain to be had with the project, too. “I just want to persuade Hot Doug’s to open up a shop in Hyde Park. It’s a gourmet hotdog place, people come from miles around, it’s very cheap and very delicious,” Rothfield says. And on a somewhat more serious note: “My goal is to get Hyde Park to become a little more hip,” he says, despite the difficulties the study suggests in doing so. “It’s a quixotic quest.”

Making the Scene: The process behind the cultural-amenities study

The three University of Chicago academics first looked at hundreds of different cultural amenities, including theaters, art galleries, jazz clubs, bookstores, museums and even liberal arts colleges. The resulting list stretched across approximately 40,000 zip codes, stemming from a comprehensive compilation of firms culled from the standard Yellow Pages, the methodology they deemed the most beneficial to the project’s approach.

“It’s not really correct to say you don’t have a scene if you don’t have firms,” admits Rothfield in discussing the limitations of the method. “Obviously there’s a lot of street-level activity that doesn’t get into the business section of the Yellow Pages… that’s one level we’re sure we’re undercounting, since we can’t measure the level of street music or what kinds of clothes the people on the streets are wearing.” For example, in the case of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury in the sixties, he explains that, concerning “the head shops and poster shops, we would have gotten a little bit of it… but the actual street life is hard to get.” He adds: “Scenes like raves that are illegal or quasi-illegal [are hard to detect]… As long as you have people meeting someplace but they’re not institutionalized enough to appear in the Yellow Pages, we’re not going to catch that.” Nevertheless, Rothfield is quick to assert that in general “the presence of particular sorts of firms is an indicator there is some kind of scene present.”

Once the amenities list was compiled, the next step was to assign values to each of the types of amenities (jazz club, cultural center, etc.) based on three major categories, divided into fifteen subcategories and assessed on a scale of 1 to 5. (Individual idiosyncrasies of a location were not taken into account; a jazz club here and a jazz club in LA would receive the same fifteen scores.) The major classifications—Legitimacy, Theatricality and Authenticity—were each split into five further classifications; for example, “Transgressiveness,” “Glamorousness” and “Neighborly” all fall under the Theatricality branch of categorization, whereas “Corporate” and “Local” are examples of Authenticity and “Egalitarian” and “Self-expressive” are subdivisions of Legitimacy. Each amenity was then judged based on each of these fifteen subcategories, and assigned a value: 5 meaning the amenity displayed the qualities of the category, 3 meaning it was neutral and 1 meaning it displayed the opposite qualities. The values for all of the amenities of a neighborhood were then added up, and each category’s total was divided by the number of amenities to get the average values for the neighborhood. These fifteen average values of a neighborhood’s subcategories could then be compared to other neighborhoods or to “ideal” levels.

As for determining what categories to use, which categories correlated to which types of neighborhood, what types of neighborhoods exist and where the lines of distinction should be drawn, the process was lengthy and proved to be the most difficult of the project’s tasks. “We spent over two years on that [aspect],” Clark recalls, explaining how they performed scientific processes to see where they disagreed and why. The categories—Legitimacy, Theatricality and Authenticity—stem from a history of sociological research, dating through Weber, Heidegger and countless others. And as for the neighborhood types, or “scenes”? These emerged from less obvious sources: primarily literature, music and other cultural creations. Thus, one such scene is described as “Renoir’s Loge,” which values institutions like art schools and opera. Another is described as “Wagner’s Folk.” But not every scene correlates to a high-culture allusion—for instance, what Silver terms the “NASCAR Scene” lies (obviously) outside these parameters.

How BOHO is your ‘hood?
Bohemian Scale of Chicago neighborhoods (zip code groups)
0 = closest to “ideal,” according to the Cultural Amenities Project:

Horner Park, Irving Park, North Center, St. Ben’s, Roscoe Village: 13

Albany Park, Lincoln Square, North Park, Budlong Woods, Ravenswood:15

Irving Park, Logan Square, Portage Park: 15

Bucktown, Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Wicker Park, West Town: 15

Lakeview, North Center, St. Ben’s, Roscoe Village, Wrigleyville: 15

Edgewater, Uptown, Buena Park: 15

Lakeview, North Center, St. Ben’s, Uptown, Buena Park, Wrigleyville: 17

Andersonville, Edgewater, Ravenswood, Uptown, Buena Park: 17

Bridgeport, Washington Park: 18

Bridgeport, Pilsen, Little Village, Near West: 18

Bucktown, Wicker Park, Near West, River West, Ukrainian Village: 18

Humboldt Park: 18

Rogers Park: 18

60628: 18

Hyde Park, Kenwood, South Shore, Washington Park: 18

Belmont-Cragin, Logan Square: 18

South Shore: 18

Near South, Greektown, Near West, Tri-Taylor, UIC, University Village: 19

Chatham, South Shore: 19

Washington Park: 19

Marquette Park: 19

Albany Park, North Park, Budlong Woods, Edison Park, Jefferson Park: 19

Bronzeville, Hyde Park, Kenwood: 19

Lincoln Square, North Park, Budlong Woods, West Ridge, Warre: 19

Dearborn Park, Printer’s Row, Near South: 20

Bridgeport, Chinatown, Pilsen, Little Village, Near West: 20

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