A Modest Proposal for Saving San Francisco’s Bohemian Neighborhoods

I read with some interest this longform piece on how the desire of the wealthy to live in cities is effectively exiling the bohemians who made those communities attractive to gentrifiers:

The essence of the argument is this:

“American bohemians are in a state of slow-motion flight, perpetually facing the threat of exile at the hands of wealthier people attracted by the products of their lifestyle. It clearly erodes the vibrancy and character of the country’s greatest metropolises. And it begs deeper consideration of how we allocate the finite and long-undervalued resource of dense urban space.”

While I am firmly and resolutely square, and only venture to San Francisco for weddings, funerals, and business meetings, I can’t help but prescribe a solution to the bohemian crisis.  My solution is all the more delicious because it relies on the power of capitalism!

1) Treat bohemian neighborhoods like shopping malls or theme parks.

We can’t change the fundamental economic dynamic of wild bohemias, so we need to resort to farming.

In my home town of Santa Monica, the city was only able to revitalize its downtown when developers constructed the Third Street Promenade, a carefully-designed faux-downtown with a tightly controlled and curated set of shops and residences.

Even the Walt Disney corporation has gotten into the act, with “Downtown Disney” at Walt Disney World–a facsimile of city life that is wildly popular with “guests” who have paid a pretty penny to travel from their own cities to a giant theme park in the middle of the Everglades.

Why not apply the same principles to real downtowns?  Heck, this is exactly how Times Square works in New York.

Here’s how you could do this:

2) Focus on building mini-neighborhoods.

Building a fake bohemia requires strong central control, either by a real estate developer, or a community association.  The central authority would exert control over and entire block, allowing it to carefully curate both businesses and residents.

Thus, the bohemia-builder would grant below market rents to art galleries and bodegas, then charge through the roof for someone who wanted to bring in a Whole Foods or microbrewery.

Artists would apply for a term as an Artist-in-Residence.  Each AIR would receive subsidized or even free housing for a pre-set term (I’m thinking 4 years), which could be renewed by the central authority.  The AIRs would also provide input on which new artists to bring in as AIRs.

You might set aside 25-33% of the space for subsidized tenants (businesses and residents) that would provide the needed “character,” then make up the lost revenues by charging yuppies even more to live in a vibrant bohemia that was also safe and clean.

3) Build a bohemian brand.

One goal might be to build the WeWork of bohemian neighborhoods–a reliable brand that stood for a fun, high-quality customer experience.  Sure, such corporatism might repel bohemians, but the dirty little secret is that most artists would be willing to tolerate a bit of capitalism if it allowed them to continue living in their beloved San Francisco.  They might even enjoy living in well-maintained, crime-free neighborhoods that included art galleries and hipster diners.

To some extent, this entire essay is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the more I think about it, the more lucrative the idea seems.  I wonder who I’d pitch to fund AirBohemia?

1 thought on “A Modest Proposal for Saving San Francisco’s Bohemian Neighborhoods

  1. Hi Chris!

    Interesting take. I'll admit I bristled at the idea of a top-down, centrally-planned bohemian neighborhood. Seems to me those kinds of neighborhoods are serendipitous (and relatedly, fragile.)

    Then again, top-down planning isn't necessarily out of step with bohemian ideals (as I understand them.) The idea of putting a for-profit developer in charge tickles the cynic in me.

    1: Have you seen some of these ideas put to use in recent developments? What you wrote about reminded me a bit of the Gateway development that went in on High Street just south of Ohio State's main campus in Columbus.

    2: Considering the (sorta) bizarre incentives this idea is built around, what kinds of strange side-effects do you think might pop out unexpectedly?


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