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The Value of Being A Backwater: Bohemia Isn't Doomed Here

I'm currently reading William Gibson's prescient 1999 novel All Tomorrow's Parties. In it, the San Francisco Bay Bridge has been put out of commission by an earthquake, and the length of the bridge deck has been taken over by informal, jury-rigged settlements, dives, and workshops — an alternative community set apart from the high prices and regulations of the cities on either end.

This reminded me of the post I wrote here earlier this week, and my point that creative cities need cheap places where creative people can make their own communities and enterprises. Gibson is clearly a big fan of unique, bohemian subcultures, but he's also very aware of how fragile they are. In many of his books, including this one, there are antagonistic marketing CEOs seeking out the cutting-edge of cool, in order to destroy it (for a profit) by appropriating it into the mass market.

In this passage, advertising billionaire Cody Harwood explains his interest in the Bridge community. It's as near an ideal description of the gentrification and homogenization of artists' neighborhoods as I've seen anywhere:

Harwood: "Bohemias. Alternative subcultures. They were a crucial aspect of industrial civilization in the two previous centuries. They were where industrial civilization went to dream. A sort of unconscious R&D, exploring alternate societal strategies... But they became extinct."

"Extinct?"

"We started picking them before they could ripen. A certain crucial growing period was lost, as marketing evolved and the mechanisms of recommodification became quicker, more rapacious. Authentic subcultures required backwaters, and time, and there are no more backwaters. They went the way of geography in general."

Bleak, huh?

Except maybe we can preserve backwaters — places that preserve physical space for creativity and the cultural values that defend uniqueness against the pressures of corporate homogenization.

A lot of Portlanders still ruefully regard our city as a backwater. We're a northern outpost, not really on the way to anyplace else, the place where Interstate 95 tapers down to four lanes to make its lonely end run to the Canadian border.

But it seems that more and more people are appreciating the value of this circumstance — that is, being in a place at some remove from the global hype machine's relentless cultural and economic pressures. The global monoculture is still a bit further away here (though that doesn't mean it isn't trying to make inroads), people are friendlier, living is more affordable, and we have more time to pursue our creative impulses.

But like Gibson's makeshift settlement of plywood partitions and plastic tarps that clings to an earthquake-damaged suspension bridge, communities like these are fragile — which makes them all the more worthy of our appreciation.

Image: Constant Nieuwenhuys's New Babylon, a theoretical megastructure designed to be constructed and continuously transformed by its inhabitants in pursuit of new, alternative life experiences. From Constant's New Babylon: the Hyper-Architecture of Desire, by Mark Wigley

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