Bohemian Charm

The phrase “bohemian charm” was frequently applied to descriptions of San Francisco, in the days when people could afford the bohemian lifestyle here. There’s no more real bohemian charm left in this city, for the simple reason that there is no bohemia. We have the external signs of artiness, in public art, performances, book readings, gallery openings, and all that, but what we don’t have is the bohemian milieu of artists—which is where the charm is.

Ersatz trappings of bohemian culture are manufactured and sold briskly on Haight Street in high-priced, high rent boutiques selling hippie detritus, but charm can’t be produced in a factory. Charm is original, as are good artists. The artist himself or herself may not have a charming personality, but they give us a unique experience, something different. We may not even like what they produce, but it’s new—and there is a huge charm in getting away from the familiar.

Bohemia is charming because people in the arts have passion for what they do. Even if they are saying nothing, the energy around them buzzes with the intense love of the work that drives them, often to despair. Writing, painting, dance, composing, and writing poetry are fields not entered practically, for material gain. It’s for love of the medium. People give their lives to the arts because that’s what they are, that’s what they are compelled to do.

Most of the conventions of normal life lose their grip in bohemia. There is little convention among artists, aside from basic civility, because artists are motivated by the need to escape convention in their work. We are charmed by the unconventional, when we don’t need established methods of human interaction to guide our social behaviors.

Passion among arty types runs deep. There’s no practical reason to be in the art world at all. It’s about desire, commitment, withdrawal from the world of things and consumption, and into a place of authenticity. The care and longing among people who make art to make the most amazing art vibrates in the air, even when they are depressed because the work has not met expectations. It’s intense and alive and real, and therein lies the charm. Only those who are anxious about their own passions want to keep the intense world of creativity at bay. The others all seem magnetically drawn to the charm of bohemia— and apartments in bohemian enclaves.

Bohemian charm is obviously very attractive. If it were not, the districts where artists have gathered wouldn’t be tourist destinations and desirable places to live. That charm is actually quite a marketable, if intangible, asset. But it can’t be replicated commercially, so in order to have it, we need to have bohemians. And in order not to drive them from their habitats, it’s necessary to find places for them everywhere, spreading the charm around, giving each of the city’s districts its bastion of creative verve.

Returning the quality of bohemian charm to the city of San Francisco is the stuff of heroes and legacies. But beyond giving back to San Francisco the great quality it has lost, it’s time for people everywhere in this country to recognize the value of having artists around to charm them.