The top ten least bohemian cities

Tyler Cowen ponders the least bohemian cities in the world and the United States, prompted by a reader who asks:

I have a blog request: a list of the top ten least bohemian cities in the world. Why are some cities more conducive to bohemian lifestyles than others? Does rent control result in more or less of this? I would love to read your thoughts and hopefully so would other people.

Writing this from rent-controlled Stockholm which I believe deserves a place on the top ten.

Tyler doesn’t think rent-control has much to do with it. I wonder if zoning regulations are the more likely culprits?

Obviously some zoning is necessary – you want to keep some industries zoned away from shops and schools, and there are certainly cases to be made for preserving the character of a city and especially its historic districts*. I am thinking more along the lines of zoning laws which restrict the height of buildings; which prevent mixed zoning of businesses, rentals, and homes; and which regulate the size of lots to create sprawl.

Essentially, sprawl is a sure killer of whatever bohemian character a city might have. A big car-dependent city like Phoenix has very little in the way of a bohemian culture, and I suspect this is largely due to the car dependency of that city. All the neighborhoods are partitioned off by big four-lane roads and freeways. Cities with more organic zoning codes – and especially historic districts in many towns which were built before modern zoning codes took effect – tend to be much more bohemian and interesting.

I’d definitely give Phoenix a spot in the top-ten least bohemian cities in America. What are some others?

*As I mentioned, historic districts are often bohemian because they were built before many zoning laws were written. In essence, protecting these areas protects that artifact of the past. We should also replicate these neighborhoods – by deregulating our terrible, restrictive, and environmentally destructive zoning regulations!

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31 thoughts on “The top ten least bohemian cities

  1. No clue for Bohemian cities but I’ll accept any excuse to trash rent control so lets blame a paucity of bohemia on rent control schemes too!

    Honestly though I don’t have a clue how you’d foster bohemian cities, are they even something that can be planned to occur or do they just happen?

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  2. Annual Folk Music Festivals (you’ve all seen the South Park with the Hippie Music Festival, right?). And art, lots of local art (with the ‘Made in China’ sticker).

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  3. I’m not sure what “Bohemian” entails in this day and age. At a guess, it’s going to require young’ns so universities might help.

    Having a place to congregate would probably be necessary too, so a central core and careful watch on the big boxes and fast food chains would help.

    Neighborhoods make a city interesting. Mixed zoning for retail and residential allow for this.

    And of course, needle exchanges as Jay points out. Can’t be having an oppressive police presence, it ruins the buzz.

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  4. The interesting thing about trying to replicate pre-zoning patterns of development is how hard it is. The city governments here are constantly trying to create walkable mixed residential/entertainment/commercial neighbourhoods and what they mainly get for their efforts is complaints.The goal in the end of course is to have people live, shop and entertain themselves within walking distance. But you’re not going to attract residential and commercial tenants on that basis – they’ll be worried there won’t be enough shops/entertainment or enough customers. So there has to be parking for residents or customers to park their cars. But parking is the bitter enemy of pleasant, walkable space. Put in enough parking for everyone you need to make an area pleasantly busy and you don’t have walkable space any more . You have a parking lot in a shopping mall or apartment complex. Put the parking further away or try to hide it and your commercial tentants in particular will complain. Its not a coincidence that the most bohemian neighbourhoods also tend to be places where parking spots are so scarce people will risk trashing their cars to get into them before anyone else sees them …

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  5. Salt Lake City, Indianapolis, Orlando… trying to avoid cities in the Southwest that are too easy to pick on. It’s pretty difficult to think of any city in the South that’d work. Perhaps Raleigh or Charlotte from what I’ve heard, but no first hand experience. Houston probably wins for the biggest city without much of a soul.

    Car dependence isn’t really dispositive on this… see Detroit.

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    • @Ryan Davidson,
      To be fair the other cities mentioned are in a different size class than Fort Wayne, it being smaller. Also Fort Wayne has undergone a slow decline in relative wealth from the 1910s when it was one of the richest cities in the US and a leader in the then emerging electrical industry.

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  6. Blaming zoning laws is like blaming “feminism” or “conservatives” – a broad, easily caricatured vessel ripe for straw man destruction. Zoning laws could easily create an area ripe for a Bohemian lifestyle (whatever that is). It’s a matter of application. I’ve lived in Detroit, Chicago, Portland (OR) and Nashville – with Chicago and Portland having what I expect is the most “Bohemian” reputations as well as the most restrictive zoning laws. Nashville is a relative zone-free area which generates lots of poorly considered housing developments (many of which just flooded).
    I do agree about car culture – Portland and Chicago have great public transportation and/or bike cultures. Nashville and Detroit are car cities – Detroit probably leads in its deference to the car.

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  7. Savannah is a good example of what promotes a bohemian city — Oglethorpe didnt know he was helping walkers when he laid out the grid of downtown Savannah with over 20 squares, but traffic has to slow down to go around the squares, so over time, pedestrians have the right of way by habit — Savannah College of Art and Design has pumped green-haired, tattoed artists into downtown — you need a street on a river — and you need good music with street players named Ace and Quirky — Throw in a few eccentric characters and a mayor named Otis and you have a good bohemian city.

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  8. When I came up from the states, the first place I lived was Toronto, which has a certain hip cache, but never really struck me as being especially bohemian. Actually, I think the blue collar steel town where we live now is considerably better for that bohemian sort of thing thing for two reasons: the working class people who live here haven’t a shred of pretension and let you do your own thing- I saw a middle aged guy walking down the sidewalk the other day in leopard print pajama pants, no shirt and a cowboy hat and nobody else batted an eyelash. Secondly, the local economy sucks and everything is really cheap. So, if you’re an artist, you can be eccentric and nobody’s unfriendly to you and you can probably make enough money to live as cheaply as everyone around you. Thus we have a very nice gallery district.

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  9. New York and Boston both have Bohemian quarters and a long history of rent control. In fact, a lot of people find them less Bohemian now that rent control is on its way out.

    My guess is that a college or university helps, but it also helps to have been a port city at some time.

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