Enough with the hipster-bashing

The censure has become a stand-in for anti-intellectualism, middle class resentment and subtle homophobia

Topics: Jacobin, Hipsters, Brooklyn, Greenpoint, Williamsburg, New York, New York Times, Henry Alford, , , ,

This article originally appeared on Jacobin.

Jacobin “It’s the Hotel Altamont,” according to a New York Post article detailing one Bushwick landlord’s efforts to evict his tenants. Forward thinking rentier Andy Chau apparently hired the Forbidden Ones Motorcycle Club to “terrorize the residents” of two buildings on Thames Street in Bushwick — a well-known “hipster” enclave — who are living in illegally converted industrial spaces under the protection of the 1982 New York City loft law.

Two gang members assaulted the woman who was later evicted by Chau in order to make way for the Forbidden Ones and their biker parties. Although the building once housed an Occupy Wall Street film collective who documented the Zuccotti Park evictions, the Post’s two writers reassure their readership that all of this is simply the latest chapter in the place’s “colorful history.”

The OWS-affiliated livestream group Global Revolution was evicted from 13 Thames St in early January 2012 by the Department of Buildings, who went to some lengths in order to show that the building was “imminently perilous to life.”

The confluence of heavy-handed tactics and the seeming collaboration between landlords, city agencies, and a violent Hell’s Angel-like gang is telling and in many ways typical. A year before their biker piece, the New York Post ran an article entitled “W’burg has art attack: Hipsters facing boot” which covered the final stage in the long battle between long-time residents of the 338 Berry Street Lofts — artists who had moved into and transformed both building and neighborhood during the mid-1990s — and their landlord. This is the now familiar story of gentrification in New York City.

According to late Marxist geographer Neil Smith:

The central mechanism behind gentrification can be thought of as a ‘rent gap.’ When neighbourhoods experience disinvestment, the ground rent that can be extracted from the area declines, which means lower land prices. As this disinvestment continues, the gap between the actual ground rent in the area and the ground rent that could be extracted were the area to undergo reinvestment becomes wide enough to allow that reinvestment to take place. This rent gap may arise largely through the operation of markets, most notably in the United States, but state policies can also be central in encouraging disinvestment and reinvestment associated with gentrification. But only wealthier people are able to afford the costs of this renewed investment. Integral with these economic shifts are social and cultural shifts that change the kinds of shops, facilities and public spaces in a neighbourhood.

Smith offers a dry, but emphatically structural account of this process, which he first theorized in the late eighties with Soho and the Lower East Side in mind. Gentrification has since become central to neoliberal urbanization generally, and New York City in particular, under the developer-driven Bloomberg administration.

But why bother with “dry” and “structural” when you can tune-in to the “fucking hipster” show?

Unlike Smith’s rigorous Marxian analysis, most popular accounts from the spurious creative class mystifications of Richard Florida to standard issue conservative populist diatribes forget the larger forces and primary movers in this process, which is instead reduced, metonymically, to the catchall figure of the hipster.

Surveying the last thirteen years’ worth of New York Times’ articles — the length of time when, according to a recent Gawker compilation of New York Times hipster ethnographies, our paper of record has been shocked by and enamored with the H-word — this capacious figure encompasses both the ironic and the sincere. The cynical and the committed. Professional artists and trustafarian dilettantes. Studiously cool fashionistas and earthy, backward-looking community gardeners raising chickens. Apolitical trend-mongers and, in the wake of Occupy, radical anarchists — presumably like the ones who resided at 13 Thames Street.

But why worry about these people, when the Times has a tattooed and mustachioed dummy and its writers know how to make him speak? And speak he does, on a regular basis, about small batch pickle making, DIY literary history, and the new unicycling purists. Better to focus on the kinds of things that suggest effete privilege — all their free time frivolously spent and with whose money? — than offer a critique of the truly privileged and the socioeconomic system which sustains their privilege.

On topics ranging from the capitalist dynamics of gentrification to the casualization of employment among ostensibly middle class Millennials, the “fucking hipster” show beats staid structural analysis every time — even for many members of the self-identified Left.

And what is the hipster anyway? This perennial, and now largely meaningless question animates n+1’s What Was The Hipster? Highlights of this essay collection include Mark Greif’s useful genealogy of hipsterdom’s long reign in which he connects the post-war “white negro” to the more recent, although now dated, trucker cap and mustachioed fetishists of seventies-era white ethnicity in addition to several other methodologically diverse case studies like the “hipster primitive.”

What unites these sometimes compelling, and frequently self-loathing, essays is dissatisfaction with actually existing bohemia. The pamphlet would have been more accurately titled “Who Took the Counter- out of the Counterculture?” One can recognize in these sociological investigations a more sympathetic version of that broadly left-wing critique of US bohemian life and its cooptation best exemplified by the nineties-era Baffler, when founding editors Thomas Frank and Chis Lehmann mercilessly skewered the subversive postures of both grunge and the dot.com era’s cyber-libertarians — avatars all of what Frank called “the commodification of dissent.”

Yet the n+1 project is also an emphatically retrospective account of a phenomenon that had, apparently, passed by the end of the aughts into a set of predigested styles available at malls across America. It’s a verdict ratified by the Occupy encampments of 2011, when the ostensibly apolitical demographic under examination experienced their Damascus moment and found a semi-coherent but recognizably oppositional politics.

Even as the New York Times and its ilk now use hipster-bashing to delegitimize the new political awareness among the same un- and underemployed twenty- and thirty-somethings — previously taken to task for their avoidance of politics — the same bashers employ this all-purpose dummy to ventriloquize their own refined and slightly ridiculous consumption habits.

And while Rupert Murdoch’s reactionary gazetteers at least acknowledge the ongoing, and (in the case of 13 Thames Street) partly political character of the evictions in which they delight, the enlightened New York Times will always opt for the “fucking hipster” show — the 21st century bourgeois liberal’s preferred flavor of minstrelsy — over any ‘hard times’ depiction of downward mobility among artists, anarchists and other riffraff.

That, after all, could depress today’s gentrifiers or tomorrow’s property values.

But it all came to a head last week when the newspaper of record ran a revealing, if typically clueless, piece by humorist Henry Alford in this vein entitled “How I Became A Hipster.” As with most Times lifestyle pieces, one realizes upon completion that the title tells you all you need to know.

In this case, a middle-aged Manhattanite explores the wild precincts of North Williamsburg in an attempt to remake himself “hipster”: “So I decided to embed myself among the rooftop gardeners and the sustainability consultants and the chickeneers. I wanted to see what the demographic behind nanobatched chervil and the continually cited show ‘Girls’ could teach me about life and craft cocktails. I wanted to see what sullen 25-year-old men had to tell me beyond ‘Leave me alone during this awkward period of beard growth.”

While Alford’s tongue-in-cheek ethnography strives for laughter, the author makes his purpose clear with the next sentence as he describes his visits to several, by-and-large recently opened, shops where he tries on a $225 plaid shirt or gets a straight razor shave at an expensive barber shop, while spewing one-liners about the facial hair that distinguish the hipsters who serve him. Alford implicitly offers his readers a functional definition of the hipster at the very least: a service sector employee who entertains — if only in providing the materials for droll condescension — while he caters to your needs.

The entire piece is little more than an advertisement aimed at the adventurous city shopper on the hunt for high-end quirk. Here is a brave, new subgenre of copy meant to reassure the iconoclastic investment banker that the new North Brooklyn is there for the taking, as one recent review of a Greenpoint eatery more ably conveys: “the wind whips in off the East River there sharp as razors, and old women squabble in Polish on the street. You will need your adventure boots to get there, perhaps.”

Alford’s piece, like the Greenpoint restaurant review, is aimed at the latest residents of Williamsburg’s luxury towers and loft conversions, now cleansed of the actual artists whose rebel ambience nonetheless commands top dollar from the professionals who displaced them.

In 2013, the Williamsburg waterfront which Alford surreptitiously trolls in assembling his hipster drag is now chock full of the same finance, media and high-end business types who inhabit Michael Bloomberg’s luxury city across the river. And with not insignificant help from the Times. In this essay, Alford himself serves as class proxy, buying several flavors of social distinction from the hipsters who work in a neighborhood increasingly indistinguishable from Battery Park City, or in the case of the Edge — a waterfront condo development — a Houston office park.

According to the canons of a more populist antihipsterism, this turn of events represents a kind of poetic justice as the first wave of predominantly white and middle class artists, bohemians, and poseurs are displaced by their wealthier peers, such as Alford, in the same way these neighborhoods’ long time residents — working class and minority — were displaced.

While this reaction is an understandable one, why settle for poetic justice in lieu of the real thing, especially when most of those inhabitants remember the bad old days of disinvestment and urban decay? And who benefits from what is, in the end, a misleading brand of moral denunciation rather than structural analysis?

The choice between a carcinogenic and garbage-strewn Williamsburg that is still economically available to the working class or an environmentally sound and “green” North Brooklyn predicated on city subsidized luxury development and working class displacement is a specifically capitalist dichotomy, which has nothing to do with the artists and wannabes who, through no fault of their own, are the first to go once they’ve provided a wedge for developers.

Smith is again instructive in this regard, since he does indeed note that, at least initially, “students, artists, and many other parts of the populace are part of the process of ‘cracking’ neighbourhoods that many other professionals may be unwilling to colonise.” But as Smith discerned in the “antigentrification” campaigns on the Lower East Side,

“Die Yuppie Scum” isn’t a very good analysis of gentrification. Even yuppies have very limited choices in the housing market, albeit far more choices than the poor. By contrast, the owners of capital intent on gentrifying and developing a neighbourhood have a lot more “consumer choice” about which neighbourhoods they want to devour, and the kind of housing and other facilities they produce for the rest of us to consume. There is a huge asymmetry between the power of multi-millionaire capitalist corporations in the market and the “power” of someone trying to rent a flat on an average city income. So while the question of consumption and the availability of consumers is by no means irrelevant, it is secondary to the far greater power of capital.

We should retire “hipster” as a term without referent or political salience. Its zombie-like persistence in anti-hipster discourse must be recognized for what it is: an urbane, and socially acceptable, form of ideologically inflected shaming on the part of American elites who must delegitimize those segments of a largely white, college educated population who didn’t do the “acceptable thing.”

The anti-hipster censure here includes a healthy dose of typically American anti-intellectualism, decked out in liberal bunting, subtle homophobia, and recognizably manipulative appeals to white, middle class resentment, now aimed at the lazy hipster, who either lives on his trust fund or, more perniciously, abuses public assistance, proving how racist templates are multi-use tools.

Our power elites’ rhetorical police action becomes increasingly necessary as large swaths of the people lumped under the hipster taxon slip into the ranks of the long-term un- and underemployed. Once innocuous alternative lifestyles could potentially metamorphosize into something else altogether. Better to frame “alternative lifestyle” in terms of avant-garde trend setting without remainder, providing suitably rarefied consumption options for Bloomberg’s new bourgeoisie, as they buy locally sourced creativity on Bedford Ave.

But consumption doesn’t end with urban gardening or artisanal mayonnaise emporia. From a 2002 New York Times piece entitled “Where the Girls Are, and the Commute’s Easy:

“If I want to go out and meet a 24-year-old girl, I can’t imagine meeting one in Manhattan,” said Andrew Bradfield, 35, a real estate developer who lives in TriBeCa. ”They want Mr. Big. They like bankers. They want to be taken shopping at Barneys. But Williamsburg is packed with 21- to 24-year-olds having a great time with no pretense.’’

Although other readers expressed disgust, I admired our developer’s candor. It gives me a vision of tomorrow’s red blockbuster, in which grindhouse cinema meets agitprop. Picture the scene: a hipster girl lures our enterprising rentier back to the loft space she shares with seven other precariously employed twenty-somethings, promising sex. Once there, he strips down, only to find himself ambushed by his date and her roommates, who tear him limb from limb.

The girls hit the streets, brandishing those recently liberated bourgeois body parts. A crowd gathers around them across the divide. The underemployed hipsters and unemployed longtime residents of Bushwick, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint unite and lay siege to Manhattan in a climax that will finally satisfy those moviegoers who really wanted more Bane and less Batshit last summer.

Full Communism. Scored by Animal Collective, of course.

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