Gentrification X

In its latest tribute to its readers' spending power, the New York Times Style section hails Wallpaper magazine, a style magazine for monied hipsters insulated from grubby, ejaculating masses.

Published September 16, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

You may be excused for thinking that the above quote, from the cover story "Generation Wallpaper," is merely a generous, somewhat forced product placement and instant slogan for the eponymous design mag. In fact, it's the latest in a long series of Times tributes to its readers' spending power.

As New York has risen higher and higher on its gasoline-soaked mattress of play money these past few years, the Times' expanded features sections -- Style, Home, Dining -- have been spinning a blissful narrative of universal, democratic affluence: a national boom that has lifted all boats; a wonderful town of stockbrokers and Web designers, sweating money, blowing bull market wads (but tastefully! unostentatiously!) on million-dollar stone walls and peekytoe crab, dining and dealing and keeping the city's harried-but-happy restaurateurs from taking their usual summer vacations. In its Sunday magazine, one special issue covers the mostly sunny "moods of the boom"; another covers Joe Lunchpail's perennial concern: flying business class.

Now, the Style section reports, even the too-cool are loaded. Hence, according to the effusive story, Wallpaper, the London-based, Time Warner-owned magazine known for its trend-setting design coverage, has become nothing less than the voice of a generation -- notwithstanding its circulation of a mere 85,000, 30,000 in the United States. It is the magazine, according to the Style section, with which the former slackers of downtown have cleaned themselves up, lost the thrift-shop coffee tables, embraced futuristic '50s modernism, and traded in the Cafe Bustelo for cosmopolitans.

In other words, it is the sleek chrome coat hook on which to hang our newest Generation X clichis: that yesterday's temp is today's IPO millionaire, and that a young demographic changed overnight from easy tokin' ne'er-do-wells to caffeinated worker bees and connoisseurs. "Try to imagine that downtown was a big college town," opines an architect (he's drinking an oversized cosmopolitan) interviewed in the piece. "Now, it's grown up and wants to be more responsible and clean."

Well, that's one way of looking at it. Another is that downtown had its rent doubled and architects and the like swooped in on the newly vacant apartments. So while it's not surprising to find downtown grunge-era hipsters who have become downtown trip-hop-era achievers in 1998, that's because such hipsters are the only hipsters who can still afford the cost of living. And while the decade's changes in the former Squatter Central are hardly an unqualified bad thing -- particularly, say, for anyone running out for a pint of milk at midnight on Avenue B -- that makes it no less implausible to cast a largely economic change in downtown's gentrified 'hoods (or their equivalents in San Francisco and Chicago) as the coming of age of a "generation," Wallpaper or otherwise.

None of this means that Wallpaper doesn't deserve attention, and not just for the pictures. It also shines in its design writing (for instance, a piece on New York's Pan Am -- now MetLife -- Building, an icon of the high-flying early '60s), when it doesn't succumb to silly glitz-mag-speak ("Party Girl loves the Pan Am Building"). And any magazine that will publish a four-page travel feature on Detroit earns heavy coolness points. I like Wallpaper just fine. I'm just not sure it likes you and me very much.

See, the Times is right when it says that this exclusivity-minded, Prada-happy magazine aims itself at a particular audience -- and it's one that wants as little to do with the rest of us as possible. How else to explain the technology-preview briefs touting gadgets that help one avoid contact with the icky masses -- especially servants? "If your secretary is unattractive and inefficient, try talking to a good-looking dictaphone instead." The great advantage of the world's first supersonic business jet is the minimal number of other people on board: "With a cut-down crew and noisy neighbors firmly out of sight, you can thrash out a plan for world domination." (And the true magic of Motown? There's nobody there. "Empty spaces are Detroit's defining motif.")

So who does make Wallpaper's cut? In the Times feature, editor Tyler Br{li calls the readership "global nomads," young people who've got "a degree of affluence all of a sudden ... [and] need advice on how to live a sophisticated life style." A Wallpaper fan puts it another way: "I can fly to New York and have more in common with someone I meet at a restaurant than with my next-door neighbor ... there's definitely a Wallpaper tribe." This glorious secession, credit-card globalism, is perfectly in sync with the business-class insularity that affects the Times too often.

Which explains the weird use of "generation" in the feature: As defined by the choice of interview subjects, it evidently ranges in age from 28 all the way up to 46. Of course, notwithstanding its trend-spotting, "Generation Wallpaper" really has nothing to do with Generation X, or Generation anything else: It is a generation defined not by when its members were born but by when its money was, just as it's a nation defined by its furniture, a neighborhood whose corner store is an 800 number.

How neighborly are you going to get with the guy next door, anyway, if the landlord's trying to get him to move out so he can raise the rent? Why get close to him if he might leave a stain? In a Wallpaper article describing new high-speed, high-class railways in Europe, the author establishes the ickiness of old-fashioned proletarian rail lines such as the RER in Paris by noting, "I looked up from the New Yorker and noticed that the man sitting in front of me was in, well, an advanced state of ejaculation." Get too close to non-Wallpaper folks, Eustace, and they're liable to spurt all over your monocle. "What difference will the new trains make?" the piece concludes, "We'll be able to make more mobile calls ... and won't have to worry about our crisp canvas Hermhs Victoria bags going 20 rounds with the baggage-handlers-from-hell ... There'll also be cool new trains for us to travel in ... All ejaculator-free, of course."

Ah, mais oui! Maybe it's just all the references to order and timely trains here, but you begin to see why, taken to one extreme, Wallpaper's severe, crisp modernism can seem a little creepy.

Much like the freshly scrubbed downtown that the Times' Style section valorizes, Wallpaper's is a swellegant utopia, but it would be nice if there were a little room in it for les autres, we noisy ejaculators who have been gentrified out of the neighborhood, thrown off the moving train and downsized off the flight crew. As it is, it's a utopia where about 85,000 folks in good postal codes is all it takes to make up a generation, one with way cool apartments and stylin' boomerang coffee tables and a whole lot of elbow room.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

MORE FROM James Poniewozik

Related Topics ------------------------------------------