Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Reading Alex Williams' "Hipsturbia" article on the front of the Styles section of the Sunday Times, I winced unbearably. Not least because I have been doing the Hipsturbia dance longer and harder than just about anyone I've met, and it has slowed down in recent years, because I've realized its futility and fatuousness, and because I've become less interested, and because it's become less necessary (more on that later). But I know it all too well, and I winced both because the people described in the article are doing the very same things I used to do, and because the way Williams takes it apart is insultingly disingenuous.

I grew up in Westchester County, where Williams claims that "hipsters" in their 30s, with children, are settling down. I now live in Putnam County, even farther away from Brooklyn, and I never actually lived in NYC at all, even though I aspired to live there for quite some time, and my entire social life pretty much took place there from 1996 (when I got my first job out of college) to 2011 (when I had a baby and everything changed). The planets never aligned in such a way that a move to Brooklyn, or anywhere else in the city, would have been practical, so I stayed a suburbanite the whole time, even though I maintained (ew, I can't believe I'm typing this) a "sensibility" (I know, gross, I'm sorry) that was in line with what people like Williams like to think of as "Brooklyn." And I spent a lot of time in Brooklyn, especially from, say, 2002 on. Before that it was the East Village, but same thing.

It would not be exaggerating to say that I had a complex. I yearned, ached, pined for the environs where I lived to sport trappings of That Lifestyle. Anytime an independently owned (I refuse to use the word "indie") coffee place opened up in one of the towns near me, I got excited, but with reservations, because when you went into that coffee place, there was usually a maximum of one bearded MacBook user sitting there. And the Live Music (very important!) that they had on Friday and Saturday nights (but not on Tuesday or Wednesday nights) always sounded a little too much like the Dave Matthews Band and not enough like The National to fully be what I wanted it to be.

The "artisanal vegan soap" shop mentioned in the article, in Dobbs Ferry, would have inspired a similar happy dance in me 10 years ago, not because I had any special need or desire for artisanal vegan soap, or found it so convenient to have it available nearby, but because of what it signified. And that's the same thing Nicole Miziolek, an acupuncturist who, with her artist husband, was somehow able to afford an $860,000 house in Hastings, was doing when she told Williams, "I saw some moms out in Hastings with their kids with tattoos. A little glimmer of Williamsburg!" Oh, that exclamation point.

In 1998 you felt better about yourself because there was a yoga studio in your town; now there's a yoga studio in every town. But the trouble is, getting excited about a yoga studio in your town can only take you so far, and then you have to join the yoga studio and start practicing yoga there, and before long, this exercise starts to be about the yoga, and about the real relationships you have with the people you meet there, rather than what the presence of the studio in your town signifies about the town, and what it signifies about you that you live there. Which is a different thing entirely from wanting to live near a yoga studio because you practice yoga.

Because it's not really REAL to worry about what you "are." Whether you "are" hip, or a hipster, or Brooklynish, or whatever. Yet that's what underlies this whole line of thinking about "Hipsturbia"--it's not simply about finding a place to live where you feel comfortable, where you fit in. That's a perfectly understandable and universal sentiment. It's about aspiring to a certain lifestyle and wanting to brand yourself a certain way and having status anxiety. And never, ever admitting it.

Not admitting it is the first offense of the "Hipsturbia" article. The New York Times is notorious for droooooling over anything that bears the stamp of "hip" or "cool" in this way that really grates. It has been known to GUSH over the fact that someone who lives in a loft IS A FILMMAKER!!!!! And what's so annoying is, they never come out and say explicitly just what is so super-fantastic about that, because it's supposed to be obvious that the super-fantasticness lies in the fact that filmmakers and lofts are cool in that aspirational way, they have high status in the cultural-capital competition and don't you wish you were just like them? This offense courses through the "Hipsturbia" article too, making all the people interviewed in it seem like pretentious douchebags even though in real life they might be perfectly nice people. I mean, the acupuncturist-artist couple afforded that house somehow. It's the Times' fault that the article doesn't mention how.

The language used in the article is so uncomfortably familiar. One recent Irvington transplant said that when she goes to restaurants that serve certain kinds of cocktails, she thinks, "This place gets it." That whole concept, of "getting it," is so thorny, and its thorniness goes totally unexplored (i.e. tacitly endorsed) in the article. For practically my entire 20s and 30s, I was obsessed with people and places who "got it," and making sure there were always some of those in my midst despite having the incorrect area code. But why did I want them? Why does my heart still sink when I go to a restaurant with Exposed Brick as part of its decor, and the chalkboard wine list advertises "Pino [sic] Grigio"? Does it mean that exposed brick is not enough, and I now need either mason jars or Edison bulbs? Why does my heart soar when the shop next door to that restaurant offers hand-printed dishtowels with oak-tag labels that feature an web address?

It's not because I don't have enough friends. If that were the reason, this would be legitimate, in the sense of, "I wish I could meet people who had things in common with me." It's about whether you deem your surroundings "good enough" to satisfy the snob in you. This strain of snobbery isn't exactly about money, but it's not exactly NOT about money either. It's about what it implies that you name your kids Denim and Bowie, as one couple in the article did.

And let's say you craft your lifestyle to be perfect, to curate your environment so that it includes ONLY people and things that "get it." Then what? Do you just stand there, as if posed for a photo? Well, you can do yoga, cook with locavore ingredients, make art or play music, but you could've anyway. Or maybe you couldn't. I don't know how to play the bass. But I could have learned, if the time I'd spent shopping for the perfect outfit to express my membership in that club had been spent learning bass instead.

Williams refers repeatedly to the concept of a certain kind of person. "We were the we'll-never-leave-Brooklyn types," Miziolek tells him. The "creative class" is mentioned, as is the "character of the river towns" and the "aesthetic" of people who move there. Type, class, character, aesthetic--just all these terms that allude to labels and brands. Which the article implies is a perfectly reasonable #1 reason to make all the life choices you make. In fact, that it should be your #1 reason. It really shouldn't.

There are also plenty of words about symbolism--"signs of creative ferment," "glimpses of 'Portlandia'"--that just highlight how ignored the non-symbolic, concrete aspects of life in this tableau are. How is the artisanal soap shop doing? I hope they're making a profit.

The second problem is he imbues these choices with much more meaning, or different meaning, than they really have.

It's true that the hipster parts of Brooklyn have become too expensive for most people in recent years, and that's why most former residents of those areas have decamped to areas less well known for their hipness. Five years ago, I saw friends who had previously lived in Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Clinton Hill and Park Slope move to less expensive, less hipness-saturated neighborhoods like Gravesend, Richmond Hill, and Sunnyside.  It seemed that this happened because my friends were getting older, and their priorities were changing. Then when you have kids, priorities change even more, and certain everyday realities (like living in a third-floor walkup) become problems. Isn't it easier to strap your child into a car seat and drive somewhere than carry a stroller down the subway stairs? I don't envy the friends who are still in the city, now with kids, who are doing that.

But the article claims that this is a phenomenon mainly because the "artsy," "culturally attuned" people of hipster Brooklyn have been priced out of it, not because they've gotten older and their priorities have changed. I gotta tellya, when I was 26, in 1999, there was nowhere aimed at people my age living up here who "got it" in that sense; the closest I got was places aimed at college kids at Westchester colleges, who were 20 and would probably move to Brooklyn the day they graduated. All of twentysomething nightlife and culture was way more Snooki than Lena Dunham. (Think lots of half-price jello shots and no alt-comedy.) But these people, in the article, are all at least 30. And the twentysomething nightlife that exists in the suburbs is STILL just as Snooki and non–Lena Dunham as ever. Yet, there's pub trivia here now. There are summer concerts on the river featuring surf-rock bands in rockabilly outfits. There weren't, 5 years ago--it was all folk and classic rock.

So does this mean these people are just doing what every generation before them has done and moved to the suburbs in their 30s to have kids? Well, what's different about these people (which Williams is overawed by), according to the article, is that they're bringing their aesthetic with them from Brooklyn rather than settling for the chain stores and other trappings of unsophisticated suburbanness that their parents did.

That's such an offensive way to look at it. That aesthetic, while stereotypically associated with Brooklyn and very popular in Brooklyn, is not intrinsically OF Brooklyn. It does not sprout up in Hastings and Tarrytown because Brooklynites "bring it with them" when they move there. It is a cultural phenomenon of our time, as opposed to our parents' time. Just as there were hippies in the suburbs in 1969, there are these people here now.

It has to do with our generation. Generation X, who are now largely in their 30s and 40s, has a different approach to being in one's 30s and 40s than previous generations did. We are the first generation to hold onto aspects of youth culture through adulthood, even as we do conventional things like getting married and having kids and progressing in our careers. The whole twee-artisanal-locavore-hipster (whatever you want to call it) lifestyle that certain privileged, overeducated Gen X adults identify with is a generational phenomenon that applies to people our age and younger. Thus, when we turn 30 or 35 or 40, and have kids, and our priorities change, and the suburbs seem attractive for reasons not related to our personal identity mythology, that phenomenon will naturally emerge in the suburbs. In other words, it's not about Brooklyn. It's about people born in 1973 turning 40 this year. A subset of our age group has always leaned that way, culturally. It's just that when we were 26, people our age in New York almost uniformly lived in Brooklyn (or at least Astoria or the Lower East Side). Now, as we age, some of us in the city are leaving, but we're still the same people.

Meanwhile, Gen X tends not to "look old" in its presentation--the women have long, flowing hair and everyone wears jeans and t-shirts--the way older generations did at our age. So it makes it appear that "young people" are moving to the suburbs, when really we're just as old or older than our parents were. (My parents moved to Hartsdale from Queens when they were in their mid-20s and had me shortly thereafter.)

What's offensive about saying it's about Brooklyn is, that claim just lends credence to that annoying New York Times starry-eyedness about filmmakers living in lofts but-who-cares-what-the-films-are-about. The starry-eyedness continues as the Hipsturbia article lists various Westchester river towns and names one hipstery business in each town, trying to imply that the presence of that one business exemplifies the character of the town.

I'll have you know that while Dobbs Ferry, Hastings, Irvington, and Tarrytown are all very beautiful and pleasant, and there are plenty of good restaurants that you would say "get it" if you were into saying such things, and they are "artsy" in a way that Scarsdale and Yorktown Heights are not, they hardly (not now, and not in 2003) feel like hipster Brooklyn. They feel the same way they always felt: Like moneyed suburbs full of middle-aged parents who are more into the arts than the average suburbanite. Now that there are more 35-year-olds moving there, that means that yes, there are going to be more stores selling moose heads made of felt, and fewer stores selling the kinds of "artsy" baby-boomer items, like huge black shapeless floor-length linen dresses that cost $200 and maybe have some subtle batik work going on there. (As Jessica Grose of Slate noted in her response to the article, Eileen Fisher is headquartered in Irvington).

It's genuinely weird that Williams chose Dobbs Ferry, Hastings, Irvington and Garrison to profile for this article while ignoring Peekskill and Beacon, which have much more hipster activity than any of those towns. Tarrytown isn't that weird a choice, since not only Village Dog and the Music Hall are there, but also Coffee Labs, which totally "gets it" in terms of urban coffee culture. But Peekskill and Beacon aren't wealthy the way Dobbs Ferry, Hastings and Irvington are. And it's troubling to think that that's why the article profiles the towns that it does.

It brings up the perennial question, just what is a hipster? Since no one is allowed to call themselves a hipster, it is always problematic to write about them. But the aesthetic deemed "hipster" in this article is something that just about anyone my age who's been to college is familiar with. It's pretty widely known and practiced. The people pictured in the article all look like they could be just as at home on the Upper West Side as in Williamsburg. So does that mean a "hipster" just is anyone with some vaguely "alt" urban cultural sophistication?

It reminds me of the 2003 book A Field Guide to the Urban Hipster by Josh Aiello, the lesser-known cousin of Robert Lanham's of-the-same-time Hipster Handbook. Aiello's definition of "hipster" is extremely broad, encompassing not just the expected DJs and fashion types, but also ex–frat boys, outlaw bikers, and goths, to name a few categories that seemed not to belong there. I'm not exactly sure how he determined who was a hipster and who was not, but my best guess is, he thinks anyone who can loosely be defined as part of a "subculture" is a hipster. Or, anyone who goes to bars. Anyone other than the most staid McMansion-dwelling middle-management golfer.

And at the heart of the "Hipsturbia" article, the most disturbing (hipsturbing?) thing about it, is the assumption that "the suburbs" always means that staid golfer. That it's worth marveling that people with actual Taste! and Style! are deigning to live there (WE WERE ALWAYS HERE, in some form, but our generation brings with it different signifiers of that taste and style), so maybe it isn't the barren landscape that it was before.

But there is complicated truth and falseness to both sides of that argument. On the one hand, it is a barren landscape, with its Snooki nightlife, cafes with one person in them, Lite FM on restaurant sound systems, and other phenomena that just fail to measure up to the Brooklyn Ideal. As the article admits, the family in Hastings with the groovily-named kids are the youngest adults on their block. But on the other hand, there have been independent coffeehouses and yoga studios in the river towns ever since the 90s. There have always been artistically inclined families with college educations living here. It may not be twee nightlife central, but it's just not so black and white as all that. So you really have to start questioning, rather than lauding, the impulse to define yourself by whether you live in a place where enough people are tattooed (with the right kind of tattoos).

Indeed, the article relies on the laziest, most cliched signifiers. The worst one is in the cartoon that accompanies the article: A man walks down a street wearing a shirt with the word "irony" on it. I believe that using the words "irony" and "ironic" to humorously denote the presence of hipsters is just SO FAR GONE that you can't even do it anymore. They're like symbols of symbols of symbols, ultra-shorthand that has lost its meaning. Do you even remember what irony is, or just that the word "irony" is a synonym for "hipster"? This Thought Catalog piece on "the 25 best hipster buzzwords" used in the article gets at this problem. "Hipsturbia" is an article about people trying to apply buzzwords to themselves, and the New York Times congratulating them and encouraging them in that endeavor.