Blessed Are The Hipsters, For They Shall Inherit The City

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How much is a hipster worth to a city? Is she worth more when she's building an app, or when she's writing a blog? Is a hipster with a walrus mustache and a mean whiffle ball pitch worth more than one who wears a sarong and practices aerial yoga? How many of them can dance on the pull tab of a PBR?

These questions (or at least less absurd versions thereof) underlie Will Doig's lastest "Dream City" column in Salon last week. Doig picks up on a discussion begun elsewhere on the interwebs about whether hipsters-typically described as scruffy 20-somethings, with or without trust funds, each engaged in their own personal counter-culture movements-in particular, and the "creative class" more generally, deserve much of the credit they've gotten for "saving" the cities where they live. A decade after Richard Florida anointed the "creative class" as the drivers of 21st century urban economies, we can now start figuring out whether he was right. And, if he was right, we can figure out whether he was catalytic or merely prescient.

(Though hipsters and creative-industry workers are not one in the same, it's safe to assume that the dude who's growing arugula on the roof next to his Indica probably isn't suiting up for work at Skadden every day.)

As easy as it may be for some to ridicule hipsters (e.g. the NSFW website "Look at This F&%ing Hipster"), Doig doesn't exactly take sides. He prefers to acknowledge that genuine "vibrancy" -- a fraught word that, he says, may be be making the transition from au courant to trite -- lies not in the suburbs, the projects, or Brooklyn, but probably somewhere in between. He's ready to banish "placemaking" entirely.

We're always going to have semantic debates, mainly because it's easier to change the language than it is to change cities.

Doig is frustrated because the creative class hasn't exactly saved dying cities. They've added color to neighborhoods in New York, San Francisco, Portland, Los Angeles, and many other cities. I'm too old and square to be a hipster -- In fact, by some accounts, I'm supposed to be pretty unamused -- but I've eaten enough brunch in Williamsburg to know what the fuss is about. Doig thinks that cities can do better that to simply attract creatives and let them do their thing.  The real problems--of the inner city and of desperate backwaters-are not solved through games of ironic croquet. In fact, they're hardly being solved at all.

One of Doig's passing observations, which he presents more as a rumination than a conclusion, well captures well the fixation on the creative class in cities: "No one wants to feel like they're participating in a movement that's just a distraction from more pressing problems."

Of course, being distracted is what residents of the hipster city have been doing. And why shouldn't they?

In the decade or so since they first arose, in Brooklyn and then elsewhere, hipsters have indeed left their marks on cities--but those marks have been largely cosmetic. Hipsters have moved into unwanted buildings, devised new menus, set up curious new shops, written blogs, organized dodgeball tournaments, painted murals, and, yes, bathed in dumpsters. They have indulged in deliberate ugliness, gender nonchalance, recreational blacksmithing, freeloading, apathy, steampunk, gearless bicycles, political correctness, veganism, and nihilistic escapades like setting up a living room on a railroad track or having a Native American-themed binge in McCarren Park. (The examples are nearly endless.)

Hipsters indulge in all of these idiocies of attenuated youth because they can: because the city -- whichever city it may be -- offers them the opportunity to do something.

Once you get past the thin beer, Goodwill clothes, vague income sources, hipsterism depends in large part on self-reliance. It's not a heroic, Emersonian self-reliance. It is, rather, a self-reliance of resignation. The DIY ethos governs everything from hipster cooking to the hipster economy. Computer programs and artisanal whatnots spring likewise from the individual mind and hand. So do those whisky shots and the all-night jam sessions. If some of this creativity leaks out into the greater economy, creating jobs where venture capital firms and Fortune 500 companies cannot, so be it.

I grew up a half-generation removed from hipsters, so I can't claim to be inside the mind of everyone in Williamsburg. But it's not hard to imagine that hipsters are resigned to living with a government and a mainstream economy that refuses to solve those "pressing problems" that Doig invokes. Pick your issue: climate change, health care, the drug war, education, real wars, campaign finance, civil liberties, the justice system, corporatism, the financial crisis, Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, the 1%, the 99%.... whatever. Cataclysms loom so large that only a massive entity, on the scale of a government, can address them. Hipsters can't help but distract themselves from these problems, because what else can they possibly do?

I don't find this attitude admirable, but I certainly find it understandable.

Peel back the irony, and many 20-somethings may simply be trying to cope with profoundly confusing times. They've absorbed astounding technological advances, and they've witnessed injustice on a global scale. They've lived amid unspeakable wealth and pitiable destitution all at the same time. As the last great suburban generation, they grew up in places designed without them in mind-maybe in McMansions, even-and they will inherent a degraded landscape. They woke up one morning ready to go to homeroom and instead watched their nation's indomitability crumble into a twisted wreck. They have since come of age beneath the twin pillars of melancholy and melodrama.

Whether they were terrified by the event itself or appalled by the response -- or both -- we knew that this generation would invent its own hangups and own coping mechanisms. And it only stands to reason that they would flock to cities, seeking shelter among each other, and seeking human contact in a world so heavily mediated by technology.

When left to their own devices, hipsters have found that they can change their immediate world, even as the larger world drifts ever more into peril. Yes, some hipsters have done really stupid things. But while art projects and skinny jeans may be aesthetically questionable and functionally pointless, rarely are they morally questionable.

I agree with Doig. Hipsters may not be worth much to cities. But cities are worth the world to hipsters. And maybe that's enough.

Josh Stephens is a contributing editor of the California Planning & Development Report, an independent newsletter covering land use and policy.

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