Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Geography of Hipsters

Hipsters in McCarren Park, Williamsburg, Brooklyn

I've never shared the hipster-hatred now fashionable these days. It's so fashionable that the hipsters hate each other.
I live on the edge of Williamsburg, a hipster mecca. I see them daily.
I don't understand what the fuss is about. In my 52 years, I've seen many youth rebellions that were a lot more aggressively unlovable than today's peppy young people.
To me, they look like a cross between art students and hippies who just stopped trying. I think a lot of the sour grapes they attract are primarily the disappointment older generations always feel about younger generations. That goes back to the Garden of Eden. Lord knows, people were disappointed in my generation, and we really gave them things to feel sorry about. We tend to look down our noses at the young as self-absorbed and shallow. And what were we doing when we were their age? Listening to Mozart and joining the Peace Corps? No, we were getting wasted and listening to Led Zepplin.

Everyone in Williamsburg thinks the hipsters are all rich (except the landladies who know better). A few of them probably are. The rich ones live in the developed part of Williamsburg around Bedford Avenue and Lorimer Street. Most of the rest live from Graham Avenue east into Bushwick. They pack the L train every day going to work. The most revealing time to see the hipster class struggle is early Sunday morning. They pack the L train going into Manhattan, not to skateboard in the East Village, but to work the brunch shift. A lot of them are unemployed now, along with a lot of other people these days. They live about 4 or 5 to an apartment, sometimes with pets.
Most of them are left to left of center in their politics with a substantial minority of libertarians. They are overwhelmingly white with a large Asian contingent. I suspect that most of them are from middle class suburban backgrounds; comfortable, but not exactly affluent. They appear to be over-educated as well as under-employed. I see a lot of conspicuous and competitive book reading on the L train; Baudrillard, Graham Greene, Dostoevsky, Camus, Aeschylus, even Grandmere's beloved Jane Austen are among the authors I've seen being read on the train. How much of that is real literary love and how much of it is show I don't know.

They are young people starting out in life, just like all the rest of us did at one time. It's never easy to be young, but it seems especially hard now. Late at night when I'm coming home from teaching evening classes, the L train is packed, not with people heading out on the town, but heading home from work too.

The Hipster Express, The L train, packed as usual


If anything, the generational divide appears to be much sharper among African Americans and Latinos. The older generations are horrified at Hip Hop culture (an African American friend of mine who is an elementary school teacher described gangsta rap as the worst nightmare of the Black middle class come true), while the younger Hip Hoppers passionately insist that they are being misrepresented. To me (very much an outsider in all this) a lot of this culture looks like it's about hyper-machismo and nihilism (thus its tremendous appeal to suburban white kids). The kids insist otherwise.
Youth culture has always been very segregated, but there are unexpected places where the colors meet and mix. Remarkably enough, there is a small but growing Black and Latino Goth subculture. I usually think of Goth as very white and suburban, but perhaps not. The skate-board subculture appears to be the most integrated. I see kids of all colors skate-boarding together in parks all over town. They all appear to share the same culture and emblems.

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