One of the most popular comedy shows in America right now is Portlandia and one of the main reasons for its success is that the sketches are a social satire of a specific group omnipresent in culture at this moment – hipsters. The show examines these people and their perceived preciousness with such precision to take a less-serious look at the, often-serious, people underneath the flannel shirts and exquisite facial hair. It’s set in Portland, Oregon, an appropriate choice given the city seems to be a gathering of militant feminists and eco-warriors, but it easily could have been any number of similar neighbourhoods across the USA and beyond; towns and cities where it seems you have to be in the know regarding the latest underground indie band or you’re ‘past it’ and where your food products must be local or else there’s a problem.
Perhaps the most prominent area (and one that’s became a brand for hipster living) is Williamsburg. Widely seen as the epicenter of hipster-dom, the very name has become a byword for ‘cool’ from London to Lebanon. This stretch of Brooklyn saw an influx of artists in the 1980’s, drawn by the low rents and large warehouse spaces that were available as a result of the declining industry and exodus of the original community whom had grown disillusioned by the high crime rates and poverty. It swiftly became a central point for cutting-edge creativity and in turn grew into a hipster enclave: here was the place where the coolest new bar would spring up; this was the area to come to hear the best underground music vibes.
But no sooner had Williamsburg transformed from urban slum into city chic that it began to change again as the boundaries of their hipster aesthetics was questioned (a more immediate problem for this group of people for whom what is authentically ‘cool’ and what’s not is a fundamental obsession). By the late noughties, the way of life here came under threat from the infiltration of real estate agents and ‘hipster tourists’. The latter are essentially tag-alongs, the kind that cling to any new accessory or movement deemed ‘cool’ and have crowded Williamsburg for a ‘hipster’ fix. Once ‘cool’ local bars have been overwhelmed by out-of-towners and loud nightclubs owned by rich Manhattan-ites have opened in the area monthly. Even city sightseeing buses, those massive tourist-carriers, have ventured away from Times Square and Broadway over the East River, allowing tourists to gawk at the curious residents of this enclave, thus reducing it to just another visitor hotspot on the map.
The facts and figures regarding the arrival of realtors also point to rapid gentrification. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the area has skyrocketed to between $1,600 & $2,400 per month, while a 2012 study showed that the median annual income of a Williamsburg resident had risen to $108,000. The price of land has massively increased, leading to only high-end retail stores and boutiques from Manhattan being able to afford to move here. All this means that many are stating that Williamsburg has went from a hipster enclave to an upmarket area in the same vein of Chelsea and the East Village.
The tale of Williamsburg is an all too familiar one though, and its transformation is of the standard form: artists start the change by searching and invading areas with cheap rents but also have a certain atmosphere about them; they open galleries and coffee shops to serve them in the derelict warehouse spaces; fading venues are given an injection of life by becoming alternative music places or microbreweries; word of the area starts spreading fast and more high-end retailers and restaurants arrive; rental prices therefore go up and old-time residents are priced out of remaining; suddenly the neighbourhood isn’t so truly ‘hip’ anymore but people keep on coming and expensive condos and chain stores start appearing; the cycle ends when the artists and true hipsters relocate to another edgy industrial neighbourhood nearby and it begins anew.
This is clear in the case of Bushwick, one subway stop from Williamsburg. This is where the hipsters have been increasingly fleeing after the apparent death of their former area due to unrestricted property development and ageing. All the things that they love – record stores, craft beer shops, and organic markets – sprung up almost overnight but, once again, the usual story unfolded. The average rent for a studio has increased by 27 percent and large swathes of space have been turned into large luxury apartment complexes. The cyclical nature of hipster neighbourhoods is essentially a matter of economics.
For a group of people so obsessed with the idea of authenticity, of what constitutes ‘hip’, having their own area to call their own that is distinct from mainstream society is vital. But as hipster subculture increasingly comes under the shadow of mass-producing stores intent on turning it into just another brand, even their neighbourhoods can seem identikit. The real originators, however, will keep finding new areas to settle and keep the creativity and uniqueness alive, at least for a while. A key thing to note also is that ‘cool’ is transient – as are cities and their distinct areas – and they are continually swept up in tides of progress and decline; what’s deemed ‘cool’ and worthy today will be over by tomorrow. So the urban game of cat and mouse between the true hipsters and the chasing gentrifiers will continue. Perhaps one day you’ll find your neighbourhood on the cover of a magazine as the next ‘cool’ undiscovered area.