Hipness Began at Five Points

The New York Times writes about hip cities, and how cities like Atlanta try to lure young, creative people away from traditional centers of cultural production like New York and Chicago. This has propped an unusually productive inter-blog discussion about it. On The News Blog, Steve explains that,”A lot of black people, a high school friend was one, was lured to Atlanta and lasted four years. Why? Because it was still Atlanta. People still judged you by the church you went to and there were still some jobs you couldn’t get if you were black.” Steve’s co-blogger Jen goes into more detail,

First, let me say that this article makes me want to barf. The fact that some city official would say that (young creative class folks) “view diversity and tolerance as marks of sophistication” right along with “downtown living” shows a complete lack of understanding as to how “creative” neighborhoods really happen. NO, it’s not a “build crappy coffeehouses and overpriced foodie boutiques and they will come.” In Real Life, you need a pervasive culture of tolerating difference and learing for its own sake in the first place. You also need affordable, equitable housing, not $1800/month slumlike studios that used to house lower-middle class workers before they got evicted when the ‘hood got “hip.”

Amanda adds a good dose of snark to that and starts a discussion about what it is exactly that makes a city attractive to young creative types. Jill gives a really good treatment of the process of generation of coolness,

When Amanda says “the creative class,” I don’t take her to simply mean “creative people” or even “people who make art.” I take her to mean the culture-drivers, the people who decide what’s worth paying attention to and who set the standards of “cool” for the rest of the country. These people are not necessarily the artists and the actual creators — but they’re the ones who determine how successful said artists and creators are, and who shape what youth culture looks like. Of course, the artists and the creators will be drawn to the areas where there will be a large, receptive community to their art — namely, larger cities with a decidedly “hip” contingent.

But it’s that first group — the culture-drivers — who really matter. Artists can create away, but if no one is paying attention then, obviously, their creations don’t register. And having gone to NYU and living in the East Village, I’ve met more than a few of the people who make artists matter. Here’s what they generally have in common: (1) A college education; (2) lots of disposable income; (3) time and energy. This certainly isn’t anything new. Edie Sedgwick wasn’t exactly poor; the Misshapes kids and the audience they cater to aren’t struggling. Of course, this isn’t true of every hipster in the country, but there is certainly a large degree of social and economic privilege involved. How many people can afford to graduate from college and then accept an unpaid internship in a “creative” field while they live in New York and go to shows and parties every night? How many people in their 20s have the security of knowing that whatever they do today, it’ll work out? It’s these kids — the ones who say they like bands you’ve never heard of (but go to the shows largely to socialize) and who complain about gentrification (but who just moved in two years ago) and who apologize for their parents’ SUVs (but are forced to drive them anyway when they go home) — who dictate what “cool” even means.

I don’t think it’s possible to improve on Jill’s post in explaining the process of what makes things cool right now. Its weakness is in explaining why Atlanta is less hip than New York. Jill explains it mostly in terms of inertia: hipsters flock to cities where there already are other hipsters. That’s good on the city level, but it has two weaknesses. First, it won’t tell you why there’s more cultural production in San Francisco than in Houston. And second, it doesn’t explain why hipsters are flocking to Williamsburg.

The key observation is that in American cities, cultural production doesn’t require the tolerance Steve is talking about. New York was a prime mover of American culture even before the Civil War, when it was Dixie by the Hudson. Cultural production in the US began at Five Points, an urban ghetto where blacks and Irish immigrants started creating a fusion culture when they weren’t busy killing each other.

In New York, the most important neighborhood in terms of cultural history is not the Upper West Side, but the Lower East Side. The commenters on Pandagon who stress the importance of cosmopolitanism are right, but the kind that promotes cultural production is not the happy-go-lucky cosmopolitanism of the Upper West Side or Morningside Heights, but the brutal ghetto of the old Lower East Side and South Bronx.

People who produce new culture usually can’t afford to live in trendy neighborhoods. In Paris, artists concentrated on the Rive Gauche rather than along the Champs Elysée; in New York, they did in Greenwich Village rather than by Central Park. And the artists themselves would draw inspiration from a highly cosmopolitan urban ghetto, which in North America means an immigrant neighborhood where different ethnic groups deal with one another not because they want to but because they have to.

This ties into what Jen says: gentrifying a neighborhood won’t promote cultural production – on the contrary, it will suppress it. Long Island City wouldn’t have art collectives if rents in the Village were sane.

Of course, Atlanta can’t become hip just by trashing a few neighborhoods beyond belief till artists can afford living in them. It has enough trashy neighborhoods with rock-bottom rents as it is. The problem is that these neighborhoods are slave-descended black, instead of a combination of slave-descended black, immigrant black, Mexican, Chinese, Filipino, Russian, and Dominican.

That’s at least the number one way for a North American city to become a center of cultural production. There are two more, which don’t involve importing a large number of immigrants and then throwing them into slums.

One is by fusion of local cultures, i.e. black and white. That happened in the less segregated South first, but then caught on better in the less racist North. This also covers African-American cultural revivals like the Harlem Renaissance (which, note, happened in a thoroughly low-income neighborhood), which couldn’t happen in a city where too many white people would sneer at it.

The other is by attracting large numbers of young professionals, what Jill calls the white collar workers who are eager to consume what has been deemed cool. This includes Austin, the Triangle, and even Seattle, which was hip before it attracted immigrants. Lindsay hints at it in a comment on Pandagon that analyzes the situation in terms of universities. Univerisities help, but any nerd attractor would help; having the headquarters of Boeing in your city would do just as well.

9 Responses to Hipness Began at Five Points

  1. Well put, very well put. The neighborhood by neighborhood breakdown in Austin definitely points to a mash-up similiar to the one you describe, though with less racial mixing than I’d necessarily like. But the artistic members of the creative class here flock to cheaper neighborhoods that are often more racially diverse and thereafter they’re followed by the urban professionals who are also movers and shakers in a different way. All this unfortunately demonstrates why there’s a tendency towards gentrification. The Hiperati who have all coolness and no cash move into more run-down neighborhoods and turn them into culturally interesting centers. Then the moneied members of the creative class who are still somewhat hip move in—restaurant owners, art gallery owners, fashion designers, graphic designers, etc. And once they take over, it becomes a neighborhood dominated by urban professionals and so then the next step is the MBAs and lawyers moving in. All this drives up the rent and runs out the artists who move on. I’ve seen it happen in a few neighborhoods in my 11 years in Austin. South Congress is moving to steps 2 and 3 now; my friend Kiki bought there a gazillion years ago and he laments the fact that you can’t sit on the porch with a shotgun anymore, if that sort of gives you an idea of how eccentricity is slowly scrubbed out. But the shops and restaurants over there are so much nicer now.

  2. gordo says:

    “Univerisities help, but any nerd attractor would help. Having the headquarters of Boeing in your city would do just as well.”

    I guess that explains how Wichita got so hip: all those aircraft engineers from McDonnell-Douglas.

    And is there any hipper place on earth than Albuquerque, New Mexico? Nerds, cultural fusion, and affordable rents. ABQ has got it all!

  3. Alon Levy says:

    Actually, from what I’ve gleaned from Plucky Punk, Albuquerque is becoming more and more like Austin.

    Amanda, I don’t think the sequence you describe needs to be completed in full to have gentrification. The Village still has more writers than MBAs, and will probably keep having more writers than MBAs for the foreseeable future; it just lost so many of its bohemians to skyrocketing rents. Even when the bohemians can still afford to pay rent, once all the immigrants and genuine weirdos can’t, the neighborhood ceases to become interesting.

  4. John says:

    The story here is not about gentrification or cultural fusion. It’s about why Atlanta, San Francisco, Denver, Portland, and Austin were able to attract (relatively) more young professionals than Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles. To be clear, they didn’t just try to attract young professionals – they did.

    Cities like Atlanta have hit a sweet spot of culture, cost of living, and economic opportunity.

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