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From Issue #33 January 2, 2014

For Whom the Kale Tolls

Here’s a radical idea: let’s talk about gentrification without saying the word hipster.

By Rosie J. Spinks Twitter icon 

If you’re a writer for the New York Times “Sunday Review” and of a certain age, hipsters are an easy and pleasing target. You can poke fun at their shallow obsession with curating aesthetically pleasing lives, question the logic of patronizing organic producers while struggling to pay rent, and show that you’re privy to the latest brunch trends by dropping phrases like “kale frittata, steel-cut oats, and burrata salad.”

When you espouse this all-too-familiar brand of hipster hatred — as Thomas Chatterton Williams did so spectacularly in a recent Sunday op-ed for the New York Times — you avoid a much broader discussion about gentrification and urban life that requires more nuance than anything the mainstream media seems prepared to tackle.

It is a conversation that involves factors like globalization, the rise of the sharing economy, a massive recession, lower entry-level wages, an aging boomer generation, increased immigration, and a changing definition of success for upwardly mobile millennials.

Sadly for Williams, admitting that the causes of gentrification aren’t so simple would preclude him from writing an essay that pins the blame for the demise of a 2000-year-old city on a subculture of people who wear tight trousers. And that is perhaps why he avoided it completely.

To be fair, his “How Hipsters Ruined Paris” is hardly the first to fall into this trap. In fact it’s part of a tired media trope that overuses labels like “hipster” and “millennial” while neither defining them nor referring to the unprecedented economic constraints that the mass of people face. (To see a project that actually tackles these factors, consult Nona Willis Aronowitz’s work for Atlantic Cities.)

This trend of articles confusingly suggests that each urban-dwelling 20-something is simultaneously starting an artisanal mustard business from a dingy warehouse apartment in Brooklyn, living in his or her parents’ basement, looking for a job, and waiting for a well-deserved trophy. Wait—am I entrepreneurial, lazy, grossly overstating my abilities, or entitled? Those labeling me can’t seem to decide.

Unlike what Williams seems to suggest about himself, I am no expert on the changing face of cities and what might be “ruining” them. However, I do obsessively use Tumblr and I do work in coffee shops, and I currently reside in an area of Paris known as Little Africa. The Sunday during which I read the Times online, I even went to brunch with my friends. I suspect I am one of the very urban-dwelling culprits the author seeks to indict.

When he’s not bemoaning the decline of quaint spots in Pigalle in which to visit a prostitute, Williams rightly points out that “genuinely engaging with an urban space means encountering and making room for an assortment of lifestyles and social realities  —  some appealing, some provocative, and some repulsive.” On that point, I agree with him entirely.

Street-level view

In 2012, I started a project that spanned a year in the east London neighborhood of Dalston. A Three Course Story is a collection of long-form interviews with the users of a homeless drop-in center, all of whom lived in the area. Dalston has become a place with as many mustache-themed cocktail bars and artisanal coffee roasters as African hair salons and Turkish grocers. I wanted to bridge the gap between the two neighborhoods that seemingly occupied the same space: one defined by poverty and lack of opportunity; the other looked at as up-and-coming and trendy.

I interviewed not just homeless people, but unemployed individuals, addicts, immigrants, those living on government assistance, and those with mental illness. The tapestry was, unsurprisingly, not the neat little picture that Williams tries to paint. The subjects of A Three Course Story had certainly noticed the way their borough had changed since Dalston became a place that is far more edgy than it is dodgy. But did every one of them feel negatively about it? Not at all.

Those who want to write hipster-bashing essays while high in the clouds, looking down, seem to ignore the obvious: young, ambitious, and creative people have been moving to large cities seeking inspiration for centuries, and they usually had so little money that they had to find the cheapest place they could live. That led them to neighborhoods on the edge, in which immigrants were forced to live or in which only the poor (working or not) resided. Who was Hemingway if not a proto-expat freelance hipster journalist with a coffee and alcohol habit and a nearly empty wallet? Today’s phenomenon may be more documented — through the likes of these creatives’ blogs and Instagram feeds — but it’s nothing new.

The essayists also overlook the uneven way in which gentrification affects a community. Seeing that change as an automatic loss to anyone who is not white and employed prevents people from accepting the potential for the good that might come from a neighborhood shedding its drug dens for coffee shops—and I do mean good for the people that have always lived there. The “gente-fication” of Boyle Heights in LA is a perfect example.

What’s also missed is that a community and a city can engage actively with the disparate forces of change that are collectively labeled “gentrification.” Few neighborhoods want mom-and-pop shops wiped clean and replaced by Starbucks and McDonalds and naught else. (Some communities do want some entry of chains because they signal a safer area, cause a rise in real-estate prices, force the police to patrol more often, and beget competition — but not to the exclusion of all local businesses.)

The way to prevent the equivalent of strip-malls from sprouting up, however, is to campaign for affordable housing projects in transitioning neighborhoods, to support local shop owners, and to value the diversity that comes from the gentrification curve.

Out of “Place”

Williams laments the loss of “hostess bars” in Paris’s Pigalle because he sees them as integral to the “grit and character” of that neighborhood. I wonder how the single mother who’s been living above that brothel feels about them? Or if the small tabac owner next door would rather have a different clientele coming past his store? Hell, I wonder what the “hostesses” think about it.

Williams does not wonder about what any of these people think. He just wants them there to complete his Parisian fantasy, rather than see Pigalle for what it is becoming. Paris doesn’t owe him a thing.

Photos from top to bottom: Pigalle station by Fabrizio Sciami, Pigalle by Marcio Cabral de Moura, and Pigalle Metro station by David McKelvey.

Rosie Spinks is a Los Angeles-born, London-based freelance journalist and storyteller. Insatiably curious and optimistic, she writes about sustainability, women's issues, social justice, tech, culture, and design for outlets such as GOOD, Dwell, EcoSalon, The Ecologist, and Sierra Magazine. She loves keeping things simple and hates staying in one place.

You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats. We ceased publication of new work on December 18, 2014.
You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats.
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