This past weekend I ventured into Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, which if you don’t know, is possibly the most densely saturated patch of hipsters in the known universe. My fiance’s grandparents used to live there, one block from the Bedford Avenue subway station. Her grandfather worked at the Domino Sugar factory down the road, and he used to walk to work. But when he got mugged a few times, he decided to carry a club with him, and when that failed to thwart the attackers, he got his friend to give him a lift in his car. Eventually they decided the neighborhood was just too dangerous and moved east to Queens.
If only they had bought the place. They’d be millionaires by now.
In the past two decades, and accelerating exponentially, the area has become a youth hipster haven. Rents have soared, there are boutique restaurants on every corner, and the area has earned its place in the Fodor’s New York Guide as a tourist destination as worthy as the Empire State Building. On weekends the streets are nearly as crowded as Times Square. What the hell caused this change?
The myth goes something like this: Williamsburg, full of factory warehouses and dangerous streets, was super cheap and so poor artists and social misfits could afford to move there. Plus it was one stop from Manhattan’s East Village and the thriving art scene there. A swarm of young artists and musicians moved in, settled, and after a few years the neighborhood began to take on a decidedly different character. It wasn’t one of New York’s forgotten neighborhoods, run down, rusted, graffiti overrun. It was born anew as the place to be if you’re under 30. Many a rock band got their start in what the locals call the Burg, playing the strip of clubs along Bedford Avenue. My fiance used to walk with her grandmother down Bedford and over to Manhattan Avenue to shop in neighboring Greenpoint because Williamsburg didn’t have a supermarket. And they took the main avenue because the side streets were just too dangerous to traverse, even during the day. Now those same streets are filled with beer gardens, rooftop bars, cafes, boutiques, clothing stores, outdoor food festivals, flea markets, and thrift stores. On Saturday we walked into one thrift store called Beacon’s Closet.
Inside Beacon’s Closet (now on Guernsey street after they moved from North 11th) are racks and racks of pre-worn clothing. The place actually smells like a closet or a basement, which isn’t as off-putting as it sounds. Rather, the smell is familiar and comforting, at least for someone like me who spent large portions of my childhood holed up in my basement. Inside the store the view would be no surprise to any American: entranced shoppers hunting through rack after rack of clothing like birds scouring grasses for seed. But these young people were searching for clothing that was yesterday’s news, the stuff that, at least for my generation, mothers would foist upon us as “hand me downs.” They’d remain in my closet until either I outgrew them or realized I had never worn the ugly shirt in years and gave it back to my mother to give to the next person, who would in turn hand it down, etc. This place then, was where all the hand me downs went to die…and to be reborn.
Once at a dinner after a night of Fantastic Fiction at KGB, I was talking to Catherynne M. Valente about New York culture, and we spoke of hipsters. She said, “There is no such thing as a hipster. They are simply the young.” I admit there is something seductive about her theory. Perhaps I’m the old man shouting at the kids to get off my lawn. “Ya silly hipster douche!” But there is something qualitatively different about the hipster youth in Williamsburg. Inside Beacon’s Closet, you could almost smell it in the air. (In fact one of them actively emitted an odor, a man who abstained from deodorant or a shower for too long and cast a pungent haze about the space that made my eyes water as he passed by; curiously, he was an employee. Even BO was cool.)
As I looked on at the racks and racks of clothing, I was seduced by the hipster vision: here in this place, I could find a new look for every day. Today I could be ironic army dude (there was more than one olive-drab military jacket). Tomorrow I could be Midwest lumberjack (a plaid button down with faux pearl snaps.) The day after that I could be urban rock star, dressed in black tight jeans and an 80s heavy metal t-shirt. If I were wilder, I might wear some of the crazier patterned shirts, silk and polyester wonders that would not be out of place in a Miami disco in 1970. As I was browsing, a man dressed in glittering ten inch space boots and a bulky white faux space suit, carried a vacuum cleaner over to the corner and got to work. Not even a dreary job like vacuuming could be free from hipster irony. Vacuuming was elevated into the ethereal.
This is when I realized the promise of hipsterdom: a ready-made identity. I remember my 20s, a period of confusion, of searching, of alternating periods of ennui and excitement. I didn’t know who I was or who I wanted to be. I only knew what I had been told to be, how to behave. Had I discovered a place like Williamsburg in my 20s, I might have fallen into the hipster allure. The hipster life seduces so well because it offers the appearance of substance without the work. I can choose this costume or that costume and in the hipster kingdom, where appearances matter more than reality, the clothes define the man. I don’t have to be an artist or a musician or even cool. I just have to look the part.
Looking like something is so much easier than actually being something. It’s easy to put on an outfit every day, but orders of magnitude harder sitting down before that blank page that stares back like the void, harder to struggle to write that new song or finish that painting, and really, even if you’re not an artist, it’s hard enough just to live and be accepted for who and what we are. So we let our appearance do most of the work for us. Because if others see us as being an artist, a musician, a writer, as cool, then we, in our narcissistic view, are an artist, a musician, a writer, we are cool. Even if we haven’t earned any of those titles. And I think this is what angers us about hipsters so much, that they affect an attitude, take on a look, without earning it. You can’t pretend to be the gnarled lumberjack with the woodsman beard if you spent your morning drinking chai latte on the sunny patio of Lokal and whining that your iPhone service sucks and how your parents are hounding you to get a full-time job while you’re wearing sunglasses that cost more than dinner for five.
It’s easy to mock hipsters for their overwrought styles, their pseudo-ironicisms, their silly affectations, but when we do we are really mocking the aspects of ourselves we don’t want to acknowledge. Despite our best attempts to be seen as valuable, in the greater world we are ultimately skipped over, ignored, forgotten. We are constantly reminded how insignificant we are, how our individual works don’t amount to much. We’re angry at the hipster for their un-earned affectations and their false pretensions, but what angers us more is the sense that, in their kingdom, they each accept the other hipster in all their affected weirdness. As an outsider looking in, it seems as if one doesn’t need to do much at all, but simply look a certain way, and that is the key to hipster acceptance. And in our outside, mundane, non-hipster world, where what we produce, what we give to the system in terms of our labors and sweat is our main value, the allure of the hipster becomes even more seductive. I would say the main emotion driving anger at hipsters is envy. But it’s repressed envy which turns into anger at what we lack. We envy their liberal lifestyle, their carefree manner, and their total acceptance of the other, no matter how different or weird. But because acknowledging our envy would mean we have to acknowledge that we are ultimately insignificant, that we are lacking, that we long for that kind of total acceptance we do not have in the greater world, that our mundane lives are filled with sleep-deprivation and work drudgery, we look at the hipster as a thing to scorn, because he doesn’t suffer like we do.
I didn’t buy anything at Beacon’s Closet. My overall sense was that all the items there were things that I would have given away a long time ago. I thought, I don’t need clothing to define who I am. And yet as we walked home, I thought, No, I don’t need clothes to define who I am, but it would be so much damn easier.