Hipsters, without even knowing

Spike Lee is not a fan of hipsters.

At Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute in February, the filmmaker answered at-length after an audience member brought up the “positive side” of gentrification in New York City.

Using plenty of expletives, as he is wont to do, Lee described what he saw as the “Christopher Columbus Syndrome” in which affluent people take over traditionally African American neighborhoods.

The comments went viral, not because Lee compared gentrifiers to a historical figure who facilitated a genocide, and not even because Lee pointed out that the positive changes to his parent’s neighborhood — like better schools, street cleaning and more security — weren’t seen for decades until a certain demographic moved in. The comments went viral because Lee used a word that Columbia University Professor John McWhorter designated as equally offensive as the word ‘thug.’

The insult was the word “hipster.”

Defining the label

Four months after Lee’s comments, the Guardian declared that the hipster trend had died the moment that it was labeled and scrutinized. New York Magazine had announced the death of the hipster four years ago.  

They defined a hipster as someone who rejects the mainstream in fashion, culture and lifestyle. Ray-Ban sunglasses, skinny jeans and v-neck tees were once trademark hipster fashions, but once the fashions were hijacked by big corporations and sold to the masses, they lost their hipster essence.

Photo by Dominic Mercier, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


However, the hipster label didn’t die, as evidenced by Spike Lee’s agitation. The hipster moved on, continuing in a quest to ironically adopt fashions that are the polar-opposite of cool. From enormous glasses to mom jeans, mustaches, monocles and mutton chops, the “hipster look” usually appears to be a reincarnation of all the worst fashion choices from the past century.

The stereotype goes that hipsters “discover,” appropriate and take credit for ideas, fashions, cultures, lifestyles and even geographic areas that belong to other generations, ethnicities and economic classes. The hipster label isn’t about what you wear, but how you wear it. If you wear ill-fitting ripped jeans, live in a decaying building and drink Pabst Blue Ribbon because you can’t afford anything else, you may not be a hipster. If you have a choice but still do those things just because no one else in your social circle does, you are probably a hipster.

So who would choose to identify with a label associated with negative characteristics like entitlement, vanity and phoniness?

Apparently, some still do. Public Policy Polling, a North Carolina-based polling center that focuses on elections and political ratings, polled Americans in 2013 on opinions and identities surrounding the hipster label. The poll may have been flawed from the start — just 571 people were surveyed by landline.

If one thing is evident about the hipster, it’s that they are generally millennials who are more likely to own a smartphone than a landline. But perhaps cell phones were too mainstream, because 57 people self-identified hipsters, and nearly all of them were younger than 30 years old. Those who self-identified as hipster were also more diverse than the usual stereotype espoused by Spike Lee — more Latinos identified as hipsters even though there were far more white respondents in the survey.

While the poll was hardly a trustworthy reference for the actual number of hipsters in the United States, it did show that somewhere out there are self-identified hipsters.

Outside the label

In 1957, Norman Mailer defined the hipster as a young person who wears zoot suits and listens to jazz in an attempt to “divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self,” an act he called “psychotic.”

Since then, the hipster culture morphed into one intent on rejecting the mainstream. But when what is “normal” is relative to the surrounding environment and to perception, then what is anti-normal, or hipster, becomes an ever-shifting identity that can never be defined or labeled.

"I engage in what we could call "typical hipster" activities and appearances, but I do it for my own reasons."

Sara Inés Calderón

“The truth is, depending on your geography, socioeconomic class or ethnicity, the way a hipster ‘looks’ can vary dramatically,” said Sara Inés Calderón, a self-described “bilingual, bicultural hybrid California-Texas Latina” journalist. “That's why I think it's just really become synonymous with how we refer to young, cool millennials.”

Millennials, in general, reject labels. Half of 18 to 33-year-olds are not affiliated with any political party, and one in three are not tied to a religious institution, more than any other generation, according to Pew Research. The millennial generation is also the most racially diverse in U.S. history, often unable to fit into the clear racial categories of the past. So the hipster label, like all others, may be too narrow for most millennials.

Calderón doesn’t consistently call herself a hipster as she considers herself on the “older end of the millennial spectrum.” However, she said that it doesn’t bother her if others identify her as one.

“I do love my trucker hat — but I got that hat when on assignment on the border. I love thrift shops — but I grew up buying clothes from there. I dye my hair purple — but it's just because I have prematurely graying hair. I love craft beer — but only a few types that taste good to me. So, I engage in what we could call "typical hipster" activities and appearances,” Calderón said, “but I do it for my own reasons, so it stands to reason that most hipsters probably do the same.”

Illinois native and Philadelphia-area resident Juliana de Affonseca said that in the city, she doesn’t consider herself hipster, but outside, she is pegged.

“A month ago I went to a friend’s wedding in Biloxi, Mississippi,” Affonseca said. “At least three strangers told me I look and dress like Lorde. I was surprised only because nobody in Philly had ever said that to me before.”

Affonseca, whose roommate describes her style as ‘fashionable grandma,’ said that she is indifferent to the hipster label.

“In the end I’m me and I’m comfortable with that. Hipster or not.”

The source of the negative connotations, Affonseca said, stem from the inauthenticity of those who adopt a hipster persona rather than discovering their own identity. “It’s a convenient shield,” she said. But the identity isn’t the definition of the hipster culture, according to Affonseca.

“I see this movement as young people trying to break away from what’s expected of them, as any other subculture group that came before us. But this one’s different, we are making moves and teaching other by example to follow our true passions even if it scares [...] our parents,” Affonseca said. “I think we are all here just doing our best to find ourselves.”

The privilege of choice

When it comes to hipsters, Philadelphia is a “larger Brooklyn,” according to Cat Rojas, who grew up in North Jersey and currently lives in Philadelphia. Many young people could be labeled as hipster in Philadelphia, Rojas said, but the label is not a positive one.
“When I first got to college and heard the term, I thought it just meant ‘cool kids,’” Rojas said. “[I] slowly garnered the knowledge as I went through that hipster generally means privileged people who are lucky enough to be primarily concerned with the following: fashion, self-image, their own music taste, liberal arts and politics, and self-promoted exclusivity.”

Rojas doesn’t identify as a hipster, though she has been labeled as one.

“Literally I could have worn plaid and that would be what made me hipster or ‘trying to be hipster’ in some people's eyes. It's particularly offensive to me because those parts of my identity are directly attributed to my gender-expression, sexuality, race and things that I cannot change about myself,” Rojas said. “When labeled I just brush it off as ignorance.”

Calderón also noted that what differentiates the “hipster” identity from others is that being a hipster, and assuming the negative connotations that come with the label, is a choice.

“If I have identified as a hipster, it was probably to be honest about the fact that I was living in a mostly working class Latino neighborhood, but for different reasons than the people there,” Calderón said. “I grew up in Latino neighborhoods, and it's where I feel at home and safe, but I have other options, so I feel it's only fair to distinguish that and so I've called myself a hipster in those instances.”

Just as hipsters are said to appropriate cultures through fashion (hipsters did not “discover” headdresses), cuisine (people have been drinking kombucha for centuries) and music (bluegrass was a thing before hipsters got to it), they are also said to “discover” areas despite the communities that existed there for decades, although this isn’t exclusively a hipster practice as much as continued discrimination against people of color.

According to a heat map from Yelp, the most identified “hipster” spots in Philadelphia are concentrated around Northern Liberties, a historically working class neighborhood. Since the late 1800s, the area was home to Latino families who migrated from Cuba and Puerto Rico for jobs in the tobacco and garment industry, settling amongst Irish and European immigrants as well as an already-established African-American community. In 1947, a federal program called Operación Manos a la Obra (Operation Bootstrap) recruited Puerto Rican workers to the area with many families setting in Northern Liberties.  

However, in the 1970s through the 1990s, many Northern Liberties residents were displaced by the city’s efforts to renew the area post industrialization. Latinos especially were pushed further north into areas like Fairhill as new residents took their places. For those who stayed, the influx of hipsters throughout the 1990s and 2000s presented another problem — an increase in rent and property taxes. In 1992, the median price of a house in Northern Liberties was $26,600. Today, it’s $349,500.

The city has even introduced initiatives like the Longtime Owner Occupants Program (LOOP) in an attempt keep taxes low, maintaining socioeconomic diversity and preventing displacement in gentrifying areas.

Monika Kreidie, director of NLArts has lived in Northern Liberties for more than a decade. In 2006, she worked with neighbors to launch NLArts, a community arts program that educates children in visual and performing arts. Today, Kreidie directs the program and sits on the board of the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association (NLNA), which organizes and provides resources for residents both old and new.

As for the “hipster” label, Kreidie said that it doesn’t define or even necessarily hurt the neighborhood.

“I consider my husband one of the most un-hip people in Philadelphia so I don't necessarily feel connected to the ‘hipster’ crowd,” Kreidie said. “I think that having the ‘hip’ label brings people to the neighborhood to shop and eat which can only be a good thing for local businesses and the neighborhood in general.”

Kreidie said that her family moved to the area not because of its image, but because of the community.

“I was skeptical about moving to Northern Liberties almost 13 years ago,” Kreidie said. “Now, I can honestly say that it was without a doubt the perfect place to raise my kids. The sense of community and the ability to get things done from so many dedicated residents is remarkable. I love this neighborhood and my family is proud to be a part of it.”

The hipster in all of us

The hipster label, as in Spike Lee’s rant, is often broadly directed towards anyone who adopts a fashion, culture or home because it’s trendy. But that definition goes against the idea of a hipster — someone who chooses something precisely because it’s different.

The debate boils down to two understandings of hipsters. The first is someone who chooses what’s different. The second is someone who embraces what makes them different.

In the end, the lines blur and we all end up a little hipster, united by our desire to reject the labels ascribed to us and be seen for who we are.

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Posted Date: 
Wednesday, August 6, 2014 - 5:05pm
"Bike to Bar: The Violet Hour" by Lorena Cupcake, Flickr Commons, CC BY 2.0
Plain Text Author: 
Christine Killion