A hipster’s paradise

In the late 1990s, a down-at-heel ’hood in New York’s Lower East Side became an enclave for rich whi

At the start of the great blackout of 14 August 2003, radio announcers in New York City recalled with apprehension the looting that had appalled the nation during the blackout of 1977. Darkness was falling again on the metropolis - now a post-Disney wonderland that had parlayed the white return and gentrification of the Nineties into a money boom that persisted, with falling crime rates and still-rising real-estate valuations. Had the stumbling block arrived at last? Fourteen hours later, after the sun rose over intact shops, the authorities were jubilant. The Brooklyn neighbourhoods of Crown Heights and Bushwick, where the worst trouble transpired a quarter of a century earlier, had stayed calm. No looting had occurred. Or almost no looting, certainly not enough to matter to anyone, not in Manhattan - really just one set of incidents that newspapers bothered to record and that was just something that happened to some Lower East Side hipsters.

The chief venue was a store called Alife, pronounced "A-Life", as if bestowing a superior grade on your existence. It called itself a brand and design consultancy but was known primarily as an unaffordable sneaker store, selling improbably expensive limited-edition Nikes or customised Chuck Taylors amid peculiar decor: trick bikes, motocross jackets, AstroTurf, graffiti paints. Alife had entered a neighbourhood that was Puerto Rican, black and Jewish, on a street known for its bargain leather goods and clothes - but, from 1999 onwards, it became the western pillar of a swiftly growing enclave of new people whom I never heard called anything other than "hipsters".

A little before 11pm on the first night of the 2003 blackout, a significant crowd began looting the stock. The owner arrived and hit people with a flashlight to disperse them; the mob struck back with bottles. This is, of course, a sneaker neighbourhood. What Alife had pioneered was the up-pricing, super-branding and remarketing of products more or less on sale right around the corner at the discount sneaker shops on Delancey Street, such as Jimmy Jazz and Richie's, serving a mostly black and Latino clientele - but Alife addressed a non-local or tourist market, trading on the novelty of an impoverished location still within the confines of Manhattan. No trouble was recorded at Jimmy Jazz or Richie's; a brick was thrown through the window of the Delancey Foot Locker and another Foot Locker was burgled in Brooklyn. At rich white people's sneaker destinations throughout the hipster archipelago in the Lower East Side, however, attacks and thefts were reported, the only notable crimes of the period of darkness.

My father's family had been living on Willett Street, on the Orthodox Jewish east side of the neighbourhood, continuously since the turn of the century, so I had a good vantage point on all this. My grandmother and father had been spinning stories of those streets for me since I was a kid. So I was attached to the old patterns of settlement. Throughout the period of the changes taking place on the opposite side of Delancey from my grandmother's apartment, I visited a few times a year for stays occasionally as long as a month. I gawked in the box of streets that made the epicentre for the new culture, bounded by Houston to the north, Delancey on the south, Clinton to the east and Orchard to the west. I went there first at an age when I still desperately cared what "the young people" were up to - and nearly all the people I saw then were older than me. I read hipster catalogues and flyers, visited their stores, chatted and took notes.

I'd never been so close to a neighbourhood "in transition". But I also hadn't seen a transition quite like this. I knew bohemia. It was very clear to me that the hipster neighbourhood was not bohemian; it wasn't artists. Artists were occasionally there - drinking coffee - but they were unusually thin on the ground. Instead of doing art, people everywhere were "doing" products. They displayed overpriced guitars, overpriced painted sneakers, lots of overpriced food and a huge quantity of overpriced clothes. These products were often displayed amid the decor and signifiers of art galleries or designers' hidden ateliers, but artistic production and art­ists' folkways were gone.

The hipster subculture was pro-consumer, amoral, pro-lifestyle. It credentialled itself as resistant because its pleasures were supposedly violent and transgressive and also what was then foolishly called "politically incorrect", such that the hipster's primary means of self-authentication were white hetero masculinity, gross high-school pranks and, primarily, pornography. What pretentious erotica had been to Sixties liberals, pretentious porn was to Noughties hipsters. Oh, and tattoos!

The thing I chafed at, mentally, was that the hipsters manifested not like a subculture, but like an ethnicity. It's hard to explain. Their structure of behaviour, what one can only call their "clannishness", plus the Lower East Side's hands-off treatment of the new hipsters - as individual blocks and then whole streets "turned" - seemed like consequences of new ethnic arrival. The uncanny thing about the early-period white hipsters is that symbolically, in their clothes, styles, music and attitudes, they seemed to announce that whiteness was flowing back into the inner city. When you think of the post-Second World War decades, you think of suburbanisation, "urban renewal" and "white flight", and the consequent defunding of the inner city. The reverse phenomenon in our own times - after decades in which upward mobility for the middle classes, including the black and minority middle classes, looked like it meant heading out to the suburbs - was that capital flowed back into the centre, especially the finance capital of neoliberal upward redistribution and the Nineties and Noughties Wall Street bubbles.

Unconsciously, the hipsters wore what they were: their bars dug up white Americana; "trucker hats", the gimme caps distributed as freebies at auto shows, were newly discovered for fashion; and belt buckles got Southern and big. By taking up the markers or feeling of a white ethnicity, the hipsters made it feel natural to engage in a subcultural separation or de-integration, rather than bohemian integration, as they colonised neighbourhoods that were, in one way or another, ethnic. Norman Mailer may have been foolish when he wrote, in "The White Negro" in 1957, of the white hipster freeing himself from white squareness by Negro sexiness and spontaneity. But at least he was a fool who clumsily championed the violation of racial and class boundaries.

You could feel the hipster culture of the late Nineties, in its aspect of an aggressive fetishisation of whiteness, coming to an end in 2003 - the sneaker-shop looting is a convenient symbol, but really it felt more like a loss of creative energy on the Lower East Side than a reaction from neighbours. Hipsters clearly persisted and regrouped, however, with different markers and habits, in similar neighbourhoods, and then in wider circles mediated by TV and the internet.

What happened to the Lower East Side was that bigger capital moved in. The core hipster area very quickly entered capitalism's replica phase whereby originals are destroyed or priced out of an area beloved for its authenticity, so that mainstream pastiches can be installed with wider appeal, higher prices and greater profit­ability. The hipster-coded kids I talk to now in cafés on the Lower East Side inform me they commute in from Bushwick or Bed-Stuy, to visit or jerk coffee in their "favourite place" that still reminds them of what they thought New York was going to be like when they arrived.

My hope is that, amid whatever sources of energy outside him or herself the hipster no doubt continues to draw upon and advance, the self-satisfaction with whiteness, at least, will have somehow diminished. If this consumerist culture of the hipster does survive and change, then even if it's still buying something, maybe it will buy something better.

Mark Greif is a founding editor of n+1. The book "What Was the Hipster? A Sociological Investigation" is published by the n+1 Foundation ($10)