Watch out Portland, Pittsburgh's lookin' hip
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Question No. 1: Is Pittsburgh - by way of its cheap housing, fine-arts students, emerging hip-hop scene, Rust Belt bona fides and recent recognition by The Washington Post as the "in" place to be (replacing Portland, Ore.) - now, officially, a haven for hipsters?
Question No. 2: Would Pittsburgh even want to be?
It was an early 20th century underworld slang for "in the know," whose origins remain unknown to etymologists: "Hep" begat "hip," which begat the hipster. By the 1940s, the hipster's association with jazz, bebop and black culture had been firmly established; by the 1950s, using the term "hep cat" was a sure sign that you were not one; by the 1960s, the subculture had turned self-aware with some blasphemous, introspective literature and skewering parody albums, such as "How To Speak Hip" by Del Close and John Brent:
"Hey look, uh, you know, like, if you bought this record to learn how to speak 'hip' from a record [salesman], that is the squarest thing I ever heard of. I mean, wow. But, look, so like, you bought it, you must need it. So that was a smart move. You know what I mean?"
Like all sustained social and cultural movements, this one splinters and reinvents itself. The original hipsters birthed the Beat Generation, and later came the '60s' and '70s' hippies, caring less about jazz and black culture and more about marijuana, free love and Eastern religions.
By the late 1990s, and the hipster was something different still, more a social scenester, subscribers to a youthful, liberal, vaguely counter-cultural "authentic" lifestyle that might have included any of the following elements: cheap cigarettes, even cheaper beer, indie music, thrift store fashion, chunky eyewear, gay culture, beards, Apple products, food trucks, snark and, probably, soccer fandom. Somehow, it had managed to genuflect toward its urban roots -- there are few rural hipsters, you may have noticed -- while still scrubbing away its blackness, becoming a predominantly white, middle-class venture.
The true hipsters, it has been written, are a tormented bunch, aware that the hipster demographic has become fully mainstream and easy to poke fun at - indeed, that it has become a free-standing demographic at all is a troubling sign (to say nothing of the "Look At This F***ing Hipster" website). Madison Avenue pursues the hipster like any other demo, to the dismay of the authentic cultural nihilists. The real artists detest the faux hipsters; the counterculture hipster is not the same as the wannabe mainstream hipster, who holds a full-time job and is more likely to be a business school grad than an artist. What we today know as a "hipster" is more a bland, affected "indie yuppie."
It's a slippery definition, for sure. But the "hipster," it seems, is no longer hip. Hasn't been for years, and it's rare you hear the word in a context that isn't at least partially derogatory, preceded by the word "faux," or followed by the word "poser."
"Has the hipster killed cool in New York?" asked Christian Lorentzen in his 2007 Time Out New York essay. "Did it die the day Wes Anderson proved too precious for his own good? ... Was it possible to be a hipster once a band that played Northsix one night was heard the next day on NPR's Weekend Edition? [And] how many times an hour could one check email and still have an honest, or even ironic, claim on being cool?" This emerging breed of hipster zombies, he wrote, are a "pageant of the bohemian undead."
Of late, it's been written that those true, non-conformist minimalists have found purpose in the Occupy Wall Street movement: "I think Hipsterdom is dead. I think Occupy marks the end of it," said one gentleman, as quoted by The Atlantic Wire while attending an Occupy event in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (Though if declaring the hipster's death in Brooklyn, New York's hipster Ground Zero, isn't ironic and self-winking, nothing really is.)
And in The Washington Post essay published earlier this month that prompted today's endeavor, style writer Maura Judkis declared that "the natural life span of the hipster has come to an end. What was a lifestyle adopted to make fun of the mainstream has now become the mainstream, [and] jokes about them -- much like every skit on IFC's 'Portlandia' -- have started to feel a minute or a paragraph too long."
"The only clear-cut definition of hipster I can give is that there is no such thing as a hipster anywhere," said Bloomfield ukulele instructor Elliott Sussman. His best attempt at a description: Today's hipster is part music scenester, part counterculture minimalist, part irony, wholly defensive.
"It's this term like 'politically correct,' where nobody can really define what it truly means -- you just don't want to be called it," because of the stigma, Mr. Sussman said.
In some ways, Pittsburgh is , and has been, a place for "hipsters," maybe without recognizing it. Pittsburgh's Hill District was one of the nerve centers of jazz -- the Crawford Grill and its many jazz club counterparts were home to Paul Chambers, Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner, Billy Strayhorn, Billy Eckstine, Ray Brown, Art Blakey and more -- and thus can fairly lay claim to being one of the progenitors of bebop culture. Decades later, a post-industrial Pittsburgh was drinking cheap regional beer and wearing mesh trucker caps long before anybody realized that it might be intentionally counter-fashionable to do so. Beards are not necessarily grown out of irony -- they are grown because it's cold out (or because it's the NHL playoffs).
Is there a sense that the Pittsburgh hipster species - to the degree that he exists -- might be more authentic than those found in some other cities? Or does Pittsburgh mark some kind of post-hipster lifestyle -- but with all the hipster amenities -- to those who come here to pursue it?
"Looking at Pittsburgh, it's some of both," said law professor Michael Madison, who broached the issue of local hipsterdom on his blog, Pittsblog . "In some neighborhoods, [there's] clearly been an in-migration over the last several years of people from higher-cost locales, like New York. ... Then there are people who have just been living in Pittsburgh, in that style, for some time -- it was just how they lived. It wasn't a particular clique."
Over time, the two groups blur together, and voila, the neighborhood has an identity. The transformation usually takes years - even Williamsburg, which had 8 million New Yorkers to pull from, required two decades for its apartments to fill in and for its warehouses to become arts spaces and music venues. (Now, in the natural order of these things, Williamsburg itself has become gentrified, driving up the rent and driving out the hipsters who made the neighborhood "cool" in the first place.)
So what comes first? The hipster neighborhood (Polish Hill, Lawrenceville, Strip District, various East End spots) that houses a certain type of bohemian because of its innate characteristics, or the hipster himself, who then forces his will on the neighborhood?
"My amateur sociology hat requires me to say that the relationship between the identity and the geography is somewhat reciprocal," Mr. Madison said.
Ms. Judkis, the North Allegheny grad who wrote The Washington Post essay that gained so much attention here, said that Pittsburgh has what the "true" hipsters crave -- authenticity, a sense of history, an arts and music scene that's both robust and easy to penetrate, and a certain buzzworthy quality.
In a broad sense, Pittsburgh, like Portland, is already a potential destination for those who need to "go somewhere cheap and figure out what they wanted to do," she said. What's changed -- and what may separate Pittsburgh from other, similarly situated cities -- is the newfangled buzz, however subjective that sort of thing is.
"If Pittsburgh becomes some kind of hipster enclave, I don't think they'd be the type of hipster you'd find in Brooklyn or Williamsburg or Portland," she said. The true believers among them -- unlike, she said, "the remnant of what was the hipster" culture -- will be attracted to Pittsburgh precisely because it offers the authenticity they're craving, without the yuppie affectation that follows it.
I'm not saying you can't find [that] in other cities. But Pittsburgh has a great setup for people who want to come to the city and make art and have a creative scene," she said
Writer and actress Elena Passarello came to Pittsburgh from Georgia in the mid-1990s, then left for Iowa in 2005, to pursue a master's degree in nonfiction writing. (She's in town to act in barebones productions' "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train," at the New Hazlett.)
It's while she was at the University of Iowa, she said, that she first heard "a lot of Brooklynites throwing Pittsburgh's name around [as] a place where you could be your artistic self and finish your novel."
Even when it wasn't cool to be in Pittsburgh , Pittsburgh had cool places to be. But it's hard to argue that there aren't more of them around today, from bars and art galleries and music venues to those specific neighborhoods with "hipster" potential. Bloomfield -- or, as Gabriel Smith calls it, "New Portland" -- has become one of those neighborhoods.
Mr. Smith, who teaches writing and literature and also plays with a couple of Bloomfield-based bands (Beagle Brothers and Oh Dang, Cobra Fang, if you were curious), is the self-proclaimed Mayor of New Portland, a thoroughly fabricated leadership position that he assumed "as a reaction to the hipsterization of my favorite bar in Bloomfield," Sonny's, on South Millvale Avenue.
"I guess that claiming mayorship to New Portland is just my way of staking a claim to a place that has played a large role in my life, before the hipsters of our country flock to the new 'it' city," he said. Since 2005, when he moved here, "the little bar around the corner morphed into a Bloomfield hotspot [for] young local artists, musicians, writers," and so on.
He's embraced the change with full, ironic gusto: "I grew a beard, bought a flannel shirt and winter vest, and have even experimented with drinking local artisan beers," he joked.
That's one way to describe a hipster, but there will always be hipsters of one stripe of another, no matter their shifting cultural and ideological comfort zones. The community evolves, the definition evolves, and before you know it, Chucks Taylors are out of fashion.
"There's a new hipster every decade," Ms. Passarello said.
So it's fair to wonder, having already spent more than 1,800 words contemplating the hipster, if we might be obsessing just a bit too much about this one little changeling of a word, and its relativity (or lack thereof) to Pittsburgh's current identity. How much ink was spilled, for example, ruminating on the best ways to attract Richard Florida's Creative Class, which intersects in many ways with these bohemians?
Cities -- Pittsburgh as much as any other, and probably more so - care deeply about image, and are sensitive to what outsiders think. And if others are to think that Pittsburgh is now a place for the Hipster 2.0, well, maybe we're a decade late to this party, but that's still a far sight better than what outsiders have been thinking about us pretty much since our Smoky City days.
"We had such a hard time keeping young people after the steel industry collapsed," said Curt Gettman, the public art program manager for The Sprout Fund, a nonprofit that issues grants to arts, theater, environmental, tech and neighborhood improvement projects.
Pittsburgh's youth retention difficulties, and overall downsizing, led to our city putting "such a focus on creating opportunities for them ... It took Pittsburgh a while to figure out what to do with all this empty space.
"I'm as hesitant as anyone to use the word 'hipster,' [but] if you can dream it, you can usually figure out a way to make it happen here," he said.
Mr. Gettman, like the other interviewees, suspects Pittsburgh may have a lower tolerance for the allegedly "faux" hipster, who adopts the look and lifestyle for the sake of adoption, and who is either indifferent to history, or appropriates it only to parody it, without affection.
Elsewhere, "you get more of a look-at-me type of hipster -- people from Pittsburgh have traditionally not been into that type of showboating," he said.
So where does that leave us? Post-hipster? Rust Belt chic? Or perhaps Pittsburgh is merely "cool," against all odds. However you dissect it, Pittsburgh today -- despite its pension problems, despite its assessment mess, despite its racial inequality, despite its political miasma and deteriorating public transit and fractured school system -- is a different, more interesting place than it was 30 years ago, and others are noticing, for whatever reason.
Maybe it's not a hipster thing -- maybe it's an Internet thing, making it easier to promote your music and sell your art without necessarily living on one of the coasts. Maybe it's just a youngster thing, as reflected by recent Census estimates showing that Pittsburgh's median age is dropping, and its number of college-aged residents is growing. The expanding universities are surely one driver behind Pittsburgh's growing hipster scene, and Carnegie Mellon University, for what it's worth, was cited by College Magazine as one of the "10 Most Hipster Campuses."
As for Pittsburgh being attractive to young people, "well, why wouldn't it?" said Mr. Sussman, the ukulele instructor.
"It is cheap to live here. It's the only city I know of where you can have a part-time job at a coffee shop, still afford a mortgage payment and be able to go out once a week. ... How would that not be appealing to any young person who isn't ready to settle down?"
The hipsters, the bohemians, whoever they are, however you label them -- they're coming.
Many are already here.
No need to panic:
"As long as I still have a seat at Sonny's," Mr. Smith, the mayor of New Portland, said, "I think that things will be OK."
First Published January 15, 2012 12:00 am