The Blog

A Celebration of 'Hipster Economics'

It seems that commentators are conflating two different modern issues: urban sprawl/gentrification and rising economic inequality. The latter might be fuelling the former but policy intervention in one is very different to the other.

A recent article described the perils of "hipster economics". Interested in this new-fangled economic theory, I kept reading as the author described the term as "urban decay becom[ing] a set piece to be remodelled or romanticised". I nearly stopped reading at this point, noting that this was certainly not rooted in any economics I'd ever studied, but I was too mesmerised by what lay ahead.

The author of this article describes the apocalyptic impact that moustache-sporting artisanal coffee-drinking pests are having on New York City, supporting comments made by Spike Lee back in February. The commentator, writing from Missouri, is part of a much wider trend that seems to dominate everyday media: hipster bashing. "It's not particularly clever or novel to hate Shoreditch," one author rightly pointed out in January before taking it one step further, "What I hate more than Shoreditch itself is the idea of Shoreditch". You may not have realised but Hackney, Williamsburg and Queen Street West are not just gentrified neighbourhoods, they are an idea of culture that must be quashed immediately for the sake of society at large. A rebuttal to this article attempted to defend hipsters by calling them "self-gentrifying urban Bedouins" and pointed the finger at bankers and Essex 'TOWIE types' who had "colonised [our brand of 'cool']". I certainly hope the hipster trade union is paying this spokesperson handsomely for his role as brand ambassador.

Spike Lee, quite rightly, pointed to some socio-economic issues with gentrification and questioned why certain neighbourhoods only obtained a quality level of city services (garbage removal, police presence, etc) once certain more affluent populations moved in. There are many reasons for this - likelihood of voter participation being one of the most commonly cited by academics. The point, however, remains a valid one and many urban neighbourhoods and boroughs worldwide have considered safeguards to ensure that they hold on to the unique features that made them a focus of such migration in the first place. Let's not forget, though, that urban sprawl has existed nearly as long as cities themselves. The only difference in modern history is that there used to be an exodus to the suburbs, bringing a relief to the housing market. It's no coincidence that calls of the 'death of the suburbs' are as as prominent as those about how hipsters are ruining civilisation.

Indeed, the term gentrification is said to have been coined back in 1964 by Ruth Glass, well before the hipster movement. The latter was recently analysed as lasting between 1999 and 2009, so disgruntled commentators will sleep well knowing that the worst is over. It's quite a stretch, therefore, that "Gentrifiers focus on aesthetics, not people. Because people, to them, are aesthetics." As you may have guessed, the conclusion of the article in question is that policy intervention is needed to tackle the hipster blight on the genuine, the real, the authentic. Taking that line to its logical conclusion in policy terms looks like a rather scary form of socio-economic segregation.

Is it really any surprise that hipsters, or indeed just young-ish people, would want to move to areas with a bit more going on than chain restaurants and baby strollers? London has always has trends and trendy neighbourhoods, as has New York (the Lower East Side and Meatpacking District are unrecognisable to me now) and nearly all other large metropolitan cities. It seems that we are quick to forget flower power, punk and grunge throughout the ages as they traversed not just fashion and cultural trends but neighbourhoods as well.

I'm always a bit mystified by seeing the countless hate hipster blogs. What's so amusing about these is that there's nothing more ironic than starting a Tumblr/Pinterest/Vine with Instagramed photos/videos making fun of [other] hipsters. The most recent addition in my Facebook timeline was a dismissive check-list of What Makes a Hipster Restaurant, posted from a friend who has just invested a minor fortune on mid-century Danish furniture (which is very 'in' in Shoreditch at the moment). As another article noted, "in autumn/winter 2010, if there's one thing more fashionable than being a hipster, it's laughing at hipsters". Nearly four years later, this laughter has turned sour and is beginning to look rather mean-spirited.

It seems that commentators are conflating two different modern issues: urban sprawl/gentrification and rising economic inequality. The latter might be fuelling the former but policy intervention in one is very different to the other. If, however, we're talking purely about hipster culture and the neighbourhoods this group live in, can we for one minute just celebrate the fact that the our global urban youth thrive in multi-cultural neighbourhoods, celebrate and adapt to new trends and invest their money into local businesses? Isn't it time we celebrate hipster (faux-)economics?