Tag Archives: hipsters

The ‘Creative Class’ Were Just the Rich All Along

Photo of Richard Florida by Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images

For the August issue of Jacobin Magazine, Sam Wetherell analyzes urban theorist Richard Florida’s apparent about-face on the benefits of luring members of the “creative class” to depressed cities in need of revitalization.

Governmental leaders in major cities around the world have used Florida’s 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life, as a bible for urban renewal. Florida contended that attracting artists, writers, musicians, graphic designers, people in technology and other creative fields would be an economic boon.

If you live in an urban center in North America, the United Kingdom, or Australia, you are living in Richard Florida’s world. Fifteen years ago, he argued that an influx of what he called the “creative classes” — artists, hipsters, tech workers — were sparking economic growth in places like the Bay Area. Their tolerance, flexibility, and eccentricity dissolved the rigid structures of industrial production and replaced them with the kinds of workplaces and neighborhoods that attracted more young people and, importantly, more investment.

His observations quickly formed the basis of a set of breezy technical solutions. If decaying cities wanted to survive, they had to open cool bars, shabby-chic coffee shops, and art venues that attract young, educated, and tolerant residents. Eventually, the mysterious alchemy of the creative economy would build a new and prosperous urban core.

What Florida didn’t expect was that his formula would mostly help those already rich and lead to the displacement of those at the lower rungs of the economic ladder — something he all but apologizes for in his latest book, The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do About It.

After fifteen years of development plans tailored to the creative classes, Florida surveys an urban landscape in ruins. The story of London is the story of Austin, the Bay Area, Chicago, New York, Toronto, and Sydney. When the rich, the young, and the (mostly) white rediscovered the city, they created rampant property speculation, soaring home prices, and mass displacement. The “creative class” were just the rich all along, or at least the college-educated children of the rich.

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A Simpler Cup of Coffee

Although I love the aroma, I don’t drink coffee. I’m a tea person. But I brew coffee every morning for my other half, Rebekah. “Sometimes I think you married me just because I make your coffee,” I told her recently.

She smiled without looking up from her magazine. “That, and you clean the mug.”

She’s one of those people who can’t function without coffee. “It’s a drug,” she says. “I need it. I want the good stuff, but I’ll take whatever’s around.” Rebekah works in medicine, and medicine runs on caffeine. But the ridiculousness of modern coffee culture and its demanding, expensive, rarified preparation turned her against her favorite drink and sent her into the arms of a lesser lover: instant. Yes, the granules.

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How the Mason Jar Got Hip

That, in a nutshell, is why the Mason jar has become emblematic of gentrification: Holding a cocktail or a Slurpee, it’s removed from its original context—which is rooted in functionality—and made into an icon of ironic contrast. Used to serve a drink in Hackney Wick, the Mason jar becomes a vacant signifier. It’s meaningful in its evacuation of meaning—a far cry from delivering the pleasures of summer in the dead of winter, or ensuring that, in a time of need, there will still be enough.

This current incarnation of the Mason jar has a lot to do with the hunger for greater legitimacy: How can I be more real, and more unique in my realness? One of capitalism’s most enduring legacies has been persuading people that they can purchase a singular style. In some areas, like fashion, the effort to be unique has come full circle, so that the best way to be an individual is to dress with utter banality (hence the trend known as normcore). Mason jars—with their enticing aura of thrift, preservation, and personal labor—have become a potent signifier in this quest. Rather than ensuring against scarcity, however, Mason jars confirm the presence of abundance—and suggest that we’re rather fatigued by it.

Ariana Kelly, writing in The Atlantic about the invention and impact of the Mason Jar ─ that simple, indispensible glassware that facilitated rural American life ─ and what its current popularity in urban culture signifies. Kelly’s piece ran in September 2015.

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Identify an Aesthetic, and Then Recreate That Aesthetic

To understand why Urban Outfitters and American Apparel have declined so spectacularly, it’s helpful to remember what it was that made them so successful in the first place. In their heyday, each made a science of identifying exactly what it was that made hipsters so attractive, then recreated that aesthetic in their stores.

They mass-marketed the counterculture by honoring art, music, and fashion of the past; rejecting traditional lifestyles and careers; and appreciating irony. “You would flip through one of their lookbooks or walk into their stores and think, I am in this world,” Brandes recalls. They made a hard-to-define bohemian lifestyle accessible to an entire generation of young people growing up in the cookie-cutter suburbs.

Urban Outfitters and American Apparel identified their target audiences, moving into neighborhoods with a high density of 18 to 25 year olds who were beginning to experiment with their personal style and values. In college towns, students looking to express their newfound interest in indie rock or ’80s nostalgia could put together an entire look in a matter of minutes at one of these stores; they didn’t need to dig through bins of old T-shirts at Goodwill anymore. Even though you weren’t technically thrift shopping, the ambiance and layout inside these stores mimicked the experience, making you feel like you were stumbling across rare, special objects.

Elizabeth Segran writing for Racked about the decline of the “hipster brand,” and why American Apparel and Urban Outfitters are struggling.

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