First Person Dispatch: The Hipster

© J.N. Urbanski

© J.N. Urbanski

To open the new year, I wanted to post a piece I’ve been itching to publish for some time. Last year, Britain’s Guardian newspaper asked the question: What is a Hipster? This question remains inadequately answered just about everywhere I read it. So here’s my tuppence for the record.

The hipster, borne of necessity, like most American inventions, was quietly humming along by its introverted self until it was “discovered” like the next top model, propelled to stardom and repackaged. No longer the studious, dedicated urban outlier it once was, it has been devoured by contemporary culture: replicated, refined and turned into another brand like Pandora or Urban Outfitters. I’m keenly familiar with its recent history.

New York City has been a cultural icon for most of its life, but it’s a city that is almost unrecognizable from that which I visited for the first time almost 20 years ago. By 1998, I had moved permanently from an empty, crumbling mid-nineties Shoreditch in London to New York City’s Williamsburg and found something similar to what I had left.

Williamsburg was a grimy, post-industrial wasteland, into which impoverished artists were burrowed like ants in your rotting windowsill, in which we encountered cars smoldering in the streets, and damp, subterranean, makeshift art galleries under the bridge. It now looks like any wealthy, US college town in which a friend described as filled with “Uggs, leggings and Hollister jackets… holding Starbucks cups”.

The only candy sold in delicatessens in Williamsburg in 1995 were peanut chews (my favourite), Tootsy rolls, hostess cakes and American cheese. Planet Thai was a hole in the wall and Joe’s Busy Deli sold obscure Italian fare and meatball subs. There was pizza on Driggs. Bedford Avenue was a desolate, unpoliced dystopian landscape back then and much more interesting. Vice Magazine was a magazine read by skater kids who wore Zoo York. Zoo York had an office in the meatpacking district. How things have changed.

But I’m not here to sneer, because my younger brother told me years ago that, in fact, I am a hipster. (I was genuinely shocked). I just don’t look like one, but that’s the point.

There are two types of hipster: the original hipster who is impervious to mockery (Type A): a true artist in the business of expressing him- or herself despite being poor, broke or not in gainful employment. Those of this type might have been picked on at school or seen as “different”. Hipsters are nerds, misfits and unbound by social convention and dedicated to their passion, whether it’s art or technology. When I watched the first grown adult walk down Bedford Avenue wearing a Care Bear backpack in the early days, I immediately knew why. The Care Bear backpack used to be a display of recycling, repurposing, thrift and anti-fashion (or commerce). The backpack would have been found on the street, in a dumpster or in a thrift store for five cents. This is how the term post-ironic developed. In the original Greek sense, irony meant “dissembling” or “feigning ignorance” which is what the hipster originally was: he/she was silently declaring I know it’s not fashionable, but it was cheap and I’m recycling and helping the planet by not buying something new. Now it’s ironic because this sort of garb has become fashionable and very expensive. It’s now fashionable to be unfashionable: hence the term “post-ironic”. Type A hipsters are now going down to Salvation Army and buying up five-dollar mom jeans and starting a trend called “normcore”. Pretty soon, mom jeans will be making their glorious return. Type A hipsters wore socks with sandals before it became trendy. You can’t really wear the classic Birkenstock sandal without thick socks because otherwise they fly off when you walk. Vogue ads now feature Heidi-style puff sleeves and socks with high heels, (impossible to wear on a daily basis unless you got cabs everywhere), the sort of get-up that used to be “avant guarde” in the world of the late nineties’ Manhattan stylist.

This leads me to the second type of hipster (Type B): those who invite mockery on purpose: the showman hipster. This is the type that is getting all the attention in the media now; taking all the attention away from the origin of his species. This is why we have Sherlock Holmes riding around Bushwick on his unicycle. Go on, mock him, because he “doesn’t care”: that’s the idea. He is the reason we have, ridiculous beard-growing competitions and jars of pickles for $15. Most true hipsters you wouldn’t recognize on the street today, that’s if they’re even still in New York City. They’re in South Korea, Berlin, still-affordable London suburbs like Peckham, Brighton, Buffalo, Charlotte NC or the Hudson Valley. They buy sale items from high street brands or they pick up items at yard sales and the aforementioned Salvation Army. They certainly don’t visit the New York City “vintage” stores because they’re too expensive.

My final point is that hipsters aren’t a clan or group like metal heads or hip-hoppers. They don’t all dress alike like goths, hippies or punks. They are individually expressing themselves in various ways. Technically, you should not even be able to recognize a hipster, as they come in a million forms. This is the beauty of the hipster. The hipster should walk among us undetected and without a label.

I spent the first few years of my life in New York City on Havemeyer Street and North 5th in Williamsburg and those were lean years. One of my first and oldest New York City friends was Lisa and she had arrived before me in the mid-nineties. She lived on North 3rd Street when it was only just beginning to be attended by law enforcement and cars still burned down on Kent Avenue, a long boulevard that ran alongside the concrete coast that jutted irregularly and forcefully into the East River. I bought my first piece of art from Lisa in a basement gallery on South 3th, underneath the Williamsburg Bridge. Lisa was part of a group of artists who took over the basement, painted it white and built temporary walls, so that each artist could have their own space. The painting was $900 and I paid for it over a year in installments. Though broke, without even a bedroom to call my own, I still made an effort to support local artists. After a few years, two art shops sprung up on Bedford Avenue and Lisa worked in one of those selling pure, powdered pigment out of large glass jars like an old-fashioned pharmacy. Later, when I got into the fashion industry, she worked in a second-hand store on Bedford and used to enjoy re-arranging the window display while I sat outside drinking beer in a camping chair and complaining about my boyfriend. Hipsters were just getting through the day until they could go back to their garret and paint throughout the night. I didn’t pick up a camera until a few years later – I possessed almost nothing – so I used to pass many a night hanging out with Lisa and friends in her studio while she painted. I’m a city girl and a bit of a tomboy, so my city dress code was always white t-shirt, jeans and sneakers. Lisa liked to wear skirts, but they made me feel too vulnerable. You would never catch me wearing a dress until I could afford cabs. Lisa bought her skirts and heels from the second-hand stores like the now-infamous Buffalo Exchange. I bought my tomboy gear in the Gap sales. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had fashion people literally yell at me to stop wearing sneakers. “Give yourself a break!” Yelled one photographer. “Put on a pair of heels and some makeup!” I was normcore before it was fashionable! (I am no longer normcore.)

Vice Magazine was a free magazine – or at least that’s how I remember it – and its obscure offerings seemed to be written for young men. I couldn’t identify with it. The sweaty bike messenger with whom I shared an apartment read Vice. He was an avid cyclist and a break dancer from New Jersey called Vic and permanently wore one trouser leg rolled up, a style that had theretofore been co-opted by old-school rappers. His flawless break dancing was sheer poetry in motion and he never saw a smooth surface on which he didn’t want to do windmills, the most famous surface being the sculpture at the World Trade Center, circa 1995, when he was first showing me around.

© J.N. Urbanski Vic, breakdancing at the World Trade Center, circa 1995

© J.N. Urbanski

Plenty of friends and family members have expressed surprise that I’ve moved to the country, but the countryside – the Catskills where I live now – is as real, creative and vibrant as the Williamsburg I moved to back in its day. The Catskills is emerging and authentic because it’s full of hipsters in their anoraks, wellies, military surplus and thrift store jeans doing their hipster thing all day to survive until they can get the oils out and paint, or take out the instruments and jam. The region is bustling with entrepreneurs with various businesses; we plant our own food; fix our own houses; chop our own wood; buy our friend’s handmade chocolate; have poetry nights in bars; blend the best tea I’ve ever tasted; set up makeshift galleries and magazines in crumbling Borscht Belt towns; renovate old Victorian mansions and turn them into clubs and motels; start up our own newspapers. Plus our dogs have enough room to roam free and run around. We own trees.

The Catskills now is worth more to me than the Williamsburg of my youth because it is fermenting more slowly, simply because we have more space. It’s art in a slow cooker. We’re not going to get gentrified. Life is tougher in the country but it’s worth it because you’ll own a piece of what you’ll help to build, as opposed to only renting and getting priced out or only passing through. Come, set up shop and have a permanent stake in your own community, these Catskill Mountains that Travel & Leisure put at Number Two in their list of places to visit for 2015 behind the dazzling Fez, Morroco.

One thought on “First Person Dispatch: The Hipster

  1. Melissa Zeligman

    This is one of the best articles I’ve read this year! Okay, we’re only two days in, but still an excellent read. An intelligent commentary on the distinction ‘hipster’…what it is and what it is not. Well done. Glad to be part of the slow fermentation of our Catskills ‘hood.


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