Sunday, January 02, 2005

Unpacking [UPDATED]

I spend a great deal of time comparing NYC with Chicago, with the former almost always being praised in favor of the latter. But today, something different: Certain areas of both cities are just about indistiguishable. I was in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a couple times over break, and spent this evening in Wicker Park, here in Chicago, and if dropped at random into one or the other, with street signs blurred like the face of an innocent bystander walking by as "The Real World" is being filmed, I might not be able to say in which city or neighborhood I was standing.

Only the ATA flight ( people with persistant coughs get special deals with ATA or something?...) separating the two suggests that those neighborhoods are not in fact just different parts of one big hipster paradise. Both have boutiques where the clothing either is or appears vintage, bars with understated and decidedly sports-free atmospheres, and skinny women with asymmetrical haircuts trying to sell you rustic-looking pastries, scattered, and breaking up long blocks of deserted buildings, small remnants of once-vibrant Eastern European immigrant life, empty lots, and thrift (as opposed to vintage) stores that are most likely picked-over by the more frugal of the hipsters. As it so happens, both are reached by something called an 'El'.

Perhaps what connects the two areas is that both give the visitor the sense of being at once out of the city and more hip and laid-back than those who spend time downtown. These areas (like David Brooks's "bourgeois bohemians") hover between scorning the squares and fearing the cutting-edge go-getters, the unashamedly ambitious. These areas seem less like gentrified urban districts (which is how they're generally described) than like non-urbanites' fantasies of cool city living. While these areas have lingering crime and poverty, they also have that unintimidating look of smaller American cities, with low, but never boxy, buildings, and without the hordes of people striving to make it to the top of their professions, or straining to see the sights. In Wicker Park or Williamsburg, you can opt out of the rat race, not because you're a bohemian, but because the city is dirty, ugly, and crass, and you, like those boring members of your generation who've move to the suburbs, want to keep your distance.

To really get either Wicker Park or Williamsburg, it might help to come from somewhere other than the downtown part of a major American city, since the neighborhoods are both variations of, and ironic comments on, suburban life. Williamsburg has this "mall" (so dubbed ironically, no doubt, as it contains, among other things, an independent coffee shop; an independent book shop; a cheese shop that is quite possibly the most expensive in all five boroughs; a Tibetan store; and a store that sells two seemingly unrelated but nevertheless both counterculture-ish things: vintage apparel and sex toys) which is, like any actual, unironic mall, a more or less continuous row of places to buy stuff, complete with the requisite place to eat stuff. Williamsburg's mall may sell all the items a hipster could dream of, but it is laid out in a way that is easily comprehensible to someone used to traditional malls. Quite different, then, from NYC's West Village, with its confusing, non-numbered, and winding streets, or NYC's Upper East Side (or downtown Chicago's Oak and Walton streets), with its unapproachable storefronts and its dearth of cosy-looking places to get a snack.

Coming from smack dab in the middle of Manhattan, I find places like Williamsburg and Wicker Park charming but slow-paced, and visiting them is, for me, like taking a trip to the country, except instead of seeing goats, you see hipsters. I didn't grow up with malls, so it took me a moment to get the joke when entering the "mall" in Williamsburg. I grew up with access to takeout of an endless number of national origins, so it's difficult for me to tell the ironic all-American diner and the ironic hot-dog stand from the real thing. Lacoste polo shirts were not especially popular at my high school, so I fail to get a kick out of outwitting my former classmates by buying one used at a shop in Wicker Park. I'm not saying that those who come from cities are by definition too sophisticated for these places--being a city kid doesn't necessarily entail sophistication--but that native urbanites are simply not their intended audience...

Finally, something about these neighborhoods seems a bit phony. Maybe it's the illusion that, unlike in the big bad city, in these places, rich and poor live in harmony because no one's really rich. While class and income differences are easy to spot on the Upper East Side, where a real Burberry scarf is on the necks of some but not others, in the hipster neighborhoods, everyone looks shabby and no one eats at a "nice" restaurant. But hipsters are, as everyone knows, wealthy people who have not yet reached the age at which they will cease to find their wealth embarassing. I'm almost certain that the non-hipster residents of these areas are not fooled.


Daniel Moore, "a different type of urbanite" (his words, not mine) has responded.

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