A colleague of mine has been caught up in late in defining the exact nature of the world’s unease before him. In this exercise, he’s honed in on the image of the prototypical hipster as public whipping boy of all that is ill in the city: Look at this kid, he says; look how ignorant he is to the ebbs and flows of the city even as he disrupts them; vaguely political in a middle-class consumerist way. Vaguely bohemian in a middle-brow consumerist way. Look at how he’s blindly happy despite being so instrumental at making others miserable. Why should he be happy? He’s not in the know. He shouldn’t be happy. He should be miserable like the rest of us. Time to clip those wings.
This two-minute hate of some picture of a doughy fedora’d Asian man-boy with librarian glasses and skinny shorts is indeed an exercise for myself as well, for while I would have been right there hating this kid some time ago, I can’t bring myself to hate him now. this is partly due to the fact that I know that the biggest recipient of pain due to this kid’s lifestyle is himself, but partly due to the company I keep in hating him. “Hipster” is in a large way inextricable from “millennial,” and while I am just on the cusp between Gen X and the millennials, the sorts of criticisms I see levied towards him have been levied towards me most of my adult life: Oh, they’re so lazy, oh, they’re so self-absorbed, oh, their lives don’t revolve around getting and maintaining decent careers. Don’t they know that’s how you get ahead in life? Pull those bootstraps harder.
Of course, I can turn that right back on the critics: If any generation in this great nation can be criticized as self-absorbed, it’s the boomers. If anybody could fingered as to the ultimate source of all our social and economic ills, all eyes are on the boomers. Hell, Gen X told us that decades ago; that’s why they’re called Gen X. My colleague would likely point out that such typification is unfair and boomers are also feeling the pinch: If your career is derailed now and you’re in your fifties, you might as well save your family the trouble and kill yourself, ‘cause you ain’t bouncing back. There-in lies the rub, however: We’re more alike than not.
Of the dichotomy, I’m reminded of biking to work in the city. I do so not because of my health but because every day I bike is a day I stave off the necessity of buying a MetroCard at whatever extortionate rate the MTA is offering this time around. This is in marked contrast to the hipsters who do so as a lifestyle choice, flowing as they do up and over the Williamsburg bridge, skinny-fat waifs who don’t have the athleticism to really travel all that far but greatly cherish the aesthetic of the act, or the “Freds,” as the Bike Snob calls them, mid-life crisis men (and it’s always men) in body-condoms and three thousand dollar carbon-fiber toys hurtling down Riverside Drive, feverishly chasing their own mortality if not sense. Whose shortsightedness is to blame for our lot? Well, it helps to define our lot.
We’ve been in a housing crisis in this city since the Second World War, which is about the time we started Rent Control, and the reason is simple if far-reaching: All materials and efforts were to the war, so no infrastructure was being built – either in housing or transportation – so demand far exceeded supply. In order to keep workers near factories and thus producing the goods of war, rent control was imposed. Ever since, economic equilibrium was never achieved because it would mean the mass displacement of working-class New Yorkers. Right now, half of New Yorkers are benefiting from Rent Stabilization (after the easement of rent control) and the elimination of such a program would mean, effectively, deporting half of New York, a mass movement usually associated with war atrocities and genocide.
This is exacerbated by two generalist trends, ones I can impolitely refer to as I Got Mine, and Fuck You. The former has manifested through the downzoning of great swaths of the city, the blanket historical preservation of entire districts, and the utter hostility towards any infrastructural project that would stimulate growth. This started as a political movement in the sixties, and can be said to have a patron saint in Jane Jacobs, whose writings and lectures have been used as a call to arms against progress in the defense of neighborhoods that work. Well, that worked, since those neighborhoods end up victims of their own success when land values greatly exceed the means of their own (renting) residents.
The latter is the systematic disinvestment and disenfranchisement of anything said constituents deemed unworthy of consideration, and has manifested through structural cuts in city services (such as former mayor Koch essentially cutting off the Bronx to save the city’s budget during a fiscal crisis), the explicit redlining and steering of lending institutions against the largest Black community in the country, and general white flight to the suburbs – ironically a sociological truism that is now being questioned by certain conservative revisionists as part of the metaphorical (if not literal) whitewashing of the GOP as it loses relevancy in the new world.
Both are the sins of the boomer generation, and both can be said to have created what mayor de Blasio has decried as a tale of two cities: An urban dystopia segregated by class and race through both conscious and unconscious means. But let’s return to the hipster, because there are sins of the millennials as well.
New York has started growing again, despite the lack of available housing stock and infrastructural investment, through a millennial reverse white flight. Like the Gen Xers before them, they’ve moved into what used to be called the “inner city,” pejoratives and all, in search of a more urban and urbane lifestyle. Like the Gen Xers before them, this was mainly prompted by a rebellion against the economic realities that grow starker every year: If I’m going to be broke, I might as well be broke in a place that’s vibrant and fun. Because of the general lack of infrastructural investment, they’ve turned the city into a zero-sum battle of necessities which only the wealthy will win. What were mixed communities have become monocultures of whatever is most economically expedient: Families are being pushed out for young transients who themselves get pushed out less than a decade later. Roots are being ripped up and the land tilled over so often that none can grow again.
Despite being the most liberal city in America, judging from voting patterns, and boasting an unbeatable bull economy of high finance and media – in other words, despite being both civic-minded and rich – the city now has not only a housing problem but a homelessness problem that is unprecedented. As it turns out, in practice a lot of these younger transients are not only liberal but libertarian – at least, a form of libertarianism that imposes middle-class values on those who can’t afford middle-class values. Even while they foster an economic climate that they themselves cannot survive in, they turn around and tout the argument that those who complain the most aren’t making use of the options available to them. Disrupt more, market yourself better. Pull those e-bootstraps harder.
The card-carrying liberal retiree on the Upper West Side and the disruptive liberal hipster in Williamsburg have more in common than not. Hell, if the boomer mantra has been “I got mine and fuck you,” then the millennial mantra may be defined as “hurry up and die so I can get mine.”