Williamsburg’s Imperial Climax, Part 2: What is Hip?

2010 June 17
by Ando Arike

In June of 1992, New York Magazine, the city’s arbiter of yuppie style, proclaimed Williamsburg “The New Bohemia” with a cover featuring what were presumably “bohemians” lounging outside the Right Bank Café at Kent Avenue and Broadway, the bridge towering in the background. Eighteen years later, the Right Bank is gone (it closed in 2003), and a few blocks north on Kent, garish new luxury high-rises have erased the last pretences of “bohemianism” from the neighborhood. In retrospect, New York’s proclamation seems to have warned us of two things. First, that the old concept of “bohemia” as a center of countercultural ferment, a breeding ground for artistic and political rebellion was no longer operative, having been jettisoned with the collective Alzheimer’s of the Reagan “revolution.” Second, that the “new bohemia” under consideration would be “safe”—amenable to co-optation by real estate speculators and corporate trend-spotters alike. Nothing that challenged the status quo, artistic or political, would be produced there; instead of rebellion and ferment, we’d get “hip” irony. The bohemians of the past—alienated, angry, iconoclastic—were being outmoded; instead, the new era was spawning “hipsters.” But to borrow a question from Tower of Power, the great Oakland R&B band, what, exactly, is “hip”?

“Commodify Your Rebellion”

In his seminal essay on the commodification of the Sixties’ zeitgeist, Thomas Frank describes the uncanny ability of capitalism to absorb and repurpose opposition by convincing consumers that the very act of buying mass-marketed products is a rebellion against the conformity of mass consumer culture. “Think Differently,” the corporate behemoth Apple tells us, as we join millions of others in executing the same computer algorithms. It helps corporate marketers, of course, if their product carries a baggage of taboo or unconventional associations—black culture, for instance, has long been mined for its “otherness”—hence, there must be a continual hunt for the next trend, the next “in” style, the next social marker of “cool,” as what was once proscribed becomes appropriated into the mainstream, and thus passé.

Haven’t we seen a similar process in the gentrification of such neighborhoods as Soho and the East Village—and now, Williamsburg? Whereby a bohemian avant-garde in search of low rents establishes a visible presence in a working-class ghetto, which then attracts more and more similar bohemian types until the media take note—“discovering” the phenomenon—at which point, the rents begin to rise, the poseurs move in, the neighborhood becomes a tourist destination, and then, a “cool” address for young investment bankers, corporate lawyers, and other yuppie types. Indeed, by the late Eighties, this scenario had become so common across the U.S. that Rust Belt city fathers from Milwaukee to Providence to Poughkeepsie were eyeing schemes to jump-start new “bohemias” in their own backyards. “Artists are like pilot fish—then come the sharks,” said one wag in an article I remember from back then. The original boho pioneers, of course, are ultimately forced out by the rising rents, rezoning, and intensified policing of building codes. And so the cycle begins anew elsewhere—Bushwick, for instance.

Terminal Bohemia and the Hollowness of Hip

But like all extractive industries—mining, oil drilling, etc—the marketing of faux rebellion and pseudo-individuality reach a point of exhaustion. Quite simply, the resources become depleted or watered-down. Does “rock&roll” function as a signifier for revolt anymore? (Answer: No.) Does “rap” or “hip-hop”? (Answer: Only for 12-year-old suburban white kids.) More importantly, is there anything new on the horizon to replace these once-vast, but now depleted, resources?

Fact is, as the U.S. Empire has grown to straddle (and strangle) the planet, its children have lost the concepts and vocabulary of rebellion—more accurately, these have been made laughable and absurd. Like Newspeak, the truncated English of Orwell’s 1984, contemporary American English no longer seems to “support” insurrection, or allow American youth to think anything that might disrupt business as usual. What is “hip”? It’s the irony left over when revolt is no longer seen as possible.

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