Commentary Magazine

Tragically Hipster

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Oriana Schwindt was bored. She set herself on a whirlwind tour of America’s urban centers to catalog the nation’s kaleidoscopic environments, but what she found was just the opposite. Everywhere she went, Schwindt found herself surrounded by, well, herself.

From Portland, Oregon, to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Schwindt’s senses were assaulted by “sameness.” In a chronicle of her travels for New York, she disparages the false authenticity that the up- and downscale bars, restaurants, and coffee shops she visited were trying to project. The youngish hipster patrons looked like their youngish hipster servers, who, the author notes, looked quite a bit like her. The independently owned establishments she visited all had similar décor and were each only slightly distinct variations on a handful of common themes.

It’s interesting that this hipster’s lament employs the same language that was used by Jane Jacobs in her famous 1961 attack on urban planning. When Jacobs decried the “sameness” of American cities, she did so to discredit urban planning, specifically the kind practiced by Le Corbusier, Robert Moses, and rest of the mid-century technocratic elite who viewed organic urban environments as a problem to be solved. That “sameness” was the kind that sprung up from inside the once-ancient city blocks that were then transformed by America’s self-proclaimed visionaries. It was the “sameness” that yielded soulless residential towers, broad thoroughfares to accommodate hypothetical traffic, and “promenades that go from no place to nowhere and have no promenaders.”

The “sameness” Jacobs condemned robbed cities of their “eyes on the street,” displacing communities and the self-policing that contributed to rates of violent criminality that are nearly unthinkable today. Schwindt has applied this same phrasing to describe vibrant commercial culture on safe, pedestrian-glutted streets in cities where the disaggregating influence of the automobile is being steadily diminished. This is the kind of “sameness” Jacobs wouldn’t recognize as a problem.

And, to be fair, neither does Schwindt. At least, she’s not entirely sure if the uniformity she’s describing is a problem, though she doesn’t rule out the possibility. But Jacobs would surely recognize the strain of thought displayed in this dispatch as a familiar ode to cities that exist only in the imagination of an observer who doesn’t actually like cities. At least, not as they are today: vital and prosperous in a way they have not been in decades.

When the most pernicious effects of the economic downturn in 2008 finally gave way to a sustained recovery in the early years of this decade, a generation of Americans who could not afford to purchase a house had already set down roots in the communities in which they had been renting, and those communities were not rural. “There’s something of a general resurgence going on in all kinds of cities today,” said Brookings Institution scholar Alan Berube in 2015, “even cities with a lot of poverty and distress in neighborhoods are revitalizing their downtowns.” As the fortunes of this increasingly economically stable generation improved, so, too, did their environments. Today, the problems of “decay” and “blight” have given way to “suburbanization,” the “wealth gap” and, now, “sameness.”

As for the city’s dining options, Schwindt is literally spoiled for choice. All over America, a decade-old culinary renaissance is unfolding. She describes barbecue joints, microbreweries, Asian-fusion restaurants, French brasseries, and American bistros that populate the modern urban landscape as though their existence was a form of oppression and crippling ennui. One can only imagine what the author would think of the culinary wasteland that was, with rare exceptions, the American urban landscape just 30 years ago, when most consumers privileged speed, convenience, and familiarity above all else.

Today, the American city is more secure, more prosperous, and more cultured than it has been for a generation, if not longer. The organic community-oriented “thickness” that Jacobs championed as the proper way in which a city should develop has triumphed over the dreary monotony of the Garden City Movement. The environment Schwindt finds so unspeakably dull is, by the author’s own admission, unexotic because it is catering directly to her and her demographic. The commercial model she is denouncing is viable because she is its reliable patron. If that realization is too crushing, there’s always the suburbs.

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