Why we are removing ‘hipster’ from our vocabulary

A cafe in the “hipster” neighborhood of Kreuzberg, Berlin

Never ones to limit our vocabulary, and ever ones to revel in the ever-expanding vastness of the English language (yes, hate as you may the English speaker, English is quantifiably vast, and increasingly so by the day), we have decided to remove one term from our city-related lexicon: hipster. Perhaps the last straw was this essay published in the New York Times on why “hipsters” are ruining Paris. While the “I-was-here-first-everyone-else-go-home” bent to the essay struck us as infinitely trite and so completely transparent, it was the writer’s unabashedly loose definition of the word “hipster” that troubled us most. His, and a growing many others’, definition of the term could be summed up as: “People in the 21st-century city who do things I don’t like.” What was once a word that signified in our minds a specific type of urban denizen, now could include you, or me, or anyone we know who lives in the American city (or global city for that matter) and enjoys it.

With the advent of the internet and social media, trends now appear and engulf the world over in a seeming matter of seconds. As such, it has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to discern any difference between people doing something because they just genuinely like it, and people who are just along for the pack-belonging ride (if it was even possible to discern that difference pre-internet and social media at all). Thus it is quite possible that you the contemporary urban resident enjoy many things that have some or much overlap with what would be considered “hipster” trends. You like a delicious cup of coffee that doesn’t taste like an ashtray? Hipster. You enjoy making your own pickles with friends, because homemade pickles are delicious and the company of others lovely? Hipster. You ride your bike as a means of transportation but wear nice clothes and not a spandex get-up because you just can’t see yourself in spandex, ever? Hipster. Virtually nothing, save going to work and working and coming home and eating a humdrum meal, is protected these days from the pejorative label “hipster.” So why use the word at all anymore? It has simply become another quick-and-easy means of discounting, discrediting, and scoffing at something one does not like in cities, a way to distance oneself from a genre of person or behavior, so one can derive satisfaction in saying, “I’m not that.” Well then if not that, what are you?

And here lies the core of the problem: criticizing and belittling have become national pastimes, while the tough business of actually creating new things, ideas, worlds – of making that scary leap from judging to creation – happens less and less. But it ought to. That we are slipping as a nation on the production/export scale is not news, but it is astounding how few people understand this phenomenon and its implications, not the least of which being minimal job growth due to a low-level of new production. There are cities – yes, HIPSTER cities – who are, however, attempting to buck the trend, such as Portland. And these efforts need to be recognized, reflected upon, tweaked, and borrowed, so that American cities can inch closer towards becoming the production powerhouses they once were and not simply centers of consumption, and, dare we say it, judgment.

We, us, at this blog and business, are at the core cheerleaders for American cities, not naysayers and curmudgeons, and as such we celebrate anyone’s interest in also being a cheerleader for American cities, living in them, and investing in them (yes, even bros). Thus we shall be removing hipster from our vocabulary, in all its diluted, complainy, judgey-wudgy, lackluster glory. The English language is vast, and we are sure there are many other words that might better fit the description we seek.

John Kamp

And there will be bros: on densification and permanence

New development in Lyn-Lake, photo courtesy of Steve Barone

Two recent articles have called attention to ads along the sides of under-construction residential buildings going up in Uptown that seem to indicate an increased neighborhood cultural turn towards bro-dom. One says, “I don’t remember her name, but her apartment. . .”; the other, “Don’t get hitched until you enjoy your year at LIME” (shown above). Conversation has invariably turned towards how disgusting and bro-y the ads are, and thus, how disgusting and bro-y the neighborhood is (and has been) becoming. However, what strikes us as of greater importance, and what is at the core of these ads, is what they say about densifying American urban neighborhoods circa 2013: they risk becoming temporary urban playgrounds with a transient, constantly turning-over population of people who are doing “the city thing” for a year before they graduate to a lower-density locale. And this phenomenon poses a particular challenge for us as planners and designers and city-lovers: How do we make these densifying neighborhoods enduring urban places people invest in, and not simply the transient playgrounds they are fast becoming?

At the core of this problem is that we as a nation are in somewhat uncharted urban waters. Designing, building, and maintaining low-density urban and suburban neighborhoods has been the de facto American norm for quite some time, and we have gotten quite good at it. In our efforts to pursue and perfect this low-density development model we have neglected and nearly forgotten the nuanced body of city-building knowledge required to create more enduring, dense urban environments. As such, we are virtually having to start over. How do you create denser urban neighborhoods of residents who are there for the long-haul? The answers most certainly lie in streets, sidewalks, schools, culture, trees, transit, economics, dwelling units with sound-proof walls. . . and then some. But in what combinations? At what scales? There is a whole host of fine-grained neighborhood-building elements we are only beginning to rediscover, explore, and ponder. As such, we are in the infancy stages of urban redensification, and for the time being we know that, at least, there will be bros.

John Kamp

Walkable American cities: narrative vs. reality

There has been much hubub of late in these parts over some recent “most/est” tags Minneapolis has received: best night’s sleep; most well read; fittest; gayest; most bicycle-friendly. To add to the proverbial -est-list is now walkable. While not considered the most walkable, Minneapolis is thought of as quite walkable, with Walk Score ranking it as the ninth most walkable city in the country (for the updated Walk Score for 2018, click HERE). And it is true that through certain lenses Minneapolis is walkable: good network of continuous sidewalks, relatively few mega-streets that are impossible to cross, extensive boulevard tree canopy. However, too much of the discussion of walkability centers around the sidewalk itself and whether they are clean, uninterrupted, well-lit, and within a well-connected network. While these are indeed building blocks of a walkable city, they alone don’t induce people to walk. As a result of this limited discussion, we are stuck in a narrative of a city being great and fabulous and walkable because it appears so (i.e. those sidewalks look pretty and nice, and I would walk down them if I felt like it and wasn’t driving to the store right now), not because it actually is. This is particularly problematic when it comes to the real work of crafting policy to genuinely improve walkability in the city, as an examination of the true elements that encourage walking are never explored, and the result is much wishful thinking, self-congratulatory rhetoric, and policy efforts that may not at all increase the number of people walking as a means of transportation.

Minneapolis, like so many American cities, suffers from the simple fact that it is relatively spread out in comparison to cities in other parts of the world. As a result, trips one must make to accomplish everyday tasks – grocery store, hair salon, etc. – are by and large simply too time-consuming for most residents to consider making on foot. And herein lies the problem: it does not matter how clean and uninterrupted the sidewalks are; if the door-to-door time and level of convenience cannot approximate what one could accomplish by car, many people, when given the choice, will simply drive. And this simple fact of distance needs to be discussed and tackled, otherwise we are simply never going to be able to move policy in a meaningful direction towards real and genuine walkability.

Discussion to be continued. For more on the topic, see this article.

John Kamp