By Renard Teipelke
At some point the change happened. Often it is very hard to recall when it had all started. The derelict neighborhood has become hip. It does not need to be about gentrification all the time. Let’s focus on hipster neighborhoods of all shades – creative, independent, booming, alternative, bustling, ecologic, rebelling, gay, innovative, tech, etc. …these are all empty catchphrases for today’s mainstream place marketing; but at the same time, these words can also be very well-chosen to describe an up-coming neighborhood which experienced a turn-around from decline to renaissance. While my latest experience with the hipster neighborhood was in the districts Shoreditch and Hoxton, northeast of London’s inner city (London Borough of Hackney), you can probably also think about various other examples.
During the Annual International Conference of the Royal Geographical Society/Institute of British Geographers in August 2014, Edward Jones from the University College of London talked about London’s Tech City cluster and critically analyzed how districts such as Shoreditch and Hoxton have changed over the past years (here). Jones presented interesting aspects of the government’s policy change from supporting employment to supporting entrepreneurship, which most often fosters less resilient and qualitative job arrangements (also see Linda Lees’ recent articles on this blog 1 + 2). He also made reference to the change in the urban fabric of the corresponding neighborhoods in London…what I would recall from his story is something which can be termed ‘fake hipster-ness’.
Creative businesses moved into Shoreditch and Hoxton at a time when these areas of London were assumed to be lost. With the rise in technology, media, and communication industries, creative businesses were booming and wanted to make their work and living environment more livable. While often coming from a more ‘leftist’ political spectrum and supporting local food, fair trade, and inclusion (…ok, that is a very broad-brushed characterization), they ended up upgrading their neighborhood without making it much more accessible to less privileged groups. They have even showed a disposition to gate off their working and living spaces, which had developed into exclusive membership areas (nowadays featuring amenities like fitness studios, rooftop pools, play rooms, etc.).
Now this might sound much worse than it is supposed to be. One cannot seriously ask from this group of creative entrepreneurs to be so much more oriented towards social welfare than any other group within a city. Besides, they have invested a lot into making a neighborhood live and strive again (and there is still a long way to go). But was is actually interesting is this tendency of neighborhood upgrading through perceived creative stakeholder groups, which shifts at some point from incremental, uncoordinated, and informal activities to a process of defined (market-oriented) development objectives for a certain space (also see here).
In the case of Shoreditch and Hoxton, one example is contracted street art. What to the temporary visitor appears to be the uncontrolled disfigurement of walls by criminal taggers (following the traditional reading) turns out to be an ordered piece of art in the public space. The neighborhood is molded into a seemingly rough, dirty, or makeshift place under construction, which happens to be just fake and actually part of a (possibly still uncoordinated) upgrading (cf. the concept of staging). As Jones described in his presentation: The folks in these neighborhoods want it to look like ‘shit’, but they actually do not want step into dirt. To me this makes a ‘fake hipster neighborhood’ (which I also see indirectly related to the concept of disneyfication).
But maybe that’s how it is: a cultural way of living (or whatever ‘hipster style’ is) emerges out of individual activities, which – once they reach a certain threshold – form a style/way/trend etc. Beyond that point, it becomes difficult to tell origin and duplication (or fake?) apart. Things are designed, made, constructed, so they are something new or other to the existing urban fabric (also see here). There is always a certain grain of imitation in these processes. This should not surprise us too much…what after all is a unique urban neighborhood except for its people? It might be the ironical twist that the hipsters themselves will cry most about this ‘fake’ once it becomes more apparent in their neighborhood.