By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
Nostalgia, it can be said, is universal and persistent; only other men's
nostalgias offend — Raymond Williams
It's surprising to see that “hipster” is still used to denote essentially the same type of person it was meant to describe ten or fifteen years ago. On the one hand, it's surprising because it means styles haven't changed that much. On the other hand, it's strange that it still doesn't refer to anything specific—just a general attitude that people find bothersome and pretentious.
To me, a hipster has always been someone who seems to manufacture their
eccentricities and has a condescending
attitude towards those who don't appreciate their aesthetic choices. Hence the
contempt for hipsters. Ostensibly, another reason so many despise this group of
people is because they claim to be ahead of trends, which requires extensive
research that normal people can't do.
There are several potential readings of the subtexts in this reaction, but I would like to focus on two for now and return to another one later in this essay.
The first is resentment based on a presumed privilege of the other—i.e., I would also know about all of these trends before they became trends, too, but (unlike the hipster) I have to spend too much of my time making a living to do so. The second is a desire to distance oneself from the hipster in order to ingratiate oneself to another person or group of people. The more one appears to be akin to the hipster in the presumed eyes of the desired person or group, the more vehemently one denounces hipsters. Seen this way, to condemn someone as a hipster is both to identify that person as privileged and to renounce what could be the discernible signs of privilege in oneself.
I've touched on this in other essays. This is because I used to live in an area where it was generally agreed that a lot of hipsters resided—the northern Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint. Hipsters were an everyday part of life. Shallowness abounded, but the beer was cheap, inhibitions were hard to come by and you still occasionally found yourself crashing a party in a loft that didn't look like it had just been featured in Brownstoner. It was not the New York City of the Ramones or even GG Allin, but there was still some grit. McCarren Park was not ringed by towering condos, there were still blocks that seemed best to avoid and the trickle of yuppies from Manhattan into Williamsburg had yet to turn into a torrent.
However, once I moved a few neighborhoods away, I began to have far fewer interactions with hipsters. Even the word “hipster” began to kind of fade from my vocabulary. The people with whom I associated the word didn't disappear, but they ceased to be a group with whom I seriously concerned myself. They fit rather comfortably into another era in my life. The word lost some of its pejorative teeth. I eventually came to believe that it was silly for someone over the age of 30 to even bother thinking about the word or the people it denoted, let alone possess a desire to return to an area that was indisputably hip.
And yet I had lived in Greenpoint for several years. I felt an attachment to the area. My time there represented a period in time when I had first been of legal drinking age and
amount of disposable income. It was the first neighborhood where I really came
to know most of the bars. Many have closed their doors—Mark Bar, Boulevard
Tavern, and the infamous Coco 66—but a surprising number are still around,
including Bar Matchless (557 Manhattan Avenue, Greenpoint). For this
reason, I have always felt at home whenever I'm there, which is, admittedly,
not that often.
It would be disingenuous to say that I was a regular at Matchless while I was living in Greenpoint. This is not because I was a regular elsewhere; it was because I didn't have enough money at the time to be a regular anywhere—not even a coffee shop. Still, I had a few places that I liked to go, and Matchless was pretty high on my list of favorite haunts. It was relatively cheap; it was only a few blocks from one of the two apartments in which I lived while in Greenpoint; and it didn't require a trek into the adjacent neighborhood of Williamsburg or what the real estate brokers were then calling “East Williamsburg.”
Matchless would have been considered a hipster bar at the time, but that was because there were pretty much two types of bars in Greenpoint between 2005 and 2008. There were the bars where native Brooklynites went and there were the bars where the younger transplants went. Due to the fact that the neighborhood both had been extremely Polish before gentrification began and was not easily accessible via mass transit, this meant that the only two options, with very few exceptions, were Polish bars or hipster bars. Since Matchless didn't see too many Polska, it was a de facto hipster bar.
There was no shame in being a hipster bar—at least back then. To me, it simply meant that the bar was relatively new, and that it didn't exclusively cater to the Polish people who had traditionally lived in the neighborhood. That was it. True, it was a precursor to proper gentrification, but, then again, so was I.
Fast-forward a few years, and a visit to the same space feels eerie similar. However, it is now being called a dive bar or a no-frills bar. Yelp says it has a “hipster” ambiance. This makes it a no-frills, hipster/dive bar. To me, these terms are difficult reconcile.
To make things more confusing, the space looked exactly as I remembered it. The bathroom walls are thick with graffiti; the bands who play in back room are better than you'd think they'd be; and the crowd is the same undulating mass of youth who don't mind yelling over Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement so long as they get something decent on tap and the bartender doesn't take too long to get flagged down. 2017 and 2007 seemed almost identical. The only difference was that the bar now serves food, the per capita tattoo rate had noticeably risen and I flipped from the bottom of the age range to the top.
That the bar looked the same was not odd. That it was considered no-frills was equally not surprising. Places like Matchless are now considered to be something of a lowest common denominator when it comes Brooklyn bars in many neighborhoods. What gave me pause was what had changed around Matchless, and that fact that people considered Matchless to be a dive. It was an example of the amount that the window of discourse has shifted—for bars, at least—in just a decade, and that I hadn't noticed. The hipster bar had become the dive. The place to which I was relegated because I was a transplant was now a local spot.
When I first started writing about and regularly visiting dive bars in this city, there was a sense that a dive had to lack the most basic amenities, and that, in many instances, you had to be a local to really belong there. In your typical dive, the front of the bar was the base of operations for at least five old men drinking away their pensions; the pool table, if there was one, was either missing balls or horribly warped; the bathroom looked more like a killing floor than a place where any self-respecting human would consider going to do anything but vomit; the taps (if they existed) would mostly be for show; Yuengling was considered a craft beer; and you could still smoke after ten or eleven, except on weekends—then you'd have to wait until midnight or one. Oh, and there was always at least one Frank Sinatra CD in the jukebox. Just one. No more, no less.
However, it wasn't what dives lacked that made them important or memorable. More than anything, dives had history. To me, Matchless lacked that. It remains a hipster bar, but only to me because I didn't see it as a historical place. I was seeing the present and the past through the same lens.
And this is what brings me back to the final point I mentioned at the beginning of this essay—the subtext included in the resentful statement about hipsters who pay such close attention to trends that they learn about and come to appreciate things before they're popular with a general audience.
What was alarming to me as I stood in Matchless after playing a set in the back room with my band was that for the concept of a hipster/dive to make sense requires a normalization of the people who were once considered the city's trend setters. On the one hand, it means that they have a place in this city, and that they are no longer a nuisance. In this sense, “hipster” simply refers to a group of people within an age group with a certain aesthetic. On the other hand, and for better or worse, it means that the cultural trailblazers of the millennial generation are getting old and comfortable.
1Proper gentrification being defined as replacing a person or establishment that does not conform to bourgeois standards of normality with a person or establishment that does. Consequently, the appearance of a DIY venue in an industrial or working class neighborhood is not an act of gentrification. However, it is a likely precursor to it, as real estate interests tend to follow artists.
Jay Fox is the author of The Walls and a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.