Thursday, March 25, 2010

Out for a Drive (Part 1) - Bike-Messenger Land

So let’s get in the minivan. We will start downtown in an urban hipster zone; then we’ll cross the city boundary and find ourselves in a progressive suburb dominated by urban exiles who consider themselves city folks at heart but moved out to suburbia because they needed more space. Then, cruising along tree-lined avenues, we’ll head into the affluent inner-ring suburbs, those established old-line communities with doctors, lawyers, executives, and Brooks Brothers outlets. Then we’ll stumble farther out into the semi-residential, semi-industrial zones, home of the immigrants who service all those upper-middle-class doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. Then we’ll go into the heart of suburbia, the mid-ring, middle-class split-level and ranch-home suburbs, with their carports, driveway basketball hoops, and seasonal banners over the front doors. Finally, we’ll venture out into the new exurbs, with their big-box malls, their herds of SUVs, and their exit-ramp office parks.

Bike-Messenger Land

We could pick any sort of urban neighborhood to start our trek, but just for interest’s sake, let’s start at one of those hip bohemian neighborhoods, such as the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the U Street corridor in Washington, Clarksville in Austin, Silverlake in L.A., Little Five Points in Atlanta, Pioneer Square in Seattle, or Wicker Park in Chicago, where the free alternative weeklies are stacked in the entry vestibules of the coffeehouses, galleries, and indie film centers. As you know, the alternative weekly is the most conservative form of American journalism. You can go to just about any big city in the land and be pretty sure that the alternative weekly you find there will look exactly like the alternative weekly in the city you just left. There are the same concentrations of futon ads, enlightened vibrator-store ads, highly attitudinal film reviewers, scathingly left-wing political opinions, borderline psychotic personals, “News of the Weird” columns, investigative exposés of evil landlords, avant-garde comic strips, and white-on-black rock venue schedules announcing dates by local bands with carefully grating names like Crank Shaft, Gutbucket, Wumpscut, and The Dismemberment Plan.

You look at the pictures of the rockers near the concert reviews, and they have the same slouchy, hands-in-the-jeans pose that Roger Daltrey and Mick Jagger adopted forty years ago, because nothing ever changes in the land of the rebels.

If you walk around the downtown neighborhoods, youre likely to find a stimulating mixture of low sexuality and high social concern. Youll see penis-shaft party cakes in a storefront right next to the holistic antiglobalization cooperative thrift store plastered with Free Tibet posters. Youll see vegan whole-grain enthusiasts who smoke Camels, and advertising copywriters on their way to LSAT prep. Youll see transgendered tenants-rights activists with spiky Finnish hairstyles, heading from their Far Eastern aromatherapy sessions to loft-renovation seminars.

In these downtown urban neighborhoods, many people carry big strap-over-the-shoulder satchels; although they may be architectural assistants and audio engineers, they want you to think they are really bike messengers. They congregate at African bistros where El Salvadoran servers wearing Palestinian kaffiyehs serve Virginia Woolf wannabes Slovakian beer.

Many of the people on these blocks have dreadlock envy. Their compensatory follicle statement might be the pubic divot, that little triangular patch of hair some men let grow on their chins, or the Jewfro, the bushy hairstyle that curly-haired Jewish men get when they let their locks grow out. Other people establish their alternative identity with NoLogo brand sportswear, kitschier-than-thou home furnishings, thrift-shop fashionista undresses, conspicuously articulated po-mo social theories, or ostentatious displays of Martin Amis novels.

The point is to carefully nurture your art-school pretensions while still having a surprising amount of fun and possibly even making, a big load of money. It is not easy to do this while remaining hip, because one is likely to find that a friend has gone terminally Lilith (denoting an excessive love of sappy feminist folk music) while others have taken their minimalist retro-modern interior-design concepts to unacceptable extremes, failing to realize that no matter how interesting a statement it makes, nobody wants to lounge around a living room that looks like a Formica gulag.

Downtown urban hipsters tend to have edgy alternative politics, or at least some, Bennington College intellectual pretensions, and probably, the New Yorkers diseasemeaning that anything you might tell them, they already heard two weeks ago. You could walk up and tell them that the Messiah just came down from heaven and tapped you on the sholder and they would yawn and say theyve been expecting that since last spring. But they are cool, and their neighborhoods are cool, and that counts for a lot.

We sort of take coolness for granted because it is so much around us. However, coolness is one of those pervasive and revolutionary constructs that America exports around the globe. Coolness is a magical state of grace, and as we take our drive through America, we will see that people congregate into communities not so much on the basis of class but on the basis of what ideal state they aspire to, and each ideal state creates its own cultural climate zone.

In the hippisie cool zone, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Lester Young, Billie Holliday, Jack Kerouac, James Dean, the Rat Pack, William Burroughs, Elvis Presley, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin, Patti Smith, and Lou Reed never go out of style. Coolness is a displayed indifference to traditional measures of success. The cool person pretends not to be striving. He or she seems to be content, ironically detached from the normal status codes, and living on a rebellious plane high above them.

In the cool zone, people go down to move up. Its cooler to be poor and damaged than wealthy and accomplished, which is why rich and beautiful supermodels stand around in bars trying to look like Sylvia Plath and the Methadone Sisters, with their post-hygiene hair, a red-rimmed, teary look around their eyes, their orange, just-escaped-from-the-mental-hospital blouses, and the sort of facial expression that suggests theyre about forty-five seconds away from a spectacularly successful suicide attempt.

In the cool zones nightclubs, you find people dressed and posed like slightly over-the-hill gay porn stars. You find that at the tippy-top of the status ladder, there are no lawyers, professors, or corporate executives but elite personal trainers, cutting-edge hairstylists, and powerful publicists: the aristocracy of the extremely shallow. Late at night in these neighborhoods, you find the Ameritrash, the club-happy, E-popping, pacifier-sucking people who live in a world of gold teeth caps, colorful scarf wear, body-conscious tailoring, ironic clip-on ties, gender-bending neovintage Boy Georgeinspired handbags, and green-apple flirtinis, which are alcoholic beverages so strong they qualify as a form of foreplay. In the cool zone, people are always hugging each other in the super-friendly European manner and talking knowledgeably about Cuban film festivals. People in the cool zone pretend to be unambitious and uninterested in the great uncool mass of middle Americans, but they are well aware of being powerful by example. Drawn by images of coolness, young people in different lands across the globe strive to throw off centuries of rigid convention in order to wear blue jeans.

Highly pierced social critics in downtown neighborhoods lament the spread of McDonalds and Disney and the threat of American cultural imperialism. But in fact, American countercultural imperialism: the spread of rock and rap attitudes, tattoos, piercing, and the youth culturehas always been at least as powerful and destabilizing a force for other cultures. It vibrates out from these urban-hipster zones, with their multicultural Caribbean shawarma eateries, their all-night dance clubs with big-name DJs, and their Ian Schrager hotels, which are so Zen that if you turn on the water in one of the highly hip but shallow bathroom sinks, it bounces a cascade of water all over the front of your pants, making you look like you just wet yourself because you were so awed by your own persona.

Cities, which were once industrial zones and even manufacturing centers, have become specialty regions for the production of cool. Culture-based industries that require legions of sophisticated, creative, and stimulated workersthe sort of people who like to live in citieshave grown and grown. In hip urban neighborhoods, there are few kids, and those who are there are generally quite young (when the kids hit middle school, their families magically disappear).

Surrounding these hip young urban areas are neighborhoods with plenty of kids, but they tend to be disproportionately populated with poor people and members of minority and immigrant groups. They carry their own brand of cool. In fact, they define cool, but with few exceptions, they never get to cash in on it. So they are often trapped in no or low-income jobs, because its very hard to go from being a high school grad to being a senior editor at Details, no matter how objectively with-it you are, and most of the other jobs have fled the cities or disappeared.

Cities have made a comeback of late, because the world demands cool products and ideas, but as Joel Kotkin concludes in The New Geography, they will not come back and be, as they once were, the main arenas of national life. Rather than recovering their place as the geographic centers of the entire economy, Kotkin writes, city centers are readjusting themselves to a more modest but sustainable role based on the same economic and cultural niches that have been performed by the core from the beginning of civilization”—as generation centers of art, design, publishing, entertainment, and cool.

- David Brooks

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