The New Frontiers
The signs were all there. the New York Times, New York Magazine, and the Village Voice had all written about it. Everyone I knew was talking about it. But I didn’t believe it until April, when I started my college diet. My quest to cut a more svelte figure had led me back to Fort Tilden, where I used to spend many a summer day exploring the overgrown and long-ago-forgotten trails, playing in bunkers, and looking out from the summit of Battery Harris. But as I took stock of my childhood stomping grounds, things weren’t the same. People in flannel shirts on cruiser bikes had stormed the place. What I had been told was true — hipsters were indeed here in Rockaway.
I have to admit that their mere presence provoked a visceral and ferocious opposition within my being. I had dealt with them at Stuyvesant, and I knew what they were and where they were from. They were the phonies from Williamsburg and the Village, and they were in my neighborhood. Soon enough, they popped up on the A Train, convincing me that enmity directed at them was well-deserved.
Overhearing many of the hipsters’ conversations, their attitudes were reminiscent of European imperialism. There was the historically illegitimate claim of ownership. Rockaway was ‘their’ Hamptons, which they had ‘discovered.’ Then there was the condescension. The way they spoke one would have thought local residents were the benighted peoples of Rudyard Kipling’s poetry.
Ironically, this was the sort of bigotry that hipsterism ostensibly seeks to repudiate. Their culture, like the hippies’, is an amalgamation of many diverse traditions. But the hippies’ culture was authentic. They wore cheap clothing. They didn’t wash themselves frequently. They cared little for material possessions. The hipsters don’t walk the walk. They’re short on creativity and long on kitsch. Their ripped jeans and tie-dye shirts are store-bought, not self-made. Their haunts – my favorite example is the BAM Harvey Theater – are designed to look grungy but are immaculate. Despite their protestations, hipsters are obsessed with consumer items and they define themselves by brands: Apple, Starbucks, Whole Foods, American Apparel.
This commercialization of culture has created a new ethnocentrism. Those who don’t purchase the right products are looked down upon, and the price of entry is set high to cater to Williamsburg trust-fund babies and exclude the poor and middle class.
The other great contradiction of hipsterism is that while hipsters revel in diversity, gentrification destroys the traditional character and institutions of a community, a trend witnessed in Harlem, Long Island City, and Red Hook. And that raises the question, “What is going to happen to Rockaway?”
Some embrace gentrification. The business-minded view establishments like Rockaway Taco as the wave of the future. Homeowners work themselves up into a Mr. Burns-like frenzy as they contemplate possible increases in property prices. Politicians glimpse an opportunity to bring much-needed jobs and economic development to the peninsula.
To me, however, some things are more important than money. We have something special here in Rockaway – a sense of community and place unparalleled anywhere else in the city. Today that is threatened, and I hope we have the courage to preserve it.