[the palaverist]

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

[are suburbs the new bohemia?]

The New York Times reported recently on the decline of gay enclaves. Places like San Francisco's Castro District, New York's West Village, West Hollywood and Key West are gentrifying. High real estate prices and a changing ethos are transforming these neighborhoods from bastions of wild nightlife to comfortable places to raise kids, and there is attendant hand-wringing over the disappearance of a vibrant culture, along with soul-searching about whether there's even a reason for gay neighborhoods anymore.

There is a long discussion to be had about the mainstreaming of homosexuality in America, the consequent coming out of a more diverse group of gay men and women, and the ongoing debate over gay assimilationism. But I'd rather talk about hipsters and real estate.

To understand what's happening to America's gay neighborhoods, it helps to look at how they were formed. America's gay community more or less began with the Stonewall riots and their aftermath. Though usually not presented as such, these events were part of the larger 1960s embrace of counterculture and individual freedoms. It's no accident that both hippies and gays were into free love, drugs, leftist politics and bikers (though the fascination with bikers remains something of a mystery). Like the hippies, the founders of America's gay communities tended to be white middle-class baby boomers, and they colonized many of the same neighborhoods (the Castro is just blocks from Haight-Ashbury).

The changes in America's gay enclaves mirror the changes in formerly bohemian neighborhoods that are not specifically associated with gay life: it's not just the Castro and Greenwich Village that have seen skyrocketing housing prices, but also the East Village, SoHo, the Mission District, SoMa, and pretty much every other patch of once-hip ground in America's major cities. For the first time in memory, there is no bohemian frontier in Manhattan.

This connects with another recent Times story, this one noting the discovery by bohemian types of Staten Island's North Shore. I've long believed that the best way to tell what's going to be incredibly fashionable in three to five years is to look for whatever is most egregiously unhip now (which means, among other things, that you should be preparing to grow your hair out and unmothball your flannels) , and it's hard to think of anything less cool than the suburbs.

But will hipsters who are priced out of the city really start moving to little houses in Jersey and Staten Island? Hard to say at this point, though I will raise the possibility that a generation raised on Facebook and Craigslist may feel less compelled to form hipster neighborhoods than their forbears. What made the suburbs so awful was isolation, and the Internet provides a way to overcome that isolation without spending $1300 a month to live with rats and roaches. And there is much ironic fun to be had in a lifestyle that embraces garden gnomes.

I now live in a perfectly nice neighborhood that has yet to be discovered by hipsters. Down in Bay Ridge, we have trees, houses, lower rents and safer streets than in Bushwick, and I can still get on the subway and go to Manhattan. Am I part of a vanguard, or just out in left field? Time will tell.

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