SoPi, or how Pigalle became a hipster’s paradise

One Sunday morning I decided to sally out for a stroll, and as I headed out east from my block, I found myself in hipsterland.

Yes, it turns out my host family lives right next to one of the hippest neighborhoods in Paris: SoPi, or South Pigalle. In any case, that’s the name among those in the know, the hipsters whom the French call bobos (bourgeois bohemians).

So just as New York has SoHo and NoHo, Paris has its SoPi and NoPi, mentioned in the same breath as Le Marais, Canal St Martin, and République/Oberkampf.

A slew of new shops specialized in one product or some odd combination (like coffee and jeans), neighboring sleek, minimalist brunch places and organic bakeries, is reviving the village ambiance, especially around rue des Martyrs—the backbone of SoPi—and Notre-Dame-de-Lorette.

Even the WSJ sang the praises of SoPi, stressing the bourgeois over the bohemian.

Do we blame the hipsters? Is that term even appropriate here? What about bobos, or gentrification?


My interest in all this started with an opinion piece in the NYT by a former Brooklyn hipster who argued that, supposedly, Paris, and specifically Pigalle, had been ruined at the hands of—guess what—hipsters.

Mr. Thomas Chatterton Williams moved into the Pigalle neighborhood long past its raunchy days of prostitution and absinthe bars, but, as he remarks, it “remained funky in the original sense of the term. In addition to cigarette smoke and baking bread, there was the whiff of dirt and sex in the air.”

But instead of drug dealers hanging around the formerly overgrown and unlit park at Square d’Anvers, mothers and children now crowd the playground, and older residents gather for a chat and some vitamin D on a Sunday afternoon. Others, a younger crowd, sit down for a cigarette after brunch or tear off a piece of freshly baked baguette with a book perched on the knee.

Unfortunately, Mr. Williams is not clear about his own role in this downfall. He does not wonder about what any of those residents think—former, current, or new. He just wants them there to complete his Parisian fantasy, rather than see Pigalle for what it is becoming.

Williams wants only the whiff of dirt and sex, of former grungy glory—because what he seeks in Paris is a place to raise a family and “buy Pouilly-Fumé wine” to drink after putting the kids to bed. Shh, he tells his friends in the living room as he uncorks, pours, and sniffs.


You are a hipster—I am too—therefore we hate them and proclaim their Death, as Mark Greif did in n+1 back in 2009: his symposium at the New School brought 200 hipsters together in order to investigate the question “What was the Hipster?” and inaugurate the post-hipster era. They concluded that, among other things, the hipster was “a straw man in skinny jeans.”

This critique touches on something more fundamental in the way we talk about the hipster. The hipster is a scapegoat—using the term, always with a pejorative tone, the speaker proclaims his distance from the object of his critique.

Moreover, I am also thinking of the term “scapegoat” as it appears in René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire. Though there is plenty to critique about it—it seems too general, too neat to really have explanatory value—the mechanism describes what I’m seeing in Pigalle and in the blogosphere with eerie accuracy.

We usually desire something in imitation of other people, who are cooler than us—more hip, perhaps—but eventually this imitation will lead to rivalries with the models, the very people imitated in the first place. Mimetic desire makes every member of the community resemble each other, and this lack of differentiation generates scrutiny, envy, anxiety, chaos. Scrutiny and anxiety of the sort where people like Williams start calling out their fellow hipsters for ruining their hipster dream. To the point where people do not just want to imitate the model, they want to get rid of the model and become a model. To resolve this situation, the model needs to be killed, sacrificed: the hipster is the scapegoat. His ‘death’ is the ritual that founds a new community and restores order and peace.


Williams seems to forget that young creatives and eccentrics have moved to large urban cities for centuries, and they usually earned so little money they had to find the cheapest place they could live. That led them to neighborhoods on the edge, in which immigrants were forced to live or only the poor (working or not) resided.

Chatterton Williams agrees that the golden age of Paris was the 1920s, a time when people from “the well-heeled to the creative to the horizontally employed — collided.” Who was Hemingway if not the prototype of the hipster, expat, and freelance journalist with a coffee and alcohol habit he could hardly afford?

*By the way, Williams names artists from the 9th arrondissement like Hugo, Renoir, and Gustave Moreau, among others, but does not seem to know that most of his examples were all either staunchly bourgeois, living in the inherited family mansion, or disgruntled aristocrat youths.

In any case, this situation of mixité sociale would stem not from fashions, styles, and the identity of a district, but from the realities of economic pressures and policymaking.

Indeed, until the latter half of the 20th century, much of Paris was still affordable to the majority. Rents were controlled, social housing was encouraged, communities were built, unskilled jobs were widespread—all of which meant that residence in the city wasn’t necessarily linked to an individual’s income.

As Anne Clerval pointed out in a recent interview, this situation continued up until the early 1980s. In 1982, 42% of all Parisians were from the lower classes. But by 2008, this figure had dropped to 27%. Today, even the middle classes are struggling to afford to live in the city. Most of this is directly due to key decisions taken at both national and local level. But this phenomenon is larger than just France: significant but formerly more fluid borders like province/city, north/south, center/periphery have become the site of increasing inequality and social tension due to economic factors—what some call globalization, late capitalism—and the policy used to influence those factors—neoliberalism, to put it rather generally.

Dutch sociologist Saskia Sassen, at Columbia, draws out even larger stakes, considering complex and catastrophic phenomena—such as the dislocation of the poor from their cities, of migrants from their countries, even of animals from their biospheres—as part of what she calls the economic of Expulsions.


Consider what happened to the neighborhood around the Sorbonne and Saint-Germain, where the existentialists used to hang out among the students, who rented little rooms in attics and former servants quarters. Sure, the university and its students are still there, but Café de Flore now charges 7,20 for a cappuccino and neighbors a Louis Vuitton store. This is not where we write our papers or meet up with friends after a lecture. Indeed, instead of artists, the place is full of art dealers and designers, whose galleries cater to the upper-class crowd that lives there, as well as wealthy tourists in search of a lost Paris.

It largely looks the same, of course, so if you squint and play a 1920s bar crooner through your noise-cancelling headphones, you just might get a sense of what it was like before.

If Williams really wanted to “rub shoulders” with working-class people and be “jolted from [his] anesthetized routines”—if he wanted to “genuinely” engage with urban space as “encountering and making room for an assortment of lifestyles and social realities,” however “appealing,” “provocative,” and “repulsive” they may be, here’s what he should do: move outside of the Périphérique, to the banlieues north of Paris, and endure a daily two-hour commute into the center of town.

Although apparently, that’s where the next wave of gentrification is headed: Welcome to Pantin.


Footnotes on the Flâneur

Each neighborhood of the city appeared to be made of a different substance, each seemed to have a different air pressure, a different psychic weight: the bright lights and shuttered shops, the housing projects and luxury hotels, the fire escapes and city parks. (Teju Cole, Open City)

Paris is made for walking. It is known by walking.

At least, that’s what I’ve come to believe over these first two weeks while doing my best to make Paris my new home. Classes haven’t started yet, and my study abroad program chose to spread out its orientation program over two weeks, which leaves me with a lot of empty time. Already I can see I’m approaching the city in a totally different way than a tourist who has four or five days to ‘do’ Paris.

They’re not here in great numbers at this point—that will come starting April, is my guess—but they are spending their time efficiently.

The game has changed: Nobody walks around with guidebooks or maps anymore. It’s still easy to tell who they are. Individual travelers or small groups stand on street corners and stare down at a screen, rotating and moving to and fro in order to get the little Google Maps-arrow to point the right way—as if you couldn’t just look at the street names or any nearby landmarks. Or, God forbid, ask someone in a shop or a café. Outside of rush hour, even a Parisian passerby might help you.

The second type of tourist is on a guided tour; but gone is the funny little old man, no doubt a volunteer, with his metonymical umbrella pointing the way. Now tourists strut along speedily with ear buds rattling off the various historical facts and events that float somewhere in the sky above their heads or surround them in the streets and walls—of Haussmannian boulevards and apartment buildings, constructed in the late 19th century for Napoleon III, following the 1848 June Days uprising, for example.

What do you want? I wonder. I’m the opposite of the harried tourist in an endless quest for the expected, the already discovered world of pictures and postcards. I am waiting for the unknown, bored-that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire (Adam Phillips, “On Being Bored”).

I’m hoping to waste time and to do it well. With Paris enchanted by a spell of cold, dry, sun-drenched weather—like the best winter days in New England—I set out for the streets.

Turns out that amount of research on Yelp or Tripadvisor—nor the hippest guidebook or private tour—will beat aimless, solitary walks through an arrondissement for the moments of wonder and pleasant surprise that come with making a personal acquaintance with Paris.

An arrondissement is the thing for the day—each arrondissement has several quartiers, each which in turn has its own bookstore, hip coffee shops, a Sunday market, little municipal libraries tucked away in side streets, a small, cozy museum about a forgotten artist, and a boisterous bistro, where people buy lottery tickets and cigarettes, read the paper, and slam down an espresso (usually just 1 euro if you’re standing at the bar).

Of course, I am only the last to join a long line of flâneurs—there’s Baudelaire, Flaubert, Balzac, shadowed by their various fictional characters, and on the American side, we have Henry Miller, Walt Whitman, and, in a sense, good old Thoreau.

Historically male, this figure turned up in nineteenth century literature as a keen observer of the bustle of modern life—with his nose up high, his top hat on, and his arms clasped behind his back, the flâneur would stride up and down Hausmann’s broad boulevards, stopping and turning frequently to peer into shops or exchange a witticism in a café, only to move on to the next interesting little spectacle. Detached from the humdrum of working days, with money and time to spare, he is open to all impressions, and his city becomes layered with meaning. The flâneur appears at a time where rapid changes in technology and development have created an estrangement between individuals and their environment—so viscerally expressed in Kirchner’s “Street in Dresden”—but this very estrangement allows him to rise above the myopic vision of the masses and grasp all the fragments of modern life to form an interpretation of the whole.


He is “a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye”, writes Virginia Woolf in her 1927 essay Street Haunting.

Henry Miller’s Paris, as he writes it in Tropic of Cancer, for example, is really just a study of Miller—to the flâneur, the gleam and glass of the arcades, the vitrines, and the department stores are nothing but mirrors in which he can study himself with a Narcissus-like gaze.

Whitman was different: a romantic in the heart of Manhattan, he found solace and joy in the “democratic vistas” of city parks and Broadway’s ever-present streams of humanity. For Whitman, this chaos is a plentitude, a blurring of the hard boundaries of the self. Through it, he defines and creates himself, in the interdependence of You and I. He not only actively absorbs his surroundings but also expects whatever You he makes contact with to do the same. In this way, he is far from the aloof, cool, and keenly observant flâneurs in Paris that Walter Benjamin wrote about.

I’m at the café de la Mairie, place Saint-Sulpice. Years ago, Georges Perec was there too and wanted to try something new: to describe everything that happens in this one particular place. From October 18 to 20 1974 he took notes for his Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien (Attempt at a Description of a Place in Paris). Here’s a fragment:

In a magnificent ensemble, the pigeons fly around the Place [St. Sulpice] and return to roost on the gutters of the town hall.

There are five cabs at the taxi stand.

An 87 [bus] goes by. A 63 goes by.

The bells of St. Sulpice begin to ring (for the hour, no doubt).

Three children being taken to school. Another apple-green deux-chevaux.

The pigeons fly around the place again.

A 96 goes by, stops at the bus stop; Geneviève gets off and goes down the rue des Canettes; I call to her, rapping on the café window and she comes over to say hello to me.

A 70 goes by.

[And so on.]

We look at what we care about and what we want to act on. When we move and walk around, we gaze into the vanishing point of our goals, seeing nothing but obstacles in the faces of people we find on the same cramped sidewalk.

But Perec is capturing life, and nothing more, before it flutters away like a bird. The environment only consists of these unimportant things: what we see, hear, and smell—which we pay no attention to but what makes up our daily lives all the same. Perec gives us the plenitude of nothingness. The richness of the ordinary. He draws it from the bottomless well of boredom.


Moving to Paris: Footnotes on a Trainride

January 8

I stand on the platform waiting for the train to Paris today and I am surprised by the way my twenty or so fellow travelers are so spread out over the slabs of concrete beside the tracks beneath the station’s steel ribcage that I can barely make out the faces of my immediate neighbors. I see gray across the solar panels on the glass roof. Mist blocks the view of the city. The mist presses on my face like a wet hand. No wind. Calvinist gloom.

There are times when I really love the generic familiarity of international airports and train stations.

Starbucks and Subway fuel you wherever you go. Like schools of mackerel, sleek and shiny, always on the move, businesspeople blend in with the scenery of steel and glass. Sprightly older couples, students in baggy sweatshirts, crying babies and their big families, with the larger children lugging jerry-rigged structures of suitcases—all make their way to security.

The international everyman and everywoman and everyperson like this populate what Marc Augé likes to call “non-places.” Airports, train stations, and their various international chain stores and hotels.

A place is a kind of space in which you can be rooted, where a sense of self has grown or has the potential to. Places, in this way, like a village or a college or even a nation, are where we can build identities. They’re where we might feel at home. This also makes a place highly historical, and though places obviously change immensely over time, they do give you the feeling that they have a past, still present and important to whoever lives there, as well as a future that these people imagine for themselves. Thus, places are coherent not just because humans happen to be there: a place holds together because people hold a self together there, because they help others do so, and because in a place people feel a continuity with the others who live there as well.

Non-places, then, do none of this. Perhaps they even actively undermine the feeling of continuous identity and history.

Marc Augé cares about such non-places not just because so many places are replaced by non-places in our contemporary lives. He writes about a non-place as the space where we most strongly sense the odd ironies of contemporary globalized life. One of which is that just when, given the state of technology, a truly global society is within reach—at least for a certain privileged class, which I belong to—most people seem to retreat from public life and want to return to the local, the authentic, the homey—a harmless cry for help, it may seem, but one that easily morphs into an earsplitting scream for the self and the nation in the face of those without any home whatsoever.

Where are all these people on the platform going? Assuming that they have somewhere to go, they might be going home, to work, to visit friends, on vacation, etc. Places where people know who they are and where they know other people. No one really wants to stay here.

Can I speak for these people; can I even imagine what their lives are like? Or can I only speak about myself, to myself, in their presence?

This is narcissism, but it is only by necessity that I become so closed off. Not the kind of narcissism of staring into a pool and falling in love with yourself. More like being inside a train or a bus and looking out through a window at a darkening sky, and because of the lights in there, where it’s warm, you can’t help but stare at yourself in the double-paned windows as you resolutely keep your head turned away from the person in the seat facing you. This narcissism is not comfortable or pleasurable; it is simply less uncomfortable than looking someone in the eye.

At the same time, how does this non-place, the airport, the train station, make me feel at least a little bit at home? What do I like about being there? Because this place cannot be owned, bought. I cannot live there. I only spend a few hours there and I don’t know anyone there. I can’t invest in it and build a self there. The sense of satisfaction and of freedom I get when I clear security would only last a few hours, I imagine.

But it does make me feel important, somehow, like the way buying something makes you feel good and important. Inflating the bubble of self; transparent and iridescent, it floats and protects you. It’ll burst over time, or when it meets another.

Or, all it takes to feel at home is the blue light of a screen in my hand.

I don’t feel far away from home or alone because the brands and stores and ads that I know surround me on all sides and because I could buy almost anything I ordinarily want here—Dutch cheese, Italian espresso, a beer, books, movies, clothes, and so on and so forth.

These ads want me to be a citizen of the world and so I become one for the moment. It feels great, I feel powerful.

Schiphol’s shopping section is called “See Buy Fly” if I recall correctly.

But what would it mean to live there? What is the experience of non-places really like? We lack basic vocabulary to talk about non-places, but it is important to start to thinking about how to think about them. Marc Augé seems to think non-places signal the advent of another stage of late capitalism, but I am not necessarily convinced, nor do I want to lay out his arguments here. Still, I am convinced that it’s important to recognize the rise of non-places, because so many people actually do live in them: les sans-papiers, the refugees, the home- and stateless. Because Camp Calais, close to the tunnel, Eurostar trains zipping by, represented another kind of non-place, one Augé doesn’t talk about. And thousands were stranded at Budapest’s Keleti station, for example, when the authorities suspended all traffic last year.

Bird People is a great movie about all this-about how ordinary people in France are affected by non-places and about how they manage to build a life in them, in spite of them. Audrey, a maid in an airport hotel, realizes she spends 40 hours a month commuting on the metro. Gary, an engineer, spends his working life away from home, hopping from meeting to meeting. The movie is about the night they happen to be in the same hotel outside of Paris. The first half of the movie is quiet, contemplative: the drawn-out shots focus on people in public transportation, accompanied by the intimate sounds of the music on their ear buds, their phone conversations, their thoughts—but its thoughts never quite rise to the surface. It’s like the more recent film Certain Women that way. We’re never quite given access to these characters and their lives but we realize they’re unsustainable. Because they resemble our lives a lot, too. At the same time, despite the movie’s subdued concern about alienation and digital technology—yes, at times the movie slips into cliché—what makes it compelling is not its message, nor its characters or its cinematography, but simply the stillness that it shows is still there to be found in our lives, if only we knew where to look.

I wanted to end by posting some fragments of a collection of poems by Cole Swensen. These are from Landscapes on a Train, not necessarily in order. She shows us some places where we might look for stillness (I might write about stillness later and I might write more about these poems, but I need to reread them and let them sink in.) She recounts a train journey through France. This was perfect reading on the Thalys, by the way.

Gray is more morning more quiet of empty. Paths. Field empty except for its green.

Will more inside green. Inside it is green and inside the green is another

Slight mist moving upward. A road moves upward quieting the fog and the other

Fog moving off down a river the low way all clouds low across the line of sky

Making the sky a straight line running low along its own.


Landscape is always also a painting. Again a small thing broken that is

Breaking from hand to hand. Each one. Passes to another the growing,

That then gone is one more. And then one more station on a station of roads.

And is crossing a road, a sequence of goings. The road in its offing, along

Which belongs, a church made of far distance severs. And one more station

Standing on the platform. And so we say no other we. Are the line of poplars.

Smoke rising quiet in its flight which is a slow loss across gray from a field of gray

The windmill farm bright in its flock of sudden large gray birds toward the sea

Of a sea of them, longer than their own. Own their time. Which is a private thing

Held up and far in the line of trees like far away another rain.


There once was a church. There once was a steeple. These things fall into landscape.

And then there were none. Canal across one. One white bird. Go on. And so it goes.

All my pieces thusly single. Horse beside a river. They lovers they onward and so

Next is a field. You could have guessed it. You could have painted it. You are painting

A long line of horses end to end are something farther on.