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.