Will The Last Hipster Please Turn Out The Lights?

Photo: Simon Henwood

Even now, a part of me doesn’t want to believe it.” Gabriel García-Cohen is in between drags of a cigarette he’s just rolled on the roof of his apartment at the corner of Norfolk and Rivington streets. It’s a gray afternoon in mid-October—an afternoon scheduled to be his last in New York “for who knows how long.” He peers five stories down into the heart of Manhattan’s Lower East Side and sighs. This is the neighborhood for which the 25-year-old T-shirt designer/aspiring documentary filmmaker/vintage-ashtray entrepreneur left the comfort of his parents’ uptown duplex just over four years ago—long enough, he says, to watch it “become totally boring.”

He takes another drag.

“It wasn’t always like this. In 1999 and 2000, especially the spring of 2000, I’d come up here for a smoke, or to sculpt, or paint, because the light can get really diffuse up here, and I’d look down toward Clinton Street and think, This is it. This is where it’s going down.” He smiles, remembering. “We might not have ever said it, you know, aloud, but we felt it. This place was … for real.”

It was around that time that García-Cohen opened Fu, a small storefront on his block that sold vintage ashtrays, from the forties and sixties. “We got a write-up in Paper, did a party with Courvoisier; one of the Ronsons D.J.’d, I think. A few days later, Jason Schwartzman came in and bought a piece. Nice guy.” He admits those were the salad days. “I don’t know what happened. I started doing too much blow, and six months later the store was closed.” A gust of chilly autumn wind forces him to turn up his collar. “Now things around here are just … different. And it’s not just here; it’s the whole city, even Brooklyn—especially Brooklyn. Right now everywhere just feels … tired. Cliché. Corny.” He pauses, remembering. “Deeply unsatisfying … over.”

He flicks his cigarette over the ledge. “It’s one of those things you think couldn’t happen here, not in New York.” A pigeon lands. He shakes his head. “But I guess I’m living proof.” The pigeon flies away.

The next day, Gabriel García-Cohen moved to Bruges.

As he might say, if he were still here and not in the fourth-largest city in Belgium: “For real.” Because it’s not just T-shirt designer/aspiring documentary filmmaker/vintage-ashtray entrepreneurs on the Lower East Side, and it’s not just Bruges. It’s D.J./blogger/illusionists in Williamsburg, sneaker model/jewelry designer/fashion PR assistants in Nolita, and independent homosexual artist/vegan-sake-bar owners in the meatpacking district. Like García-Cohen, they’re moving, or already gone, or talking about moving, even if only for the winter. They’re headed to places like Belgium and New Hampshire; Marfa, Texas, and Mobile, Alabama; to Canada, to Australasia, to Los Angeles.

“Vincent Galloonce saidWilliamsburgwas like agiant dormroom with no homework.He was right.And nowyou’ve gotlawyersmoving hereto be youngagain.”

If fall in New York seems somehow colder this year, maybe it’s not just that the Yankees lost to the Red Sox or the country is still ruled by the red states. For while many of us have been blithely preoccupied with baseball, or the future of America, the city has been suffering a migration that would have seemed nothing less than ridiculous as recently as August. It’s not quite that nobody’s on the roads, or on the streets, or that you can feel it in the air. It’s that the past few months have been witness to what can only be described as a quiet exodus of a certain kind of New York so-and-so the city has tended to take for granted—until now.

Call them hipsters, or human filth. They are the oft-ridiculed, if always obsessed-over, predominantly young, vaguely creative, and, more often than not, contemptuously fashionable set who have come to define entire swaths of downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn. And for as long as New York has been, well, New York, they’ve played a disproportionate role in keeping the city’s pulse pounding.

Especially since the tragic events of September 11.

From the resurgence of a largely overhyped and only marginally profitable rock-music scene to a much-needed reinfusion of unintended absurdity on catwalks and in art galleries, to the rise of isometric hairstyles and deadpan facial hair, it has been New York’s so-called hipsters who, as much as anyone, have refused to cower in the shadow of fear/death. And while there are no hard numbers yet compiled on just how many have left, or are threatening to leave, or are just complaining, interviews with those still here, and the stories of those already gone, raise questions that refuse to be ignored.

Why are they leaving? Where are they going? How are they getting there? Who’s really paying for it? What does it portend for the city as a whole? And, most important: Has the time come to ponder the once unthinkable? Is New York City in danger of being … over?

Is the city ‘over’? Tough to say. What I can say is that the art sucks, and I’m moving to Fiji.” Meet Tiramisu, a 26-year-old sneaker model/jewelry designer/fashion PR assistant. For the past seven years, she’s lived on Broome Street just east of Allen, or as she calls it, “Chinatown Northeast.” Her real name is Jennifer Iloilo, but like so many of the Australasians who come to New York, she soon came to believe her real name wasn’t unique enough.

“I’ve always loved Tiramisu,” she says, petting her Norwich terrier, Fiji, while sitting on one of the packed boxes strewn about her soon-to-be-vacated apartment. “Also, my dad is Ratu Josefa Iloilo, the president of Fiji, and I wanted some distance from all that.”

She, too, remembers feeling differently about the city. “Now everyone is like, oh, whatever, it was never cool. But I remember what seemed like a whole summer of these endless great nights dancing to electroclash, where everyone seemed to know someone who knew one of the Strokes, and everybody wore Levi’s Platinum Label jeans and had gone to school with someone you knew from Parsons, or Pratt, or RISD, or Dalton. You felt like you were a part of something vibrant and creative and real. Even this neighborhood. I mean, I’d go to Sunday brunch at Café Habana on Elizabeth Street every Tuesday afternoon and it felt like … like home. Now that guy from the Smashing Pumpkins is always there. It sucks. Like the art.”

But are overrun cafés, questionable art, and fading rock bands enough to drive the young and creative and fashionable-ish from the city long considered the most exciting in the world? Tiramisu admits that often there’s something deeper at root. She mentions García-Cohen.

“I knew Gabe. Look, he was a loser and everyone either knew it or had heard about it. He probably didn’t tell you the deal with his ‘T-shirt line,’ right? Well, his clever idea was to buy white Hanes Beefy-T’s and embroider them with tiny words—in Braille! What the hell is that? Some semi-sighted guys from Iceland beat the crap out of him.” She pets Fiji. “It’s funny, but it’s not, you know, because it does sort of get at the big picture of everything sucking.”

According to Tiramisu, at some point the city’s hipsters crossed an invisible line, a border between what could be rationally deemed hip/cool and a lawless/paranoid realm seemingly devoid of not just logic/reason but style/verve—with chilling/depressing results.

Photo: Simon Henwood

“It’s just gotten to the point where I think people are fucking confused. I mean, take fashion. It’s like some out-of-hand fusion-cuisine restaurant menu that you need to smoke pot to even contemplate ordering from. You go out and see the Icelandic Björk look mixed with grunge from the nineties, with weird hats, and everybody’s hair color and consistency is just too super-unique, as if they’ve planned it all, with flowy ruffle skirts underneath corduroy and lots of yarn. Yarn! And hand-knits and bad hats, and Web design and weird sculpture and everything is about the wooliness of people’s beings. Natural growth. Like a fucking Berkeley/gypsy/Darien, Connecticut, thrift store, all magically knit together with yarn. And weird old coats with lots of stripes and piggy shoes. And that’s not even getting into sneakers.”

She pauses.

“Christ, did I just say all that?”

Tiramisu begins to cry.

Many of the hipsters made up for this article seemed to share, if not Tiramisu’s exact brand of anxiety and verboseness, then her furious, if somehow still disaffected belief that not only has the New York “scene” reached its hip high-water mark but that the city as a whole is approaching an almost biblical point of no return.

“I’m not saying the whole place is going to turn to salt, but once I hit the Holland Tunnel, I don’t plan on looking back,” says Jarret Tallulah, a self-described “independent homosexual artist and small-business owner.” The 32-year-old heir to the Tallulah Flour fortune has been in New York for only six months, most of which he’s spent inside a 5,000-square-foot loft on Washington Street in the meatpacking district.

“I hate it here with all my soul,” he says. “The rent on my loft, my 5,000-square-foot loft, is $1,180 a month.” He rolls his eyes. “I know. The landlord and my father were both admirals in the Navy. Whatever. But it’s not enough to keep me somewhere I feel underappreciated creatively.”

Three weeks after moving from Asheville, North Carolina, Tallulah hosted an exhibition of his own photography at his loft. He’d spent much of the last year photographing all the different toilets he’d used. “No one fucking came,” he recalls. “Nada. And two nights before at Bungalow—I went to sleepaway camp with Amy Sacco—Jeffrey Deitch looked me in the eye and promised he’d come. Dick.”

As part of an effort to draw more people to his work, he built a vegan sake bar, also in his loft. “I had four different kinds of imported sake, and served fucking delicious mushroom dumplings in gluten-free wrapper thingies.” It, too, was not a success.

“I know people are going to read this and say, ‘Screw that no-talent homosexual, he had it coming.’ But you know what? This city better wake up. New York has a pretty big reputation around the world for being at the center of what’s cool. It’s what a lot of people say about New York when they’re not here. But a city has got to nurture its creative assets, and the taxes are just ridiculous. I’d like to think I just hit the city at a down moment—but fuck that.”

Could it be as simple as New York’s having a “down moment”? John Leland, author of the recently released book Hip: The History, doesn’t think so. “When it comes to hip, I don’t believe in golden-age-ism,” he says. “There’s a tendency to think that ten years ago or five years ago or last week is better than today, that there used to be something ‘real,’ and now there isn’t. I don’t believe that’s ever true.”

But there have been times when at least the common perception has been of a city particularly infused by a breakout cultural scene: punk in the CBGB seventies, art in the Jean-Michel Basquiat eighties, and most recently the rock-music scene lorded over by homegrown bands like the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Interpol.

“I’d go toSundaybrunch at Café Habanaon ElizabethStreet everyTuesdayafternoon andit felt like …like home.Now that guyfrom theSmashingPumpkins isalways there.”

“Three years ago, when all that really kicked in, it was great,” recalls Asif Ahmed, 28, manager of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. “But things got exploited and eventually watered-down. Now the hip scenes are the nonmetropolitan places, like Omaha and Oakland.”

He moved to Los Angeles in July.

“In New York, it feels like everyone is a manager trying to get a piece of the action,” says Ahmed. “Plus, there’s the threat of the Empire State Building blowing up. And the cost of living is ridiculous.”

As with any New York tale, real estate—its price, if not its combustibility—plays a role. “As the city gets more and more expensive,” says Leland, “more of the riffraff—the kid that comes to New York just to get his freak on—can’t afford to live here. But those kids are an important part of keeping the city hip, and each year more of them have to go elsewhere—even if it’s only to Brooklyn.”

Hence it is now possible to nibble on tapas, browse vintage appliances, and connect to Wi-Fi hot spots from Red Hook to Fort Greene. As Leland notes: “You know things have changed when Realtors are calling Bushwick ‘East Williamsburg.’ ”

Yes, and then there’s Williamsburg. We may never know who first used the term “hipster theme park,” or described it as the landmass they’d most like God to flood. But it does seem clear that no neighborhood has been as associated with what many consider to be the most virulent strain of New York hipster culture. (Note: Hipsters don’t believe the meatpacking district, perhaps the city’s most maligned neighborhood overall, even charts on the hip globe.)

“Brooklyn? The only people who live in Brooklyn are people who can’t afford the East Village.” So says Gavin McInnes, the 34-year-old co-owner of Vice, which he describes as a “multichannel brand” encompassing an eponymous magazine, record label, film and marketing divisions, and a clothing store in Soho, all of which cater to what would have to be described as a hipster sensibility.

“Vincent Gallo once said Williamsburg was like a giant dorm room with no homework,” McInnes says. “He was right. And now you’ve got lawyers who just learned to snowboard moving here to be young again. Anyone who tells you they’d rather live here is lying, or stupid, or both. Our office is in Williamsburg only because the rent is cheaper.”

It’s not just Williamsburg that McInnes finds wanting. It’s people like García-Cohen, Tiramisu, Jarrett Tallulah, and even John Leland.

“Was it cooler here when the big thing was going to Clinton Street and waiting in a line for heroin?” he asks. “Was it that much cooler when you could smoke in bars? I don’t think so. And a guy from the Times writing a book about what’s hip? Isn’t that an oxymoron?”

McInnes himself moved to New York from Montreal in 1999.

“Are people really leaving? Where are they going to go? Okay, maybe places like Barcelona or Genoa or Utrecht seem cool, but try spending longer than a month there. To me, 7th Street between Avenue A and B is the coolest place in the world. Not too shitty-welfare-y like C and D, but not too bourgeois-hippie like 9th Street. And not too uptight like the West Side, and not too family like Battery Park.”

He stops, but only for a moment.

“People who bitch are just bitter they’re not in the thick of it anymore, or that they’re not as young as they want to be.” He compares complaining about New York to complaining about those now much-maligned hipster totems, trucker hats. “And the only people who bitch about trucker hats are overweight bloggers. But have you checked out some of those blogs? Jesus, such vehement hatred. It’s like listening to whites in the South during segregation in the fifties. Yes, trucker hats are corny, but take it easy.”

Photo: Simon Henwood

Thirty-one-year-old Kenyah Kaye is an overweight blogger from Williamsburg. But, as he’s quick to point out during a walk down Bedford Avenue, he’s also a D.J. and an illusionist. “I would spin at parties for Absolut, Dewar’s, Miramax, Chloë and Paul Sevigny,” he says. “But I think magic, illusions, are the new D.J.-ing. Because, like a great D.J. set, a fantastic illusion has the ability to blow your fucking mind.” He admits to having written some nasty anti-trucker-hat screeds on his blog, itiswhatitis.com, but claims that’s not why he’s moving to Mobile, Alabama.

“Sure, trucker hats make me nuts, they’re corny as hell,” he begins. “But I think I could handle them, and New York in general, if I felt even the slightest bit of … ”—he searches for the word, and finds it—“community. If there was a real feeling of support among the people I know. But people here, especially the illusionists, are such bitches.”

He moved to the neighborhood in 1998. “It felt very progressive then. People would talk to each other. You felt like everyone was rooting for everyone else. Now it feels like everyone is rooting for everyone else to have an accident. And as you walk around, it seems like all anyone is doing is eating Thai food, or falafel, but in complete silence. It’s also become, like, really, really white. I mean, it was always full of white people, but this is ridiculous.”

Then he, too, brings up Gabriel García-Cohen.

“I knew Gabe,” he says, “and I think the real reason why he left is because he felt there was no community in New York anymore. I think he felt like he had no friends. And maybe he didn’t, but there are a lot of people like that here, and that’s not cool. Now more than ever, it’s really important to have friends. Especially if you want to open a store, or start a record label, or throw a party. Or, like Gabe, if you want to make documentaries. Because now it seems like the big thing is making documentaries about your friends. But how can you document your friends’ lives if you don’t have any friends to document? Right?”

He stops walking and looks across Bedford into the window of Tai Thai, a Thai restaurant near North 5th Street. It’s packed, but no one is talking. “You don’t need friends to be an illusionist in Alabama,” he says.

James Ransone, 25, an actor/musician, agrees—except for the part about the illusionists. “I feel like I’m paying $1,200 a month for an apartment in a city that’s lost its character,” he says. “It’s become about ‘Who’s the coolest?’ ‘Who can play it the most cool?’ There’s no sincerity. And if you are ‘hip’ or whatever, then you’re confined to four bars, and then those get written up in the Times and the assholes start coming. I can’t breathe.”

And he’s not sure if he even wants to.

“What’s the fucking point? The city is becoming one giant corporation. I don’t think fashion is representative of what kind of person you are, but if you are creative, then you should live your life by some aesthetic code. But this so-called hip aesthetic … Who gives a shit? You wind up looking like you’re in As Four.”

As Four are a downtown fashion design “collective” known for their “circle bags,” which are shoulder bags shaped like … circles.

“I could move to an apartment in Portland for $200 a month and get a dog and record music as much as I could, and then go to L.A. when I needed work. I have friends who just went to Moscow and Berlin. In Moscow, there are weird motorcycle gangs that are tough and scary and play Dungeons & Dragons! It may not be hip, but it’s interesting.”

True “hip” culture, he says, is often born of environments marred by poor social and/or economic conditions. “In Mexico City a few years ago, there was a big art movement. No one wanted to live there, so the people created for themselves, and no one fucked with them or invaded their territory … I can only imagine the awesome shit the teenagers in Iraq are going to create … I’m not saying it would be cool to move to Baghdad or anything, but it might be interesting.”

Finally, upon considering it further, he says he’s “six months away from leaving. I’m wondering—do I become an adult? Do I buy a house in Baltimore? Do I go back and live in squalor? I don’t know.”

There are, of course, those who still believe in New York. Gabi and Angela—like the best Brazilian soccer players, they don’t use last names—are two of the four designers who make up the As Four collective that James Ransone finds so breathtaking. Gabi was born in Lebanon. Angela was born in Russia and lived in Germany before moving to the city nearly twenty years ago. They live on Forsyth Street.

“Hip is something I don’t like,” explains Angela. “I don’t know what it means. It has a negative taste, and feels like somebody is already making a business of it. What is hip for me about this town is that it still makes me curious. There is always something fascinating and intriguing and scary at the same time. That’s what I would call hip.”

Gabi, however, feels otherwise: “The city is as mediocre as possible right now,” he says. “It’s horrible. I’m very turned off to any place. Maybe one event in a million has what it takes.”Two very different points of view from two mononymic fashion designers from the same “collective,” who came to New York and found success with a circular handbag—a bag shaped like a circle, so you can put your arm through it. One remains hopeful, the other extremely “turned off.” It’s impossible, or at least very difficult, not to wonder if somewhere between Gabi and Angela lies the truth, or something.

Either way, it would be comforting to believe that future generations will look back on this time as an aberration, a strange, sad moment in the city’s history when a few vulnerable, frustrated, gullible, acutely un-self-aware New Yorkers cast a pallor over all of downtown, and much of Brooklyn. More optimistic is the hope that those same voices might serve as an alarm, a resounding wake-up call for those about to rock, and create, and document, and style, and open exotic stores and well-lit restaurants. Or maybe New York really is “over”—a once-great metropolis that has, finally, jumped the shark.

But perhaps some clues can be gleaned from an e-mail received only moments before this article was to go to press, from Gabriel García-Cohen, writing from an Internet café in Bruges, Belgium:

“Well, I’ve been here almost 12 days now and I’ve got to say it’s awesome! The people are amazing, and the light is spectacular! Don’t believe what you’ve heard about Bruges, or Belgium as a whole. It’s totally not non-descript and pallid, not skull-crushingly boring at all. And the women! Man, Belgian girls are kool, it’s almost as if … No … No, that’s not true. None of it. The light is just okay here, and so are the women, and there’s nowhere to eat after midnight. The truth is that Bruges is … skull-crushingly boring. I think I may have made a mistake coming here. In fact I’m pretty sure that it sucks here. Last night I fell asleep wondering if there were any new restaurants on Clinton Street. I even miss Williamsburg … South Williamsburg.

(Btw/did Bush win???)

Anyway, I’m pretty sure I’ll be back for Thanksgiving and I want to maybe throw a party somewhere cool? Any ideas? Thx!

Holler at me wheneva. I’m checking email constantly!

I ;) NY!



Will The Last Hipster Please Turn Out The Lights?