Cigarettes, nose rings and ancient bikes color Valencia Street, as packs of skinny young people swagger past glossy boutique windows and stuffy-looking bars. The girls have mean, boyish haircuts, and the guys show off carefully unshaven faces.
Whether they like it or not, many look at the weekend parade down Valencia and think: hipster.
But what is a hipster? In recent weeks, some have defined it as a young person who buys American Apparel, but doesn’t want the store in their neighborhood. But I’m not sure, and now American Apparel has been spurned. Still, as a 19-year-old born in St. Petersburg, Russia, the whole controversy makes me wonder.
I associate the word with the nihilist youth—adding a dash of passion—from Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. When I defined it in class as someone with a beard who wears chunky, black-rimmed glasses and has a huge swab of curly hair, everyone laughed. So I decided to cruise Valencia and find out for myself. What do they wear? What do they buy? Do hipsters want to be called hipsters?
Jim from Aquarius Records says that for a hipster, the “fixed-gear bicycle [is a] particular badge of honor that is worn,” and that a hipster has an “enjoyment of fine coffee.”
However, he’s weary of the reality of a hipster and says the “belief that it exists” makes it real. In other words, he explains, hipsters are “people who [are] associating themselves with places that have a cultural meaning.”
Jim has watched the hipster transformation of Valencia from behind the counter at Aquarius Records for 10 years, and from his days growing up on 22nd Street since he turned 13.
“It was a little bit scruffier,” Jim reflects. “There seemed to be a greater sense of place for women … lesbians.” Now it’s mainly guys with beards.
That change began with the dot-com boom in the 1990s, he says.
“There’s more money,” Jim says, recalling that he used to pay only $875 for rent and now pays probably twice that. “Rents have really shot up.”
Jim says the early-2000 dot-com bust humbled a lot of people, but that the “impact really changed the restaurants around here.” The curl of Jim’s Elvis-punk-like hairstyle shakes, as he confides that now “it’s hard to find a sandwich.”
Mikael from Borderlands Books, who is bald and wears a green T-shirt that shows a glimpse of his tattoos, jokes that people used to be afraid to come to the area because they thought it was dangerous. And now, he says, it’s just clean.
His face lights up when he hears the word “hipster.” “That I like,” he says. “I’m not bitter against the young. I’m bitter against the prices.”
A child of the experimental new wave era, Mikael looks at his generation with disdain for sitting at home and watching television. Hipsters, he says, are not couch potatoes.
They are too cool.
But some would rather not identify as a hipster. “I feel like a hipster would never want to be called a hipster,” says Natalie Snoyman, who frequents “hipster bars” in her hometown of San Diego and believes that being a hipster is staying in tune with “what’s going on.”
Bearded Yaoron, who lazily smokes a cigarette while lounging by the quaint Valencia Whole Foods, is optimistic about the abundance of hipsters. “It just gives the neighborhood some color,” he says, adding, “It’s not a bad thing.”
Tim, from Valencia Cyclery, looks like a character out of a Dickens novel. He thinks the craze for skinny-wheeled bikes in bad need of paint jobs are part of the “different styles,” giving the analogy of the notorious antique-loving “classic car guy.”
He explains that a hipster is someone who is “in with current trends.”
Tim believes it’s okay to be a hipster if one “learn[s] something because of it.” For example, he confirms that “probably a lot [of hipsters] do critical mass.”
Kent Howie, who volunteers for Artists Television Access, says a hipster is a “newer version of a hippie.”
Howie’s raggedly poetic hat makes him resemble a folksy Keith Richards. On closer look, a lot of people on Valencia seem familiar. Ditto for the icons.
One popular hipster hotspot—Ritual Café—displays a weirdly plastic take on the sickle and hammer, but the coffee and long line smell suspiciously of capitalism. Behind the counter stands a young woman with a slick haircut who looks like Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. She compliments a customer who is a sulky version of Christopher Walla from Death Cab for Cutie.
A tall girl with an American Next Top Model Mia Farrow haircut and an eclectic patterned dress asks whether the coffee is organic. The nose-ringed barista explains matter of factly that the coffee is also free trade—apparently there’s even a fellow in Guatemala who grows it.
As I stand in line trying to look grown up and confident, I chuckle to myself about ordering my beloved black tea, which seems more Miss Marple than hipster. Nervously, I approach the bony guy behind the counter, who my mother would definitely group into the “Aushventsum!” category, her endearing Jewish mother way of expressing concern when she thinks I haven’t eaten.
My smirk turns from confident to scared when the guy somewhat cattily says they accept credit cards only for purchases of $5 or more. I’m forced into buying the vegan cherry cake.
My $2 Earl Grey tea is served in a sickly cup. The hungry-looking bearded barista didn’t say whether it was organic. Meanwhile, the line is long, and everyone seems to know each other. Two women in their late 20s viciously browse through a pile of Domino magazines, and one declares, “He’s having a midlife crisis in front of our eyes.” All around, the place is packed and buzzing with the sounds of laptops, iPods and cell phones that clash with the blaring lyrics, “I don’t give a shit.”
Probably most of the people there really don’t.