Recently, a few friends of mine have had insults thrown at them while walking down the street in Oakland, to the effect of, “fucking hipster, go back to where you came from.” Most recently it happened to my friend Hank, when he was on his way home in the Fruitvale district last week. Hank has tattoos all over his body, facial hair, and wears weird t-shirts with his cutoff jeans. If you were going to call someone a hipster without thinking about it, you could do worse than Hank.
I understand where this anger comes from, and the sentiment behind it. I share a fair amount of that anger. Oakland is changing. Some (like me) might say it’s changing for the worse. Housing prices are rising. Local businesses are getting displaced, and local art and commerce is being driven away in favor of “hip coworking spaces,” brunch spots, and “tech hubs.” Even driving around the Vietnamese and Cambodian parts of East Oakland, I’m starting to see it. I live in a rent controlled apartment, and if I ever move, I won’t be able to live in this area – where I was born – anymore. The change is rapid, and I don’t know what will stop it. I share this anger, but I feel it’s sometimes misdirected.
Gentrification is difficult to avoid if you’re near a burgeoning economic hub, and Silicon Valley and San Francisco represent an unavoidable black hole of culture, absorbing anything creative and sterilizing it – or, pricing it out of existence and making it move to LA. White folks flown in from the midwest, let’s face it, are the major face of this gentrification in Oakland, though Asian and Indian folks represent a lot of this gentrification in other nearby towns. (The factor of race in this problem is extremely complicated, and I don’t think I’m equipped to properly address it, so I’ll leave it on the periphery.)
With all this change, it’s understandable perhaps that someone who’s mad about their rising rent, their dwindling opportunity, their strange job market, and the changes happening to the place they grew up, might yell at the white faces they see in their neighborhood. Caucasian so-called hipsters are a likely target, as they’re the most likely to be poor themselves, and so living in poorer communities, and walking on the street where you can yell at them, rather than riding in an Uber to and from their housing.
I feel like the point I’m about to make has already almost been made by that last sentence. These are the folks walking around in the neighborhood, not avoiding it. These are the folks who want to explore the cool things the neighborhood already has to offer, not to change them, not to sterilize them, not to replace them with a brunch place like they remember “back home.”
These are not the folks shopping at Whole Foods, taking yoga classes, and using their Google money to pay way too much for housing. They’re shopping at the same grocery and liquor stores as you, and they’ve got two roommates. It’s the tech people you want to be mad at – the problem is you will likely never see them to yell at them, because they’ve got their Google buses, their Ubers, their Lyfts, and their own cars.
Look at this, for example. Startup House Oakland, it’s called. They talk about proximity to Silicon Valley as a major plus. In the (now flagged) Craigslist description, they describe West Oakland as “up and coming.” They say, “If you’re new to the area, this IS the place for you.”
It’s not hard to dissect this. They don’t give a shit about Oakland, because they’re only interested in its location relative to Silicon Valley and SF. They consider West Oakland “up and coming” rather than “already here” because the kinds of things they like (brunch, yoga studios) are not yet the dominant businesses, and there are still a bunch of different ethnic groups living there. They invite people new to the area, rather than trying to foster the business acumen of those who already live there.
Or look at this place in SF. These used to be Single Room Occupancies for low-income people, and now they’re “personality-based housing” for “ambitious people.” Luckily, as one city councilwoman states, “there is no housing crisis in Oakland.”
I understand the cathartic value in yelling at the people you can see in front of you – but they’re not the problem. In many ways the hipster kids are good for the community. The startup and tech folks are the real threat to Oakland. The hipsters just want to hang out and drink a beer with you. Oakland has been a diverse place for decades, and that has always included Caucasians, Asians, and Indians, even after the “white flight” of the 60s and 70s. It is still the most diverse city in America. That’s slowly changing, and it’s scary, and it sucks, but it’s not the hipsters you should get mad at.
The hipsters are creating and maintaining inclusive DIY music and art venues. They are trying to keep Oakland interesting. They’re not trying to sterilize, homogenize, and bulldoze what culture exists – they’re just trying to carve out a niche and find their place in that culture.
And frankly, they are going home. The artists and musicians are leaving. They aren’t from here, so why should they stay in such an expensive place? My friend Hank – who goes to local businesses, attends local shows and galleries, who walks and takes BART to his warehouse job – is leaving. Pretty soon it’s just got be the tech set, and the rest of us.
I never thought I’d be writing anything in defense of hipsters – but compared to the tech community, they’re goddamned cultural historians.