Hipsters in Pittsburgh?

Years ago, a California dairy called "Berkeley Farms" ran radio advertisements with the tag line, "Cows in Berkeley? Mooooooo!"

I thought of those ads this morning when I saw Pop City's latest feature, "The Hip Guide to Pittsburgh." Hipsters in Pittsburgh? Mooooooo!

Seriously, it's neat that there are enough self-conscious hipsters in the Burgh that there is a kind of a "scene" here, even if it feels forced to call it that. Lower Lawrenceville as LoLa? Somewhere, Ray Davies is giggling.

Pittsburgh has the potential to be a lot of things, including home to a lot of cool art and artists, and some clever restaurants. Hip isn't one of them. Young Floridian "creatives" are a bit more in evidence these days, but Pittsburgh's economic fortunes haven't changed. Hipness requires a certain studied indifference to the past; hipness is the attitude that it's all about me, and all about today. That's an attitude that Pittsburgh as a whole has a very hard time abiding; it's OK in children and in Steelers fans on Sunday afternoon, but when Pittsburgh goes back to work the region remembers its history. What looks like hip are really pockets of weirdness. Andy Warhol was born here and is buried here, but he lived his hip life in New York. The eponymous museum, the anchor of Pittsburgh's alleged hipness, is a black hole of weirdness.


36 Responses to "Hipsters in Pittsburgh?"

BrianTH said... 2/24/2010 10:53 AM

I think you may be misidentifying what hipsters specifically value (it isn't quite the same thing as being hip in the more generic sense). Hipsters are into an alternative-bohemian lifestyle that values thrift and authenticity. They drink cheap beer, wear thrift-store clothes, live in rundown urban apartments, eat locally-grown food, and so forth. Accordingly, recently-blue-collar urban neighborhoods like Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, and Polish Hill actually have a lot hipster potential.

Mark Arsenal said... 2/24/2010 12:55 PM

My philosophy is "don't trust anyone under 30". I think demographics are on my side (especially in PGH!).

BTW, we all know the hottest places in America are SaFra and MaHaTa.

Mark Arsenal said... 2/24/2010 12:59 PM

@Brian: Hipsters and the voluntary simplicity crowd are polar opposites. Richard Florida tries to put Google employees and starving artists in the same bucket, but that's just what he does - these academic definitions of 'hip' are slippery as an eel. Just coz they live in the same neighborhood don't make it so.

Mike Madison said... 2/24/2010 1:01 PM

Hip as in hipster? I don't think that the distinction is so sharp. The whole point of being a hipster is to be so hip that you don't care about what's hip. It's "fashionable nihilism," according to Wikipedians, and they should know.

Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, and Polish Hill aren't "lifestyles." They're neighborhoods.

MH said... 2/24/2010 1:21 PM

Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, and Polish Hill aren't "lifestyles." They're neighborhoods.

You didn't spent enough time reading the promotional material for those lofts in Lawrenceville.

Mark Arsenal said... 2/24/2010 1:37 PM

I need to get a new toilet and carpet for my lifestyle :P

MH said... 2/24/2010 2:08 PM

Mark, I've heard of that lifestyle, but really I don't think anybody needs to know more.

Brandon said... 2/24/2010 3:20 PM

Hipness (of the hipster variety) is almost always neighborhood-based, though. New York City has always had its fair share of squares (the current generational variant is the ex-frat-boy or ex-sorority-girl yuppie), which is why hipsters have always congregated in specific neighborhoods, there (the low rents help, too). West Village, SoHo, the East Village (before they got too expensive), and now Williamsburg and Bushwick in Brooklyn. As a result, New York City as a whole isn't "hip" anymore; only Brooklyn is. Hipsterism doesn't seek to remake an entire city; it seeks to carve out inexpensive hermetic niches. It thrives on exclusivity. Bemoaning that Pittsburgh as a whole will never be hip seems to be missing the point.

Mark Arsenal said... 2/24/2010 4:38 PM


Weird. I always thought "hipster" and "yuppie" were *both* derogatory epithets. I'm surprised anyone would classify themselves as either. I assumed Pittsblog here was being a little tongue-in-cheek...

Mike Madison said... 2/24/2010 4:43 PM

Excellent comment, Brandon, but it raises a question: Is "hipster" a person or a place? Were hipsters "hipsters" before they congregated? Or did congregating turn a bunch of PBR-drinking, Chuck Taylor-wearing posers into a group called "hipsters"? I suspect that it's a bit of both.

At the end of the day, my sense is that "hipster"-ism is as much about attitude as it is about style or neighborhood, and "attitude" is, on the whole, anathema to Pittsburgh - which has attitude in abundance, but without the ironic or post-ironic quotation marks.

BrianTH said... 2/24/2010 5:06 PM

So hipsters are definitely all about appropriation. I think for the purposes of this discussion, it may be useful to focus on PBR. At one point, that was just a cheap, unremarkable, working-class beer. Now it is identified with hipsters.

Now why exactly would Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, and Polish Hill be any less subject to hipster appropriation than PBR? I take Professor Madison to be suggesting a theory: Pittsburgh has a special anti-"attitude" resistance that will make it immune to hipster appropriation.

But how plausible is this? I mean I know the little old ethnic ladies clinging to these neighborhoods will frown at the hipsters, but they love that sort of thing. In other words, affected or not, hipsters have a self-image as being counter-cultural, so old school 'Burghers harrumphing about their "attitude" is just going to be part of the appeal.

So I guess we shall see. But personally, I think if you take a look around at a place like Gooski's or Brillobox, you can see all the signs of an ever-rising hipster tide.

MH said... 2/24/2010 5:19 PM

and "attitude" is, on the whole, anathema to Pittsburgh

That's true. If I grew-up around here, I'd have never been able to turn a home-repair comment into a joke.

John Morris said... 2/24/2010 7:03 PM

People who see both usually comment about how many areas of Pittsburgh like the Strip and Lawrenceville look like Williamsburg or Greenpoint in the 1980's.

The Monitor was built in Greenpoint and it's gun in Lawrenceville.

This kind of blurring of artist space, with industrial and residential is classic hipster stuff and could prove to be real organic breeding ground if it's allowed to be.

Mike Madison said... 2/24/2010 8:40 PM

@John and @BrianTH - I don't think that it's just "old ethnic ladies" that I'm talking about. I'm not one of them, of course, and I'm hardly old school Pittsburgh. (I do think that hipster "attitude" is a bit silly, but it's what kids do and have always done. And don't knock old ethnic ladies in Pittsburgh - but that's a post for a different time.) Don't confuse a couple of bars where the "in" crowd goes to hang with the demographics of the region as a whole. This area and its neighborhoods are still resolutely middle class and mainstream. John says: Lawrenceville has the potential to become Williamsburg. Maybe. "If it's allowed to be." I don't see anything holding it back, except good old-fashioned market demand. I don't think that Pittsburgh (or any of its neighborhoods) has it in itself to be a hipster destination, simply because I don't think that the demand is there. But, of course, this is an empirical question; right now, all of us are just offering opinions and predictions. Ask again in a year or five. What will Lawrenceville look like then?

joe said... 2/24/2010 9:44 PM

I'm no hipster (could there be anything less hip than a married 40 yr old gerontologist in the North Boroughs of Pittsburgh? Hipster Replacement?)...But I'm not so sure that hipsters -- whoever they are -- have a "certain studied indifference to the past."

The history of Pittsburgh (and the old ethnic ladies connecting us to it), and the sense of place that's tangible here, it's all part of the hip equation, no?

Mike Madison said... 2/24/2010 10:24 PM

If we grant "hipsters" their claimed status as "appropriators," then I think ... no. The whole point of cultural appropriation is to de-contextualize (disconnect from the past) then re-contextualize (connect to the present). I'm no hipster, obviously, but I can toss off reference to old ethnic ladies, PBR, and Chuck Taylors -- knowing both what these originally signified (and in some quarters, what they *still* signify -- Pabst Blue Ribbon was once marketed as a classy beer for professionals; Chuck Taylors were once simply cheap and solid sneakers; old ethnic ladies were - and are - evidence of Pittsburgh's 20th century history), and what they *now* signify -- PBR and Chuck Taylors as "authentic" low-end American products, old ethnic ladies as evidence of all that hipsters would leave behind.

Here I really did start out kind of tongue-in-cheek, and I've gone all Eco. *That's* a first for the blog!

BrianTH said... 2/24/2010 10:41 PM

I agree it comes down to a question of total hipster supply: if there aren't enough hipsters in Pittsburgh in general, there will be no hipster neighborhoods. Conversely, if there are enough hipsters, I'd place my money on the aforementioned neighborhoods being hipster central.

So we'll have to see about that hipster supply issue. The Census could be interesting, and if I recall correctly we are supposed to be getting neighborhood-level ACS data at some point. Maybe we can revisit my sense of a rising hipster tide at that point.

By the way, to clarify--I wasn't intending to knock Pittsburgh's little old ethnic ladies, but rather suggesting that they would be part of the appeal for hipsters. As was alluded to earlier, hipsters need something to which to be counter-cultural, but on the other hand don't like being around a lot of yuppies. For them an urban neighborhood co-populated with little old ethnic ladies is thus a real treat.

And finally, I think it is to Professor Madison's credit that he is in touch with his own inner little old ethnic lady. We've probably stretched this concept past the point of usefulness, but I still see that as the fundamental nature of his original post.

Anonymous said... 2/25/2010 12:36 AM

Pittsburgh has a pretty "authentic" (maybe that should have two sets of scare quotes) hipster scene - much less yuppified and much grittier than what you find in other cities. Honestly, plenty of Williamsburg bars strive for that rough feel but once you've had the real thing they all just seem pretentious and artificial. And expensive. Nice beer selections though.

Not sure what the Steelers or "the region" have to do with it. With all due respect, you're a middle-aged dude from the suburbs and probably shouldn't be the arbiter of what is and isn't "hip" (of course, the local booster mag shouldn't/doesn't play that role, either).

Mike Madison said... 2/25/2010 7:35 AM

@Anon - You're right that I can't say what's hip (who can?), but I do have a pretty good (if always imperfect) sense of what works, and doesn't work, for Pittsburgh. Be careful with the "from the suburbs" thing. That's absolutely where I live now, but I've also lived for years in neighborhoods with more hip in their little finger than Pittsburgh has in all of its 90 neighborhoods. I've lived in other places that are so un-hip that they wouldn't recognize hipness if it showed up with a soul patch on the front door step. I do know the difference. In the worlds of the classic song:

"You went an' found you a guru.
In an effort to find you a new you,
And maybe even raise your conscious level.

While you're striving to find the right road,
There's one thing you should know,
"What's hip today, might become passe'."


John Morris said... 2/25/2010 10:02 AM

Putting aside the labels, Williamsburg and Soho, Tribeca before it had real demand from artists and small creative companies that needed space. Wanna be hipsters mostly came later, although the lines blurred. Few in Williamsburg hate hipsters more than the areas original artist population.

I say "if allowed", because the city doesn't have that much of this kind of space and it's biggest supply is in the Strip, an area the URA and city no doubt have "plans" for which likely involve more and more parking.

Zoning and land use will be critical because what we are talking about is a bunch of people who will like live work spaces or otherwise want to blur traditional uses. Few artists can afford or want to have separate work and living spaces.

We are also talking about a crowd that doesn't want and can't afford fancy renovations so it's important the city see this as a positive and mostly leave them alone.

MH said... 2/25/2010 10:17 AM

John M., I'm not sure what you mean by "this kind of space." If you mean large, cheap, enclosed spaces in poor repair, the area is full of space like that. If you mean the preceding, but close to a good coffee shop, then you might be restricted to the Strip District and Lawrenceville.

John Morris said... 2/25/2010 10:55 AM

A mixture of large, cheap enclosed spaces in close proximity to each other and well located in relation to other residential and the rest of the city.

Obviously, the best of these would be old warehouse buildings and brick multistory buildings with freight elevators and lot's of floor space as well as nice "garage" type buildings.

As we all, know a lot of these buildings also have "condo" written all over them.

This is a key problem in that the city and developers are somewhat aware of the money potential here but all want things to happen right away.

My guess is they will work to tear down 40% of them to provide parking for a few high end buildings which would be a great loss to the city.

I very much take the view of Jane Jacobs and Richard Florida. Cities are about people and ease of human interation and trade above all things. The Strip is one of the few places where there are no hills and a dense web of creative relationships can build.

BTW, the downtown also has many useful buildings artists would love. Ever heard of the Viaduct building on Second Ave? There was also another similar artist building torn down for the new Penguins arena.

The issue is one of zoning and regulation.

MH said... 2/25/2010 11:15 AM

A mixture of large, cheap enclosed spaces in close proximity to each other and well located in relation to other residential and the rest of the city.

Once you add in location in those terms, you're basically saying hipsters are yuppies without the ability/desire to fix-up the place they just got.

John Morris said... 2/25/2010 12:04 PM

There is a lot of overlap but important differences.

First of all, many artists, musicians, filmakers, theater people and the like need these spaces to produce their work and they need them close to each other to network and collaborate. To a large extent, many yuppies also want close proximity to their jobs or work from home.

Second, many of these people are very willing and interested in improving and customizing their spaces over time and many have contracting, carpentry and other skills or know people who do (the whole need for proximity is so people can build these support networks)

This is what we saw in NYC, with area after area, hand rehabed by artists. It's also the source of a lot of anger as these people, who often were renting are kicked out.

The thing is that what a lot of these people wnat is customized spaces that are adapted to their work, not marble countertops.

That's the thing. Pittsburgh has a very low number of real yuppies and a growing number of artist types, most of whom do not have a lot of money.

Isn't it wiser to build on the market we know exists for creative people rather than one that really isn't here yet.

MH said... 2/25/2010 1:56 PM

That's the thing. Pittsburgh has a very low number of real yuppies and a growing number of artist types, most of whom do not have a lot of money.

From my point of view, I'd prefer to take a shot on getting people with money. Pittsburgh has no shortage of people without a lot of money. What it lacks is a tax base.

Mike Madison said... 2/25/2010 2:07 PM

Why does it need to be an either/or? Resources are scarce, choices need to be made, time is money, etc. etc. But why not set the table as inclusively as possible, be expansive with zoning and other regulation, support different communities with institutions designed to do that (real estate, law, finance, housing, neighborhood development), and see what emerges?

MH said... 2/25/2010 2:11 PM

Yes, it could be both. I’ve got nothing against artists as long as they don’t make abstract sculpture and put it somewhere near where I go. But I think the hipsters want the nice, but dilapidated, architecture. I’d rather they get priced out by somebody who can fix it, pay property taxes on the higher value, and demand actual improvements in the schools and public services.

The hipsters don't have kids. They can go to Wilkinsburg or something.

John Morris said... 2/25/2010 2:46 PM

"Why does it need to be an either/or? Resources are scarce, choices need to be made, time is money, etc. etc. But why not set the table as inclusively as possible, be expansive with zoning and other regulation, support different communities with institutions designed to do that (real estate, law, finance, housing, neighborhood development), and see what emerges?"

That's the bottom line, the city will just never let that happen and unlike in NYC, there just isn't enough critical mass to overwhelm the system and just do it anyway.

"I’d rather they get priced out by somebody who can fix it, pay property taxes on the higher value, and demand actual improvements in the schools and public services."

This line of reasoning is both bizarre and typical. First of all, some of these people are willing to make improvements and are making them. They just are not the improvements the city might think legal. A good number of people in Lawrenceville are customising garages for studios and things like that.

What's the logic here? A lot of these people don't have kids (some do) don't have cars or would like to get rid of them and generally are making very few demands on the city in terms of costs and services. Many are also, quite educated and connected to the universities. In fact, the line between what I'm talking about and traditional tech incubators is pretty fine. Is it an accident that the South Side houses an emerging computer game industry?

Swoon, who bought a church in North Braddock is an internationally known artist. She was looking in Pittsburgh but was brushed off. The post just profiled a pretty famous innovator in musical robots who just moved here.

As to your opinion on abstract sculpture--until you fork over the cash to buy half the city, it's none of your business whether you like it of not.

MH said... 2/25/2010 3:01 PM

Many are also, quite educated and connected to the universities.

Who isn’t?

In fact, the line between what I'm talking about and traditional tech incubators is pretty fine.

If they can hire people or look like they might be able to hire people within a reasonable time frame, that's a whole different game.

As to your opinion on abstract sculpture--until you fork over the cash to buy half the city, it's none of your business whether you like it of not.

If the city is going to cut a deal to get the sculptor in the city or pay for the sculpture, it is. One of the benefits of having a broke city is less bad public art.

ChrisP said... 2/26/2010 10:29 AM

Not to get all Battlestar Galactica The Next Generation :-) but "all of this has happened before.."

Anyone remember the southside in the early 90s? If I had to predict Lawrenceville in 10 years, I'd say it would be the Southside c.2000.

After hooking up for good, the couples who want to stay in the city will move to SquirrelHill or Highland Park and get their kids into the charter schools, the people who want the best schools will go to NA or the FC in place of Mt.Lebo or USC, the rest will find Shaler a nice equivalent of Dormont or Greentree....

Their kids will take over some other neighborhood and make fun of the Arcade Fire just like the hipsters loathe Dave Matthews today..

Behold the future, from 1992...

MH said... 2/26/2010 1:24 PM

What is "Arcade Fire?" Also, loathing Dave Matthews is hardly limited to hipsters.

joe said... 2/26/2010 11:24 PM

The whole point of cultural appropriation is to de-contextualize (disconnect from the past) then re-contextualize (connect to the present).

Do hipsters get up everyday and ask themselves how to be a Retronaut? (found via the Urbanophile).

Isn't it all about bringing the hipsters and the old folks together and just experiencing Pittsburgh without the labels? What does the 80's term yuppie even reference now, and why do we want some mid-aught Brooklyn term hipster applied here (though we are most grateful to you and your art for coming here - thanks John Morris especially for insights on this thread).

I say, what's here is just here, get out and check it aht!

In terms of your migration model Chris P. - if any come west by northwest, bring a trolley.

ChrisP said... 2/27/2010 12:05 PM

It's not so much a migration theory as a settling down theory. In any young artsy group you'll have some people who stay in the life for life. Id venture that most however move on - some are mathmeticians, some are nurse midwives i dont know how it all got started, i dont know what they do with their lives -

Which is how i seevthe point made above that pgh lacks the critical mass to just make it sustainable. but theres nothing wrong with transient pockets of wierdness...

Bram Reichbaum said... 2/27/2010 3:21 PM

The great Mike Woycek just tweeted the other day, "They call them hipsters, I call them beatniks". Anyione think there's anything to that? I can definitely see some similarities, though obviously some evolution would have been at play. Maybe as the consequences of a drug-laden lifestyle became too uncomfortable to bear during the War on Drugs, the beatniks turned to irony to express their nonconformity and exception.


Mahesh said... 3/01/2010 5:55 AM

Hipsters at their core are individuals who are disenfranchised with the cultural mainstream. Sure, it's controversial to say that a Pittsburgh hipster doesn't have the same 'attitude' as a New York hipster... but the point has no merit. It's like saying that the traditional values of this city outweigh any sense of individualism expressed by the hipster... or that the hipster scene is only filled with pretenders who act quirky around their friends, but move back into their traditional shells when the work day starts. If we go with the "if attitude = true hipster" argument, then there really are no real hipsters. People pick a persona that they are comfortable with and then go with it. If that persona borders on extreme, then there must be some faking it that goes along with the struggle towards a sense of individualism. Everyone represses their instinctual desires to some extent in public settings. Hipster-"ism" is really just another outcome stemming from the search to find one's sense of self. Pittsburgh is a place where traditional values and sometimes outdated opinions can serve to fuel the hipster scene. I am not a hipster myself (although a true hipster would never reveal his/her identity), but I must respectfully disagree with the blogger's characterization of Pittsburgh hipster.

BrianTH said... 3/02/2010 9:30 AM

I'd classify both hipsters and beatniks as species within the genus of bohemians.

Anyway, in the greater Pittsburgh urban area (so not restricted just to the City itself) it seems to me we are not particularly short on cheap enclosed places near residential areas looking for a new use. I agree condo developers will get their hands on some, and we should be careful about creating more surface parking (although it seems to me recently some of my least favorite surface parking lots have been put on the schedule for a new building, so maybe that tide has turned). But unless the population trends do something completely unexpected, I think it will be a LONG time before that particular use soaks up more than a fraction of the available stock.

Meanwhile, I find it interesting that no one has mentioned yet efforts like the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative. Isn't that an example of a successful arts-oriented development effort operating within the City's existing policy framework? Or am I missing something?

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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