Friday, January 15, 2016

Authenticity in the East Village

I was also asked at the Columbia Urban Planning class to comment on the East Village as a semiotic neighborhood -- a neighborhood representing its image to attract clients, both residential and commercial. The circumstances in the EV couldn't be more different from those in Chinatown.

The East Village was once an ethnic enclave -- actually several ethnic enclaves interwoven together: Polish, Ukrainian, Italian, Jewish, Puerto Rican and American-born Black ethnicities each had staked out their blocks, streets and buildings. Today it is a typically gentrified and much more homogeneous neighborhood. Its commerce caters to a different quantity of disposable money and, equally important, a different quality of money. 

Old ethnic shops are one-by-one being evicted as their long-term leases come due. The greater quantity of money available in the neighborhood drives up rents, but it's really the quality of the money that makes the difference. If the local hipster were willing to pay a high price for, say, authentic pierogies, the pierogy shop could jack up its price to pay a higher rent. But the hipster search for authenticity is compromised by the search for the new and discriminating that traditional pierogies can't supply. Vegan gluten-free wasabi peirogies are not within the range of the traditional. The quality of the money -- the kinds of purchases its possessor is interested in paying for -- determines the profile of the street commerce.

Hipsters prefer new commerce run by fellow hipsters -- or at least fellow middle-class young and attractive whites. Rich Ocejo pointed out to me the interest among hipsters in the authentic barbershop experience. But the old barber on Ave. C run by a 74-year-old Puerto Rican is way too authentic. Instead the barber has to be himself a hipster, preferably not hipper than the client, and comfortably downscale to provide just enough of a sniff of slumming "authenticity." 

Hipsterism has changed over time, becoming increasingly conformist, fashion-conscious, semiotic and commercialized. If you've read so far in these last few posts, you've got the point that the semiotic -- the use of objects to convey a cultural meaning -- because it is a form of communication, opens the door to deception. Utilitarian dress cannot deceive in itself. A hardhat worn by a construction worker at the worksite has a direct relation to its function. There's no room for deception. It's worn to protect from falling objects. To the extent that clothing is non utilitarian, it is available for communication as fashion. So rolled up jeans have no function but to identify a strain of hipsterism -- at the current moment. Similarly, the lumbersexual beard borrows the image of masculinity transferring it to fashion, contrary to the meaning of its raw, unshaven masculinity in which fashion purports to play no role. 

The constant search for authentic signs and the removal of the authenticity by recreating those signs as fashion is a characteristic of current hipsterism. It is not benign. Look at the ad at the top. Both men are conversing across the generations sitting on a shoeshine bench. The significance to the older generation man in the three-piece suit lives in a structure of meanings that belong to an old racist culture that assumed white superiority when black men served at the white man's foot. The significance for the hipster is merely a kind of play with fashion. 

And so fifty years of civil rights' struggle is effaced, erased, lost, dismissed and mocked, all in the interest of commerce, fashion and the search for distinctive identity.

The ethnic, political, and artistic history of the East Village has similarly been effaced, erased, lost, dismissed and mocked. But where Chinatown is endangered by inauthentic representations of its ethnic economic base, the East Village is recreating its own new authentic economy -- the authentic search for the retro, the fashionable, the distinctive, the slumming of elitism coupled with its upscale revision of it, the clean, expensive hipster slum with great, exotic dining and deserts and diverse nightlife drinking options. It is sustainable because the hipster has sufficient disposable money to sustain it. The sole threat is the landlord who demands commercial rents above what commerce can afford. 

It's difficult to describe the restructuring of meaning in hipsterism as deceptive. There's no authenticity to deceive beyond the desire to identify through consumption and display.

See also in this series:
Semiotic neighborhoods vs the authentic and anti-fragile: prestige and its deceptions and betrayals
Prestige and distortion in Chinatown
Suits and betrayal in Chinatown
The Mobility Dilemma and the Clearinghouse Effect

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