When my partner and I moved here years ago, we didn’t demand change. We didn’t expect boutique little shops with craft beers (for God’s sakes) or even coffee. We tried our best to fit in and nurture what was there. We already spoke Mandarin, and we did our best to learn Vietnamese so that we could make the most of the local shops. We didn’t decide that Footscray needed shiny places where we could sit and try to look sophisticated.
– Anonymous commenter, Footscray Food Blog
When my partner and I moved to Footscray just over four years ago, I would occasionally call us ‘the thin end of the white wedge’. At the time, Footscray had very few amenities that people of a certain age and socioeconomic status are stereotyped as enjoying: there was but one café that made ‘specialty’ coffee, and it was tucked away in an otherwise-sleepy residential area; there were no bars, only a handful of pubs of varying quality; there were no trendy eateries; there were no boutique liquor stores that could sell you a bottle of natural wine; there were no bookstores or cinemas. What charm Footscray did possess for the stereotypical white hipster might be generously described as anthropological: an abundance of cheap and very good ‘ethnic’ foods from the suburb’s immigrant communities, plus the more-progressive-than-thou satisfaction of living in one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse suburbs in Australia. Even four years ago, though, you didn’t need to be a savant to tell that this would change, and rapidly.
Now a number of cafés in Footscray can serve you a coffee snob-approved flat white; you can go to a bar with a quirky fit-out and sip a Negroni; appetite primed, you can wander down the street and grab an artisanal pizza, a pulled-pork sandwich, or a fried chicken burger with sriracha mayo – if you can be bothered with the queue to get in to some of these eateries, that is. You’re still out of luck if you’re looking for a pét-nat chenin blanc to take home, or would like to buy a copy of The Argonauts, or feel like watching a screening of Toni Erdmann – but these things will come soon enough, I’m sure. Alongside them will come some of the less welcome companions of twenty-first century gentrification: rent hikes, the completion of large and soulless residential developments (many of which have already profoundly transformed Footscray’s skyline and general amenity), the forced relocation of long-term residential tenants to less desirable and more distant suburbs. Footscray’s proximity to the Melbourne CBD, its excellent rail links, the relative and current cheapness of rent here, and Maribyrnong Council’s developer-friendly attitude to town planning all mean that further gentrification of the suburb is a near-certainty.
For this reason, the spate of recent attacks on certain Footscray businesses by perpetrators as yet unknown feels quixotic: smashing in a few windows and spray-paining ‘fuck off hipster scum’, or throwing a bag of rotting meat at a business, cannot be expected to reverse the tide of gentrification. (Surely nobody actually supposes that a hipster walking past graffiti telling them to fuck off would accept this command and promptly arrange to move back to Brunswick East.) Such actions also seem to fundamentally misunderstand the relationship between gentrification and hipsterdom, construing as they do hipsters as active agents of gentrification rather than their presence as an epiphenomenon of it.
Who counts as a hipster in 2017? If the term ever had any sociological salience, it has surely been so devalued by fast and loose usage that it can now only function as an insult for behaviours that the speaker finds aesthetically or morally objectionable. For instance: is wearing a native American headdress at a music festival the sign of a hipster, or does the modern hipster disdain the wearing of headdresses as culturally appropriative? Does the modern Australian hipster still drink cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, or do they find the display of another culture’s signifiers of working-class authenticity gauche? Does the hipster eat pulled pork, or do they maintain a sanctimoniously vegan diet? Does the hipster subscribe to Frankie or to Overland? I have heard all of the above behaviours classified by others as somehow exemplary of hipsterdom, including by people who themselves could easily fall into someone else’s idea of the hipster. (If there is one constant to hipsterdom, it’s that no self-respecting hipster would dare identify themselves or want to be identified as a hipster.) It has been over six years since Mark Greif famously identified the hipster as an incoherent identity, and one on the verge of dissolution, and yet the term lives on as a vestigial organ in our discourse.
Greif’s essay ‘What Was the Hipster?’ argues that ‘The hipster is that person … who in fact aligns himself both with rebel subculture and with the dominant class, and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two’. Early examples of hipsterdom make it clear to which of those two cultures the hipster truly belonged: it was once easy to mock hipsters as the indolent scions of moneyed families, frittering away their families’ actual capital on the social and cultural capital that can be bought via expensive rent in gentrifying neighbourhoods (Williamsburg, the Marais, Surry Hills, Fitzroy) and by consuming markers of working-class authenticity (tattoos, cans of cheap domestic lager, trucker caps). Now it seems that the relationship between subculture and dominant class in the hipster has been reversed. The ‘hipsters’ I know – and look, as a writer and bartender who lives in a rapidly gentrifying part of Melbourne, I know a lot of people you could easily call hipsters – are absolutely nothing like those mythical hipsters of the early noughties. They are instead people who are almost perpetually broke but who have excellent taste: just ask them about the latest trends in literature, music, theatre, food, coffee, wine, or fashion. They parlay that taste into forms of precarious or vastly underpaid employment: they work as editors at publishing houses or for literary magazines, or they pull shots of ethically sourced single-origin coffee for the people with actual money who can regularly afford such indulgences. (Many of them, of course, work multiple jobs, simultaneously navigating the precariousness of freelance creative work and the structural disempowerment of casual hospitality labour.)
A critic of the putative hipster’s consumptive habits might well suggest that they cease indulging their champagne tastes on their beer budgets, but this ignores the fact that the acquisition of that beer budget relies precisely on the acquisition and maintenance of those champagne tastes. You can’t find work as a sommelier who pours glasses of wine priced just below your hourly wage if you don’t know what those wines actually taste like, and if you were to turn up to such a job in sweatpants and a t-shirt from Target you’d swiftly find yourself out of it. You can’t get even an entry-level job in the arts or publishing without being able to perform your identity as a connoisseur, as someone who has taken the time and borne the costs of acquiring an education and its concomitant good taste: not merely the actual capital outlay in course fees, book purchases, art supplies, musical instruments, concert and theatre tickets, etc., but also the opportunity costs involved in taking an unpaid internship or generally developing as a creative practitioner. After all, every hour spent behind the easel, in the darkroom, at band rehearsal, or sitting in front of a Word document is an hour that could be spent earning money. And, given the immense attrition rates of artistic careers, it takes either willful blindness or immense chutzpah to imagine that this investment will repay itself in the long run.
The expense and effort of maintaining this kind of hipsterdom, with its asymmetry of cultural and actual capital, no doubt renders it more difficult to pursue for any number of people: people from working-class or welfare-class families, people from migrant and Indigenous backgrounds, single parents, the disabled or chronically ill. Not every Australian hipster is white, middle-class, and able-bodied, of course, but hipsterdom tout court is inflected with whiteness and with middle-class mercantilist values. Broadly speaking, we hipsters go through the process of acquiring cultural capital in the vain hope that we can parlay it into something approaching a steady income and material security, even as the industries we have our sights set on (publishing, the media, the arts) are ravaged by economic neoliberalism and as the ‘side gig’ jobs we work to make rent are afforded fewer protections by a government more focused on ‘agility’ and ‘innovation’ than on ensuring the just treatment of the casually employed. From the inside, hipsterdom feels less like a position of power and more like a betrayal – we have adopted the right values and acquired our cultural capital at great cost (just ask about our HECS debts!), yet we are denied anything remotely approaching the comfortable middle-class existence many of us aspire to.
Which brings us to urban migration and gentrification. The hipsters in Footscray cannot simply ‘fuck off’ back to the urban enclaves they have come from – the rents in those places are too high for their incomes, and their arrival in another down-at-heel or traditionally working-class suburb would only see the drama of gentrification displaced elsewhere. (Although I suspect that the residents of, say, Reservoir might express their displeasure a touch less viscerally than by throwing bags of rotting meat at cafés.) The gentrification of Footscray has been presented as a crisis for the suburb, but the crisis has already taken place, and elsewhere – in the hipster’s ancestral home, Melbourne’s inner north, certain suburbs of which more and more resemble Toorak or Armadale, just with edgier tastes. Meanwhile, the beneficiaries of gentrification in Footscray aren’t necessarily the usual suspects: many of the suburb’s property owners are themselves migrants who first came to Footscray throughout the second half of the twentieth century, and who will certainly not complain about the appreciation in the suburb’s property values, or about the proliferation of cool cafés and eateries. (There’s a bitter irony in the café Rudimentary being vandalised by the anti-hipster brigade: pop your head in on a busy day and you’ll see that its clientele represent a vast swath of Footscray’s diverse population, not merely the white and trendy.)
That the spoils of Footscray’s gentrification won’t be restricted to further enriching an already wealthy subset of white Australians will be cold comfort to those Footscray residents who find themselves priced out of the suburb’s housing market, of course. But it does indicate that Footscray’s gentrification complicates simple narratives of hipsters acting as gentrification’s footsoldiers and beneficiaries. Real resistance to gentrification would entail the deeply unsexy work of fighting against development applications, fighting for improved social services for the marginalised, seeking better protections for renters and improved working conditions for the precariously and casually employed, amongst other things – and an acknowledgement that ‘hipsters’ are often as much the victims of gentrification as they are its agents. This is, of course, harder and less satisfying work than smashing windows and tagging buildings – but if we want to preserve Footscray’s unique cultural and socioeconomic diversity, it’s the work we need to do.