What Makes a Neighborhood 'Hip'?
Is it by design? Marketing? Close proximity to a gourmet cheese shop?
Franklin Ave in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 2007 (left image) and 2015 (right image). Screencaps via Google Maps
Enough time has passed since the world was at Peak Hipster for us to look back at it as a movement, or a craze, or a meme, or whatever the fuck it was and try to take stock of what it all meant, if anything. So this week we're doing exactly that in a short collection of stories.
On any given night, Franklin Avenue in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights is bustling. Folks are teeming out of the subway and onto the street. Its several restaurants and boutique, boujie grocery stores are filled with people paying way too much for "artisan" pizza and organic produce and frozen Amy's burritos. In just a few short blocks, there are several coffee shops, each packed with young people tapping away on laptops and nursing tiny cups of fancy pour over. A line forms at a taco truck that's parked just outside newly built condominiums next to a newly built Starbucks. Young, upwardly mobile drunks spill out of trivia nights at various new bars designed to look the same, all tin ceilings and Edison bulbs.
Ten years ago, none of this was here. Hell, just three years ago, people looking for, say, Asian fusion tacos or even a bagel shop would be fresh out of luck. Now all those things are in abundance in just a few short blocks. Crown Heights is changing. Quickly. And it's happening right now. Crown Heights has officially become hip.
Over the last year, rents in the neighborhood have risen faster than any other in New York City. Articles about what that means—gentrification, displacement—are starting to roll out of New York's various media outlets. Developers are noticing, and construction of new, sleek glass and steel condos are starting to rise up where empty lots or buildings previously stood for decades. Of course, none of this is a mark of hip, just of now. Of people with money who want more of it recognizing trends in the market and seizing upon them.
But what caused the explosion in Crown Heights cool—or of any neighborhood that experiences it, for that matter? How does it happen? Is it by design? Marketing? Close proximity to a gourmet cheese shop?
"The academic answer to your question is something called central place theory," says Jeffrey Barg, the current urban planner at the Philadelphia Horticultural Society. "Everyone learns about it in planning school, and it goes like this: If you have a boardwalk along the beach, and you're going to place two ice cream shops on the boardwalk, where's the optimal place to put them? At either end? One-third of the way down and two-thirds of the way down? One in the middle and one at an end?"
The answer, it turns out, is none of the above. Both will do the most business if you put them right next to each other, right in the center, says Barg and central place theory. "Intuitively, this makes sense: You create a sort of ice cream district. Everyone knows that the center of the boardwalk is where you go for ice cream," says Barg, who cautions that city planners are great people to talk to about what makes a neighborhood good, but not necessarily the best people for what makes a neighborhood hip. "There's some overlap, but not 100 percent," he says.
Barg's boardwalk example can be extrapolated to neighborhoods. One cool restaurant might not do it on its own, but a handful of similarly spirited places can push a neighborhood past a tipping point, where real estate agents start to take notice. Inevitably, activity begets activity.
"Occasionally you can get there through planning, but that kind of planning is typically done by developers, not planners," says Barg. "Planners are great at coming up with the ideas, but they need the developers to actually execute them."
Williamsburg, Brooklyn is, of course, the quintessentially hip neighborhood, and one that meets the criteria Barg speaks of. It's so hip, in fact, it's been declared unhip several times. Its many warehouses have been converted into high end lofts. Film and TV shoots happen on its streets on the reg. On an unseasonably warm November day in that neighborhood, the Saturday just after Thanksgiving, Toby's Estate Coffee Shop on North 6th Street is bulging at the seams. There's nearly a line out the door. Creatives get their caffeine fix and bang away at the next big something on their computers. Listen carefully, and you can hear it: Influencers gathering to strategize about how to influence. You've never seen so many well manicured beards.
Among them is Moiz Malik, the Chief Technology Officer of Nooklyn. Nooklyn is a real estate company first and foremost. But it's also much more. Slowly, steadily—and because of Malik's work for the company, where he's also a partner—it's become a lifestyle brand and content creator. On its website and app you'll find gorgeous photo essays and articles of neighborhood hot spots—Izakayas, old timey ice cream shops that employ soda jerks, coffee shops, etc—that rival something you might see on Apartment Therapy, Design Sponge or Domino.
Malik takes a break from coding his latest project for the company—basically a Yelp that doesn't suck, pointing residents of various neighborhoods to the cool bars, places to get good grub, and other hot spots—to flip his computer around to show off unedited video footage the company has taken so potential renters can see exactly what their regular day-to-day walks in the neighborhood will look like should they choose to rent there. Think Google street view, but one designed to show what the walk to your train looks like.
Nooklyn has offices in three distinctly hip Brooklyn neighborhoods—Bushwick, Greenpoint, and their newest, Crown Heights—and have listings across the entire borough. This year the company will expand into Los Angeles and San Francisco. The company's well-curated Instagram account features pictures, not of the insides of barren apartments, but of gluten free cupcakes, "Wu Tang Forever" graffiti spray painted on a wall, and a pumpkin carved with the band logo for SLAYER.
Nooklyn, and Malik in particular, have set out to approach real estate almost like a tech company. Rather than just throw up listings on their site, they started asking the same basic questions renters do before finding a place. "Can I afford it? Is it safe? What is there to do [around my apartment]?," says Malik. Nooklyn can provide the answer to all three, but has recently made the last question their point of focus. People want to live where the action is if they can afford to, and feel like they can walk around at night free of too much fear. Those three things swirling together can certainly create the perfect storm for a neighborhood's chance at cool, the criteria required to attract people to a neighborhood to begin with.
Remove any one of them, and it doesn't work out. Cheap but supremely dangerous isn't cool. Lots to do, but only Finance Bros can afford to live there? Not cool. Ditto if there's nothing to do.
"I don't think it's marketing or planning," says Jonathan Williamson, director of marketing and design at the Houston, Texas, based real estate agency Refuge. "Big developers do that and big developers can't do hip," he says. Williamson is also a licensed realtor. In his time on the job he's seen a cycle familiar to anyone who's seen a neighborhood go from hidden-secret-only-inhabited-by-artists-and-the-fringe to next-hot-place-feasted-upon-by-realtors. In Houston that cycle is happening right now, longtime hip neighborhoods like Montrose and The Heights are no longer affordable, and the same early adopters who have been priced out are seeking new, affordable (and hip) places to live. As a result, Williamson is placing lots of them in Houston's now-hot East End, which was decidedly not cool a decade ago.
"I think the people come first," Williamson says of the East End's new growth and cool. "They start saying, 'Man, I wish we had a coffee shop!' and somebody opens one. Then their friends visit and think, 'Hey! This isn't so bad! It's affordable and they have that new coffee shop and those few DIY venues' and they move there. And it snowballs. The more cool people move there, the more cool businesses open. The more cool businesses open, the more attractive it is to live there. And eventually, people aren't coming because it's affordable at all. They're coming because it's the most desirable location."
Williamson says geography also plays a role, and that it's no accident that "hip" neighborhoods don't develop too far from where all the action is located. "In most cities, you're going to find [a cool neighborhood] in a central location," he says. "Ferndale in Detroit is basically the only exception I can think of to this rule. But leave it to Detroit to have the hip part of town be in the suburbs. They can't get anything right over there."
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