“Hipsturbia:” Actually Becoming Browner, Poorer, and Older

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map via Andrei Scheinkman and Timothy Wallace, The Huffington Post

Like a lot of other folks, I was amused by yesterday's Times style section piece proclaiming the birth of "Hipsturbia": a supposedly new cluster of affluent, creative-industry white people who have moved from Brooklyn to the lower Hudson River Valley after procreating, mostly to the suburbs of Irvington, Hastings, Dobbs Ferry, and Tarrytown. As Jess Grose (Irvington's finest) notes at Slate, upscale white families have been moving from the city to those particular towns for many, many decades. The changes are really around the margins; now those emigrants are arriving not only from Manhattan, but also from the gentrified neighborhoods of Brooklyn, which means they're bringing all the associated cultural tics with them, like foodie snobbery. (And trust me, Westchester County could use a few more interesting restaurants.)

If we look at actual data, however, we'll notice that American suburbs are not becoming hipper and younger, but are in fact becoming poorer (as young adults with economic means increasingly choose to live in cities), browner (as immigrants and African Americans are priced out of central urban neighborhoods), and grayer (as the suburban population ages). I grew up near the Times' "hipsturbia" in a gorgeous riverfront town that illustrates all these trends: Ossining, New York. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the town fathers dreamed of building commuter-friendly luxury condos to attract more Wall Street workers, while farmer's market types hoped developers would instead renovate our downtown's historic warehouses and loft spaces, to attract artists. We all argued a lot and screamed at each other, because we wanted our town to have a broader tax base and be more culturally vibrant. But very little downtown development of any sort ever happened, and the reasons why demonstrate why the Times piece is so facile. 

First, Ossining was experiencing a massive influx of immigration from rural Ecuador, along with some of the visible social challenges — such as day-laborers on the streets, and bilingualism in the public schools — associated with immigration. Second, with a socioeconomically-mixed population, a maximum-security prison, and one of Westchester County's few clusters of public housing, many affluent, white parents were never interested in moving to Ossining, because the public schools simply can't boast the stratospheric test scores that are typically a feature of more homogenous school systems.

Most of the towns mentioned in the Times story buck the grayer-browner-poorer trend exactly because they have been so uniformly affluent for so long that they are able to resist the demographic tides overtaking the majority of suburbs. They do so, in part, by deliberately excluding affordable housing. (Tarrytown is an exception, with a more diverse population. And it's a very charming town.) In other words, there is nothing remotely counter-cultural about these Brooklynites moving to these specific Westchester villages. They might wear cooler glasses, but they are following the well-trodden paths of the Baby Boomers and World War II veterans before them.

Are these denizens of "hipsturbia" among the first in a new wave of defectors to the suburbs, or are they outliers? It remains unclear. One of the big questions demographers have about Generation Y and Millenials is whether our much-noted preference for city life will persist as we age and reproduce. We don't have great numbers on this yet, but if many more families make the same choice the Times is noting–moving to heavily white suburbs–both cities and suburbs will miss a lot of opportunities to create more racially and socioeconomically-integrated communities, which are great for kids, great for schools, and (in my opinion) great for society. 

7 thoughts on ““Hipsturbia:” Actually Becoming Browner, Poorer, and Older

  1. Cassandra

    I grew up in the 1970s, so I have watched the hippie generation morph from Gordon Lightfoot to Gordon Gekko. I have also seen my own generation bypass idealism and pretty much go straight to cynicism. Now I watch the next generation’s views become more narrow as their bodies expand.

    When I was a kid, we talked about racism ending as Archie Bunker’s generation died out. Now we talk about the eventual demise of the Fox News generation. Yet as each generation dies out, the generation behind takes its ideological place. Idiots are not going to die out. We keep making more of them. We need to understand why so many people age into fossils, and I believe it starts with the first decision to align oneself to a sector within the culture rather than to the culture as a whole.

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  2. Robert from upstate

    I think when the NYT closed its White Plains bureau it lost what little authority it had to report on life in “upstate” Westchester. The piece in yesterday’s paper was amusing but strictly anecdotal. I have had neighbors who moved from Brooklyn to my street about 20 years ago.

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  3. Rick in Louisiana

    Lovely response to the NYT article. I emailed it to my sociology colleagues, & one of our urban studies grad students emailed me a link to your piece. Friends in New Orleans have been complaining about the Hipsters & wondering where they’re all coming from. I said, the traditional place: they’re being priced out of neighborhoods the cultural types made fashionable. The trip to the burbs & elsewhere is well-trodden, as you say; but the suburbs as a whole are getting poorer. My grad student is studying suburban poverty. Great piece!

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  4. annajcook

    My wife and I live in the Boston metropolitan area right now, and while we very much hope to remain in the city, within walking distance to our workplaces, affordability is a constant concern. We can afford it for now, but the neighborhood is being “developed” and our income peers are getting priced out of their apartments. Buying is out of our grasp. So if we ever get forced out of the city — unless we move due to work opportunity — it will likely be not from desire to leave but from inability to stay.

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  5. Tiercelet

    Well, for my own part, I don’t see myself leaving for the suburbs when I have kids — mainly because given the present economic policy of the country, I don’t see myself ever being able to afford them. (Of course, it’s not like I’ll ever be able to afford property in the city where I live, anyway, so maybe I should just get back to work…)

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  6. Susan Grebe

    I’m so glad you wrote this piece. It’s exactly what I was thinking, but you have said it much more eloquently. My husband and I moved our family from Brooklyn to Tarrytown in 1988, and we chose Tarrytown precisely because it is so diverse. When the Times article said the river towns are lacking in diversity all I could think was that the writer doesn’t really know the river towns. Irvington is white and affluent, but Tarrytown, Nyack, Ossining, and Dobbs Ferry are mixed. (Not to mention Yonkers and Peekskill, but the author didn’t even go there.) I also wondered whether the people who were interviewed really said things like, “Wow. They ‘get’ us in this restaurant because the drinks have cool (hipster) names.”

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