Category Archives: Food and Drink

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

Screen Shot 2013-02-18 at 3.46.44 PM
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. 

2012: The Year in Review, Education and Beyond

Education story of the yearThe Chicago teachers' strike. American teacher unionism was founded in Chicago in the late 1890s, as female, largely Catholic elementary school teachers resisted centralization policies–standardized testing, a uniform curriculum, numeric teacher evaluations–pursued by a male, Protestant bureaucracy. So it was fitting that the loudest cry of protest against contemporary standards-and-accountability school reform emerged in the Windy City this September, as teachers resisted professional evaluation tied to student test scores, closures of neighborhood schools, and the expansion of the charter school sector. You can read my history of Chicago teacher unionism here.

The strike has had a few interesting results. First, it raised the profile of Chicago Teachers' Union leader Karen Lewis, who is a less compromising and more leftist figure than Randi Weingarten, president of the national American Federation of Teachers. Second, it brought to the public's attention the tension bewteen increasing test-score pressure on teachers and schools while cutting budgetary support for art, music, counseling, school psychologists, and the many other crucial, yet more holistic services schools provide. Third, it resulted in a compromise contract with both progressive and regressive features. More funding for social support services, especially in high-poverty schools, is a good thing. Continuing to backload teacher salaries and bonsues, though, will not make the profession more appealing to ambitious young people or career-changers. Yet it is encouraging that CTU agreed, at least in theory, to professional evaluations that include evidence of student learning. Now the devil will be in working out the details, particularly on what role standardized test scores will play, and how to evaluate teachers of currently non-tested subjects and grades, like art, music, PE, and kindergarten.


Magazines of the Year: Tomorrow and Jacobin.

Education research-finding of the year: Teachers matter, and not just for academics. A study by economists Raj Chetty, Jonah Rockoff, and John Friedman found that teachers who consistently improve their students' standardized test scores also help children avoid teenage pregnancy, get to college, and earn higher incomes. But there is a crucial caveat to this finding: The study was conducted in a low-stakes settingin other words, among teachers whose pay and evaluation were not tied to test scores. The researchers admitted in their paper that when tests do become high-stakes, there is an increased risk of score manipulation, which can occur either through teaching-to-the-test or outright cheating. In high-stakes settings, test scores become less reliable and, therefore, their link to better life outcomes for kids could be compromised.


Under-reported education trend of the year (and decade): Sociology used to be the academic discipline with the most influence over public education policy. Today that discipline is economics. On the upside, we now have more data about children's academic and life outcomes. On the downside, education policy-makers are paying less attention to aspects of children's lives that are more difficult or impossible to quantify, such as parental involvement and comfort with diversity.


New York restaurant of the year: Pok Pok. We only had the patience to wait in line for this place once, but it was so, so, so worth it. A close runner-up is Battersby, where I had two wonderful meals. Another year, another few reasons never to leave Brooklyn. 


Book of the year on How We Live NowTwilight of the Elites, by Chris HayesThis bracing book about "America after meritocracy" has implications for every area of policy-making, but is especially sharp at deconstructing myths we tell ourselves about education: that test scores measure aptitude and that elite schools serve the common good.


Education story to watch in 2013: The roll-out of the Common Core. Will the movement to implement shared national academic standards remain bipartisan, or will conservatives and Republicans increasingly turn against it? Will schools implement the Core faithfully, or will myths about the standards–like the false idea that they cut out fiction reading–persist?  


Albums of the year: "Break it Yourself," by Andrew Bird. "Sun," by Cat Power. "Channel Orange," by Frank Ocean. "The Idler Wheel…" by Fiona Apple. "Shields," by Grizzly Bear.


Education book of the year: My favorite was Saving the School, by Michael Brick.


A book to pounce on in 2013: The absolutely masterful Hope Against Hope, by Sarah Carr, the definitive account of education reform in post-Katrina New Orleans, told through the eyes of a student, a teacher, and a principal. A gripping narrative with deep historical and political ramifications. 


Cultural controversy of the year: The battle over the future of the New York Public Library's main branch, at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. Should this world-class research institution ship several million books to New Jersey, and open space for a lending library? Should architect Norman Foster, known for his glass additions to historic buildings, be let loose on this Beaux Arts masterpiece? I work there almost every day, and I still can't decide how I feel about it. 


TV Show of the Year: "Girls." Feminists are funny. 


#longreads of the year: This past spring, the magazine that launched my career, The American Prospect, experienced a terrifying brush with death. I'm so glad donors and subscribers have helped The Prospect continue its work, because under editor Kit Rachlis, it has published some amazing writing. Monica Potts' "Pressing on the Upward Way" is a compassionate, beautifully-constructed portrait of rural poverty in Eastern Kentucky. Equally stirring was Gabriel Arana's "My So-Called Ex-Gay Life," which not only told Gabe's personal story of surviving "ex-gay therapy," but also broke news by revealing how the psychiatrist who pushed to define homosexuality as a mental illness, Robert Spitzer, has come to regret and retract his previous work.

Documentary of the Year: "Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry," by Alison Klayman.

Personal Highlight of the Year: Pacific Street. With this guy.
Happy New Year, folks. 

“Kings of Pastry,” France, America, and the Vocational Education Debate

Jacquy Pfeiffer & chocolate sculpture 

MOF finalist Jacquy Pfeiffer, cofounder of Chicago's French Pastry School, with sugar sculpture. Photo via "Kings of Pastry"

It's been awhile since I've had the chance to indulge my Francophilism on the blog, but last night I watched a fantastic documentary, "Kings of Pastry," that left me reflecting on the cultural differences between how Americans and the French think about intelligence, knowledge, and education. 

The film, which you can stream on Netflix, tells the story of the MOF–Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, or "best French craftsmen"–competition in pastry. Every four years, chefs, bakers, cheesemongers, florists, jewelers, weavers, woodworkers, and dozens of other French artisans compete to win this designation. It is considered one of France's highest civilian honors. 

The 16 pastry chef finalists–all of them male, a fact the film ignores–bring an absolute, overwhelming intensity to the MOF competition. Their wives and girlfriends speak of normal family life being on hold for years while their partners pursue the MOF doggedly, testing elaborate recipes and decoration techniques, usually at night after working a full day in a restaurant or shop. Some competitors devote decades to the process, competing every four years until they finally acquire a coveted MOF medal. 

The film shows President Nicolas Sarkozy speaking at a MOF award ceremony for chefs. I was really struck by how coherent his support is for what might be termed "vocationalism," and how out of step this would sound in an American context. Sarkozy said:

"Worker, artisan, apprentice. I affirm: There are not two forms of intelligence, two kinds of knowledge. Manual skill doesn't fall from the sky any more than intellectual skills. I don't want any more of that concept in our country. Because this idea is morally scandalous, and is insufficient economically."

The French education system is structured around such ideas. In the last three years of high school, or lycee, French teenagers choose to focus on the hard sciences, social sciences, or literature, or from among eight career-oriented "technical" courses of study, including the food sciences, health sciences, and hospitality. 

Americans are–and probably should be–skeptical of efforts to "track" 15-year olds into specific careers, especially given the vast inequities in children's educational and social opportunities before they ever enter high school. But some of the most thoughtful education reformers I've talked to in my reporting are Americans who are trying to seed workforce-relevancy into our own school system, by introducing young adults to possible professions in an intellectually rigorous way. This is important work, because we know one of the primary causes of dropping-out is that low-income students don't see how their education will help them land a job or build a satisfying, remunerative career in the future. 

I profiled two high schools that embody workforce-relevancy and academic rigor in my July Nation feature, but I'd say this remains a real minority movement in American education circles. So many of us–and I'd include myself–feel a real attachment to a romantic idea of the liberal arts, and of "college" in general.

"Kings of Pastry," however, romanticizes vocationalism in a way that is both enchanting and very foreign seeming. It's a delightful film — but also also very relevant to the education debate.