Until now, the hipster nation’s war on Paris has known no limits and has suffered few setbacks. JOHN VON SOTHEN takes us deep within the central command, revealing one person who’s ready to take it down from within.
By the time you read this article the war will have started.
And I’m not talking about Crimea or North Korean, but right here in Paris, in the neighborhood now called SoPI (South of Pigalle), a swath of land no bigger than le Bourget airport, which hipsters have annexed from the democratically elected canton of Pigalle, transforming it into a “hipster haven” full of food trucks, burger stands, vinyl record stores, organic juice bars, retro diners, and mustache curling saloons.
As in the case of Crimea, the aggressors have drummed up the lie they’ve been welcomed; that the longstanding hipster community of Pigalle never saw themselves as Pigalle residents in the first place, but as multi-national “hipsterum” fascinated by slim jeans, horned-rim glasses, and artisanal whiskey stills.
And in typical fashion, the world has stood by and watched, as other Parisian enclaves: Oberkamph, Le Marais, and Bastille fall each day. Some even say the once “preppy” Batignolles may crumble, leading many geopolitical strategists to warn we’ve now reached a tipping point.
For its part, the press has been more than accommodating, celebrating each new hipster business arrival with fawning pieces usually starting with the word “Finally,” as in “Finally a cheesecake/bagel deli where you can also get a Brazilian wax.”
Even the once incorruptible New York Times has become a mouthpiece for anything pro-hipster/French bash-y. Michael Steinberger’s recent column Can anyone save French food? conveniently attributed the turnaround of French cuisine to ex-pats (see hipsters) not French chefs. Often the refrain with the Times is the same, “France hasn’t changed enough,” (therefore, hipsters bring modernity) or France has lost its way (therefore hipsters have brought back le terroir).
Personally, I don’t give a shit if Hemingway’s old apartment is a Prada store now or if Parisian cafés have or don’t have free wifi and gluten-free tiramisu. And I actually can stomach perversions like Starbucks or Pizza Hut or KFC, only because I don’t think of them as home, as much as generic American mass creations like Crest and Ford that are not only Paris’s problem, but Oslo’s and Kuala Lumpur’s as well.
No, my jihad is with an enemy much more clever and cagey, one whose success lies in its ability to organize, stay on message and multiply. Each hipster business (or should I say settlement) comes with the obligatory exposed light bulb hanging, teak wood flooring, gas station sign “steampunk“ design that harkens back to a more real time, whether it be American prohibition, pre-women’s suffrage, prairie pioneer or Pennsylvanian Amish. And each business follows a similar template – give a sense of modernity by doing something “simple,” make a wink to a region where the majority of clients probably visited or lived in at one point, (so they can say to their colleagues “when I lived in New York, I used to eat the same cheese fries!”), give it a one word Anglo name like “Lefty,” or “Blend,” furnish Scandinavian chairs, play Blur, grow a mustache, rinse, repeat.
Just the other day I went to a place called Barbershop (anglo name) for a haircut only to find a large bar filled with tattooed waiters wearing Carhart beanies. I, of course, had confused Barbershop on avenue de la Republique with Alex Haircut’s BarberShop on rue Rodier (in SoPI!) that offered cuts ranging from « 30’s pompadour to 50’s style rockabilly.” Whether or not they were owned by the same guy was less on my mind than why they hadn’t just merged the two.
We’re told these youth-driven business are an eventuality, though, that it’s good for Paris, that within the general rotten apple of the French economy there lies hope, in the form of a sort of Made in USA-Re-Made in France micro-market that even Arnaud Montebourg would be happy to sport his St. James sweater in.
And I, more than anyone, should be thrilled. “What’s wrong John? You finally get that Korean bibimbop you had in Brooklyn! Look John – an oak leaf illustration on your cappuccino foam! Unfortunately, I’m less than OMG. Probably because I’ve lived in both places long enough now to know I’m never going to find a great brunch in Paris, the same way I’m not going to find an awesome boudin noir in New York. These are just unicorns created by a Monsanto-type business model that’s gradually globally homogenizing what we once knew as a cultural peculiarity. Plus I know hipster propaganda when I see it, having grown up as a soldier in the hipster army.
Yes, that’s right. I am one of them. I have served the “hipster flag,” both as an employee and as a citizen. I’ve written for GQ about what cutlery to buy if you’re a “dude,” or where in Paris you can score Red Wing boots. I’ve covered Justice’s tour in America for Technikart, and I did so in Sperry topsiders. I live in the 10th – in a loft big enough to lean my fixed gear bike against the wall. I frequent the Canal St. Martin on a daily basis, and the fact I just happen to be from New York is the cherry on top – allowing me to climb the hipster ladder quickly, to the point, I’m told, I’m being groomed for the top spot – once of course the guys from le Baron retire.
But what the leaders of hipster nation don’t know is that all, this time, I’ve actually been a double agent. Just like Nicholas Brody’s character in the series Homeland, I have turned, and my goal now has been to destroy through an ingenious House of Cards Frank Underwood plan, the entire hipster central command, which until today, has been lead to believe it’s invincible.
Twisted you say? Perhaps. Maniacal? Sure. But when people start using the phrase “trés Brooklyn” on a daily basis we have reached critical mass.
Let me preface this by saying I imagine it must be nauseating for a French person to hear from an American how annoying Paris has become – just as nauseating as it would be for me to hear a French guy tell me how much Brooklyn used to be “hyper cool” before all the hipsters arrived. In each case, it’s an exercise of self-flattery masked as social insight. I get that.
And for that reason, I’m not going to indict ALL things NYC in Paris – like Kiehl’s for example, whose boutiques I see everywhere here following its purchase by L’Oréal. Sure it hurts to see the same Kiehl’s I knew on 13th street in the East Village now on rue des Martyrs (in SoPI!) but success has a price, and honestly, the fact I don’t have to lug a duffel bag of coriander shower gel through French customs far outweighs the sting. Plus it’s the SAME EXACT THING, unlike the watery milkshake I got at the MK2 this weekend.
“But John, why the hate?” I’m asked. “The hipsters have cleaned up once crappy neighborhoods, improved our diets, and given us the moose antler wall motif. They’ve managed to move the fashion paradigm from unrealistic plasticity towards intellectual charm, created the series Girls while at the same time globalizing the cupcake. What’s not to like John? Are you off your meds?”
Perhaps, but every time I enter a hipster business, a personal sense of failure bubbles up inside, probably because I haven’t profited personally from any of this, which leads me to hate the establishment even more. Remember for every American (no matter how long he’s lived abroad) the only thing worse than losing money is losing out on the chance for BIG money.
I also can’t help but think I’m all of a sudden being asked to share Paris with other Americans, a position I’ve always hated, only because it feels too much like those dinners I’m invited to, where I’m told another American will be there, who “I’ll totally love” – which means of course I’ll have to smile through a painful meal being asked moronic questions like “Do you sometimes forget your English like I do?”
But above all, these spots just aren’t as good as the places they’ve copied. Often the burgers buns aren’t as toasted as you them want to be, the wait is waaaaay too long, the drinks aren’t that big, the bagels are a day too hard, the pizza slices aren’t sold as slices, the cheesecake is a bit too dry, and it’s all too fucking expensive! In fact, these Parisian hipster locales are a lot like Luc Besson films, they say they’re American, Harvey Keitel might be in some of them, but they’re financed and created by Euro trash.
And just like much of Besson’s filmography, these are franchises that follow a similar script: see what works in New York, copy, then print. The John Dory oyster bar opens in the Ace Hotel in New York, poof, up pops The Mary Celeste in the Marais. Farm to table restos like Harvest or Blue Ribbon gain traction in Brooklyn, poof, Verjus appears in the first. New York magazines start shelving hard journalism in favor of empty articles filled with not so funny jokes – poof, JvS surfaces at Vanity Fair. The list is endless.
Yet unlike Harry’s Bar or Joe Allen, Paris institutions that never wanted to call attention to themselves, or Haynes’s, the now shingled soul-food American restaurant started by an ex-GI in 1949 (in SoPI!), hipsters always want to make a splash. They’re noisy, even brazen enough to comment on sites like Slate how bad Parisian café coffee is, pushing places like Fragments and Holybelly (Anglo names) that are “revolutionizing coffee in Paris” – as if (and to quote my VF sister Dorothée Parterre) “Paris were just another redneck town like Portland that’s suddenly become “foodie.”
The one thing I’ve learned as a French immigrant is to “surtout pas être un donneur des lecons.” (Don’t be a lesson giver). It’s not only vulgar, it may get your carte de séjour revoked. But therein lies the problem. The hipster doesn’t see himself as an immigrant, nor as a visitor, not even a Mormon evangelist, just a mercenary taking over turf. And the only language a mercenary understands is force, which brings me back to my master plan.
While furiously setting up their hotels and buvettes and bottling their hipster wine with the name SoPI slopped across, never once did anyone in the hipster hierarchy bother to ask the question – who invented SoPI? Who was the Mohammed who made the South of Pigalle the hipster mecca it is? And before I tell you who, just like Melanie Laurent’s character Shoshanna in Inglorious Bastards, I’m locking the exits doors, and shutting the air ducts.
It was me.
I invented SoPI back in 2006, naming it for a friend who wanted to play up the area where he’d just bought a bar. And like any good American, I registered the name, knowing this day would eventually come. No, this not an attempt at blackmail nor will this be handled in a court of law, nor will this eventually result in a bad review on Yelp. Think of it as more a public denunciation in the same vein of Zola’s J’accuse, a cry for justice and an outing of tacky plagiarism, exposing the hipster movement for what it is, not one of vision, but one of second hand knock offs.
And although judgment in the court of opinion has been rendered, I’m not deluded into thinking this battle will be won overnight. The hipster army has proved resilient until now, recently adding Riga to its kingdom of hipster capitals. But with Churchill-esque fortitude, we will prevail. We will fight them at the skateboard stores and at the chained wallet counters and at the press sales. Each day our ranks grow, having recently added Japanese jihadists, upset at all the bento restaurants now opening and a Mexican cartel, sick of eating at “neo-taquerias” with lame tortillas. We’ve even detonated the dirty bombs of hashtag activism with #OccupySOPI and #SoPIfreenotglutenfree that are helping us drive the debate until Pigalle is returned to its rightful owners.
Like any good prophet, though, I won’t be there to see this happen. By the time this speech is aired, I will have moved to a safe site, where I plan to launch a line of authentic Pigalle bars in New York, full of old prostitutes and pimp crooners singing Bourvil’s Le Petit Bal Perdu – catering of course to American hipsters who apparently miss the old Pigalle and its smell of piss and bearded trannies. And like Paris, I’ve already picked out my neighborhood (right near SOHO) and registered the name PiGAL (PrInce and Grand Above Lafayette). There my sleeper cell will sit, like a dormant spider, waiting for the enemy to take the bait. And eight years from now, you’ll hear from me again, when boom goes the dynamite.
Until then, “la lutte” (not the latte) continues. Our fight, dear brothers, and sisters, has just begun.