Monday, December 31, 2012

Hipsters and the Environment

I first heard the term "hipster" when I was a college freshman in 2001. It referred to the frighteningly composed and catty clique who dressed in clothes reminiscent of mod and listened to The Strokes. They were irrelevant to me, though, because I thought I was a hippie. At that time, I was wearing purple patchwork dresses and trying to reconcile the boarding school kids who dealt weed and followed Phish with my teenage vision of 1960s bohemian California. The people cultivating dreadlocks seemed to find more excitement than I did in their subculture. To me it looked like a nostalgic performance of a long-dead play, about as vital as the Greek tragedies we were reading for conference. I was relieved the following summer when my money order for the Reggae on the River festival came back to me because tickets had sold out.

So, with my lifelong expertise in thrift shopping and the musical knowledge I had gained through the edgy tastes of my older sisters as my passport, I joined the ranks of the hipsters. I had bangs by 2002, when my aunt gave me several garbage bags full of her perfectly preserved early 1980s attire, and in 2003 I fell for a guy who wore black Wrangler jeans and who wrote his senior thesis in French about film semiotics. Riding a bike to impress a different boyfriend in 2005 connected with my desire to participate in the hipster subculture that throbbed through Portland. His favorite sweater, which I had created from a pink-haired friend's castoff dress, was bright red with a white angora lightning bolt. I spent my days at the fabric store where I worked doodling minidresses and planning sewing projects. I still have a good deal of the fabric I purchased with my discount during that year. But I realized that I didn't want to support myself through craft shows. I entered graduate school in 2007 largely because of a nagging sense that I was missing something by staying in Portland, with its amateur artwork on every café wall and hour-long brunch waits. And then, when I moved back to Southern California, the thing that had been missing, my teenage passion for social justice, took over my life. That's what I've been blogging about since 2008.

Make no mistake, though; I still look like a hipster. At least, I think I do. I've heard the term used to describe so many styles now that the only common thread is the contempt the speaker wishes to convey. You use the word to refer to someone you find vapid, superficial, annoying, try-hard. It's because of their hair, or the type of anachronistic shoe they're wearing, or their prattle about David Bowie being underrated. Ugh, hipsters! So easy to dismiss for their pretentious vanity. Just like environmentalists, really, with their endless nagging about recycling and their holier-than-thou attitudes. This really came together in my mind when I started hearing people dismiss bikes as a hipster statement. Like the only reason you would ride a bike is to try and look cool.

Well, that's me, that's how I started bike commuting. And then I kept bike commuting not because I thought I looked cool, but because I felt cool. That changed my life; it mattered less how I looked, and mattered more how I felt. What I did, my routine practices, could make me feel good, and because I have a big ol' social conscience, I started to feel less good when I realized how many ways I was contributing to nasty stuff. Riding a bike put me in touch with ecology, with fair trade, with social justice. I started thinking about where my trash went, how much water I was using to wash clothes, infrastructure, what connects me and the rest of the world. I started noticing the people who were riding bikes because they couldn't afford to drive, not cause they thought they looked cool.

A short while before I left Portland, I saw Gimme Shelter, the Maysles Brothers' documentary about the Rolling Stones circa Altamont. In footage of the festival, I watched a young man on acid contorting his face, trying to master the waves of sensation passing through his body. Emotions flashed across, happiness, confusion, pain, while his hands flexed and unflexed. In the crowd behind him there were many other versions of this kid. Even though I had pored over my mother's 1969 yearbook countless times, and found The Crying of Lot 49 transporting, it had never struck me before that these people were just like me and my friends. They didn't know that their youth would become a set piece for Forrest Gump's personal heartache and a bottomless source of inspiration for mass produced goods. They thought something big was around the corner. In the film they all sit there, looking as cool as they could, waiting for the magic to pour out from the epic performers taking the stage. When the hour struck, during "Under My Thumb," it was not what they expected: a man in a psychedelic suit waved a gun and a knife-wielding Hells Angel, part of the evening's security detail, took him down.

The crime for which people condemn hipsters is detachment, satisfaction with surfaces. But this is what they are themselves reproducing in belittling the efforts of people to make real connections between where things come from and where they go. This is my understanding of the artisanal movement, the DIY lifestyle, the attention to details that make hipsters visually identifiable. Why is it despicable to care about how one's choices affect the world? I think about the incredibly wealthy people who benefit from this underlying class backlash, where things like shopping at Walmart get defended because poor people don't have other options. If you criticize Walmart, you're criticizing the poor. Now that is some effed up BS right there, but that is the strange reality in which we live. Calling out exploitation, trying to refocus attention through more ethical choices, marks us for bullying. Shut up hipster! Who cares where that food came from. You should be glad you have food. They want us to be that crowd at Altamont, distracted by the drugs surging through our veins, passive, until someone loses control and brutality becomes justifiable. But I'm not one of those kids, because I time traveled to the future and I know where their passivity got them: back to the suburbs, chained to their cars, producing new generations of young people who they drive to the Apple store for more white boxes full of experience design.

I do hipster stuff like cutting up old sheets and sewing napkins for friends. It feels good to make things, and finding colorful stripes on a sheet at the Goodwill outlet is a pleasure unto itself. Is that somehow less socially acceptable than going to Target and buying new dishcloths with a recycling symbol printed on them, covered in chemicals and produced by people living under extremely different conditions than I am? Does it make me an awful hipster that I get satisfaction from making a statement with how I live?

A lot of movements are counting on social marketing, the idea that our lemmingness as humans, wanting to show others that we're down with whatever they're into by doing it too, will get us into better, more sustainable practices. The things we buy are supposed to make us good people, because we don't just buy stuff, we take pictures of it and use it to display our identities on Facebook. We might as well be using this tendency to make sustainability seem cool, right? Some of us think that's kind of silly, and actually want to re-make our consumer practices. But would you be able to pick us out of a hipster lineup?

Hipster in Bogotá, Colombia
Hipster with the mayor and the founder of the ciclovía at the first CicLAvia
Hipster at a café in London, where she'd just presented her research at a bike conference
1. I'm a hipster.
2. The word "hipster" doesn't refer to anything solid but is lobbed at any youngish person who demonstrates that they care about something.
3. What appears to be detached hipster behavior could be a lot more grounded in ecological reality than driving an SUV around in the suburbs to buy endless packaged goods imported from overseas.
4. Hate the game, not the player.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Sustainable Transportation is a Civil Right

Whose streets? Our streets.
I biked down to Columbia City on a cold night a few weeks ago to attend a Rainier Valley Greenways meeting. The greenways vision, as I understand it, builds on the older bike boulevard model to make transportation corridors that work well for pedestrians, too. It looks for ways to make small changes that mean biking and walking can be more comfortable for people of all abilities. One of the cool things about the Seattle Neighborhood Greenways movement is that it's been community-based, with local residents collaborating to propose street re-design to the city.

 I've been particularly interested in the effort in Rainier Valley because, as I've heard many times from Seattleites, one of the Rainier Valley zip codes, 98118, is the most diverse in the country. I did some interviews in Rainier Valley earlier this year, finding out what area leaders in communities of color thought about bicycling. From what I heard in those interviews and what I saw in my bike rides, bus rides, and walks around the area, bicycling isn't necessarily seen as an easy way to get around Rainier Valley neighborhoods. In Rainier Beach, for example, I saw less of the commuters that are common on my familiar streets in Capitol Hill, and more of the extremes of poverty and elite leisure cycling. I wondered how this difference would affect a project like greenways, whose success in other neighborhoods seemed to stem from the wisdom of existing cyclists very familiar with the local terrain. At the meeting in November I could see that the greenways folks were making a big effort to do effective community outreach.

I was chatting with an organizer from a different greenways group after the meeting, which made me notice that I kept reducing the effort to bikes. A few times the advocate I was speaking with clarified that he doesn't ride a bike. Maybe he was thinking something like, these bike people, always forgetting the pedestrians. Why do I so often forget that bike issues need to stay grounded in a larger framework of sustainable transportation?

I used to be part of a carfree social world through my everyday life at the LA Eco-Village. Since I moved to Seattle, I've found my most kindred spirits among fellow cyclists, even though I walk and ride the bus as often as I bike up here. I've had occasional twinges over this, because it's made me realize that people have very different ideas about what they're promoting (and to whom) when they advocate for cycling. The other day I had a bigger twinge, more like a full on kneejerk, when I read about an "apartment building designed for bicyclists" being constructed in a redeveloped area in downtown Seattle. I'm pretty sure the people that the developer, and the city government that co-signs money-making projects like this under the aegis of the Urban Infill Moral Imperative, have in mind as future inhabitants of that building are not working families that need affordable housing and transportation.

Because of its growing chic, bicycling is becoming more a symbol of some lifestyle (green, new urban, artisanal) than a mode of transport for the masses. That's why I'm thinking that getting caught up in the bike side of sustainable transportation leaves out some important concerns and undermines our claims that bicycling is for "everyone." If we keep moving in this direction, where developers can use bicycling as a way to sell more condos, it's going to get a lot harder to claim ignorance regarding the disparate effects bike projects have on different communities.

In the mid 1990s, a coalition of groups supporting equity in public transit won a historic case against the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority based on the violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Their claim was that Metro was funneling monies toward rail development and cutting service to bus lines, which had a disparate negative effect on communities of color, who used buses. Personally I don't want to see bike projects come under the same righteous attack. Maybe instead of working to frame our efforts as good for business, we should be supporting bicycling because access to healthy, safe transportation is a civil right.