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Living In Portland

Mapping local hipness: Where, why, what cost?

Where is Portland’s Williamsburg (that oft-derided, Brooklyn epicenter of all things hipster)?
According to Gawker, the mother-of-all-snark and piling-on websites, our own little Williamsburgs are “Munjoy Hill, West End, East End, Biddeford (tie).” (Before we go too far, let’s note that each of the locales received one vote in a Gawker reader's survey. A scientific poll, it ain’t. Click bait it is.)
Despite the vacuity of the “data,” the heavily trafficked Gawker poll does raise interesting questions about what makes a hip neighborhood hip (and therefore desirable for many) and what it means for the evolution of these neighborhoods.

Just what is a ‘Williamsburg’?

Let’s take a moment to look at the city in question. For those not up on their hipness geography, Williamsburg is a Brooklyn neighborhood that has been dramatically gentrified following the rezoning of the area for more residential development.
During the process, Williamsburg has become a lightning rod for all things trending, the good and the bad – cue fawning (tongue-in-cheek, one hopes) New York Times profiles about urban bee keepers, artisanal bakeries, facial hair, cat cafés, and status baby strollers. (For an example of a hipster NYT feature: "How I Became a Hipster." For a 
New York Magazine piece on the NYT’s obsession.)
During its transformation, Williamsburg has developed a reputation as a destination for people seeking an eclectic, engaging and, at one time, affordable NYC neighborhood. The current state of Williamsburg’s core is the subject of a spirited ongoing debate. The transformation has been celebrated and derided in myriad media crevices.
In short, Williamsburg has become handcuffed to “hip,” a word with an etymology lost in the mists of time. The common historic denominator is a relationship to jazz. A definition from a website devoted to Cab Calloway serves as well as any, despite the gender specificity. It defines "hep" as a "a guy who knows all the answers, understands jive." For more insight see the "jive" entry.

How does Portland fit in?

So, what makes a hip neighborhood, and how do the East and West ends fit in? (Munjoy Hill and the East End are the same, and because this site is Portland-centric we will leave Biddeford out of the equation.) 
Below is a checklist of attributes that both neighborhoods possess (or are in close proxity to). Many of the other Gawker neighborhoods in the poll share these traits. Common features include:
  • Walkability. Since being seen as hip is part of being hip, one needs to be seen, which is difficult in a car, and the need for close proximity to cool stuff is a given.
  • Bikeability. See above. Bike shops that specialize in fixed-gear bikes are a plus.
  • An interesting residential mix. In Portland, for starters, this means crumbling triple deckers, spruced-up triple deckers, gleaming new condos and apartments, brick mansions carved up into condos and apartments, single-family New Englanders–all of this crammed together in dense neighborhoods.
  • Independent coffee shops.
  • Interesting restaurants. 
  • Breweries.
  • More breweries.
  • Bars with "signature” cocktails.
  • Divish bars serving PBR for fashionable slumming.
  • Shops selling LPs and other analog artifacts – Polaroid film, etc. The more unconventional the shops the better.
  • Music venues featuring a wide range of genres. For Portland that means: Acadian fiddlers, Burundi drummers, bands with names like Big Meat Hammer
  • Art galleries, with a wide range of work.
  • Art school/art students.
  • Concentrated, lovely weirdness. Strange Maine. The Cryptozoology Museum.
The list could go on. You get the point. The East and West ends are embedded in an urban downtown that offers much in the realm of the unconventional and interesting, all peppered with a broad swath of drinking and eating locales. It all adds up to a desirable place for many people–whether framed as hipsters or not.

In transition

At the heart of the concept of “Williamsburg” is the transition of a neighborhood–from "discovery" by urban pioneers (yes, that's a real term) to gentrification. Portland’s East and West ends are clearly in a transitional state.
Not too long ago, Munjoy Hill conjured up a gritty neighborhood with a decaying housing stock. It was decidedly blue-collar. For those who say such things it was certainly “authentic” and very “real.” (Author’s note: I enjoyed living on the Hill in the 80s, when it was very “real,” indeed. The highlight of my stay was watching a forensics team trace bullet paths after a police shooting in the first floor apartment of my building.)
And, on the West End, the most visible businesses in Longfellow Square were a fading Greek Restaurant, a commercial laundry, and an adult bookstore, which survives next to a cluster of some of Portland’s hippest restaurants.
Times have certainly changed. Restaurants now clot the top of the hill, and high-end apartments and condos are being squeezed into the few remaining spaces, one even being built on stilts to take advantage of a challenging lot. We are in the midst of a building boom.
For an anecdotal look at the current influx of people attracted to Portland, attend a 2 Degrees Portland event and ask ten people where they are from and why they chose Portland. You will hear from a lot of NYC and Boston transplants. Their reasons for relocating, including jobs and romances, will inevitably include a number of items in the checklist above.

The downside

However, while influx brings new blood and invaluable energy to the city, there are downsides. Interest equals housing pressure, which equals higher rents.
The casualties of this gentrification are the residents who can no longer afford to live in the area, and may include the very people who helped make the neighborhoods what they are. The displaced may include artists who lose studios or musicians who lose practice space, as former industrial spaces are consumed by redevelopment and razed or turned into condos.
Inevitably, the cycle will repeat itself elsewhere in the city, and is likely underway, hence the growth of Biddeford and the emergence of studios in Westbrook as artists are pushed out off the peninsula because of increasing real estate costs. 
The questions are where will the next pockets of coolness be in Greater Portland? Ferry Village, Deering Center, Westbrook? 
And finally, is the gentrification a good thing? What ends up getting lost? (For example, consider the loss of NYC's  5 Pointz graffiti building to develpment.)
Let us know. We welcome your take on the city’s evolution.


The photographs are by Corey Templeton. See more of Templeton's work or visit his Portland Daily Photo site.

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