East Austin is a Proust’s madeleine of a neighborhood: picture a zombified resurrection of Brooklyn’s 2000s Peak Hipster moment with a veneer of Instagrammable gloss on top. If an aging millennial cast a spell that encased just under ten square miles of Texas in a bubble made up of his happiest memories, this would be the result.
Williamsburg, NYC circa 2008 was, as the zoomers now say, a whole vibe. Except that the zoomers did not say this, not then, because they were still in diapers. This was a millennial moment: we were still in our twenties then, clad in American Apparel-brand basics made of cotton so thin it was practically transparent, not yet cursed with middle-aged pudge. The millennial infestation was thickest on the ground in gentrifying Brooklyn. Dorm-like apartment complexes resembling stacked shipping containers sprang up there like weeds, anchored by corner cocktail bars with ampersands in their names and pallet furniture on their patios. The whole enterprise was suffused with an ironic white-trash aesthetic, with hipster homesteaders hawking artisanal pickles at pop-up food courts to a nonstop soundtrack of Arcade Fire’s Funeral. It didn’t photograph well, but it also didn’t matter, because smartphones barely existed and Instagram not at all.
I thought this moment was dead and gone, relegated to the memory bin except for those rare occasions when the scent of pickle brine or the sounds of “Wake Up” brought it roaring back on a wave of nostalgia. Last night I dreamt I went to Union Pool again.
And then: East Austin.
The ampersand bars, the pallet furniture, the Edison-bulb string lights that are, by apparent fiat, the only way to illuminate anything. Food trucks serving souped-up tater tots to accompany your $20 bespoke cocktails. The mandate that every person in the zip code be either a) exactly twenty-seven years old or b) trying his damnedest to look like it.
As always, tension rises in the places where an existing urban landscape is suddenly overtaken by invasive strains of twee. Across the street from an industrial garage-turned-yoga studio where two dozen mostly undressed young people moved their bodies in glistening unison, I saw a man in tattered clothing sitting on the sidewalk, rocking furiously and screaming while eating packets of mustard — that’s the packets themselves, sleeve and all — and spitting the chewed-up plastic remnants at anyone who got too close. Members of East Austin’s homeless population seem both baffled and enraged by the culture that has sprung up around them. Imagine trying to sleep in a doorway in a neighborhood made of murals, so that no matter where you bed down for the night, you awake surrounded by Instagram influencers so preoccupied with posing that they don’t even notice they’re standing on your hair.
It all suggests something interesting, maybe even insidious, about the much-discussed “vibe shift” — perhaps vibes don’t shift so much as relocate to whichever city has been designated as the latest stomping ground for a generation in search of its second adolescence. Up go the shipping-container condos, in roll the food trucks and, finally, here come the youths. For the rest of us, there’s nothing to do but chew on plastic condiment packets and wait for the moment to pass.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s July 2022 World edition.