The Hipsterfication of American Travel

Photo by Liz Allocca, Oyster.com
Photo by Liz Allocca, Oyster.com

It could be any typical Saturday in Brooklyn. My husband and I are at a quirky collectibles shop browsing the goods, which include a jar of clown heads, Pez containers, a ventriloquist’s dummy, and old political pins of Republicans who lost their elections.  A record machine plays 50s doo-wop. A bearded staff member makes friendly small talk, and an artist sitting in a window alcove is painting something colorful that looks like contemporary Pop art. Across the street, a line for a popular barbecue joint snakes down the block. 

But we’re not in Brooklyn; we’re in Dallas, Texas. Specifically, we’re in Deep Ellum, a low-rise district of former brick warehouses that’s characterized by graffiti art, vibrant bars, and breweries -- and a considerable population of hipsters.

Deep Ellum is one of many communities across America hoping to leverage its quirky charm to help to raise its profile. Like Brooklyn before it, its residents hope that it can become a travel destination unto itself—one that’s distinct from Dallas. 

Sean Fitzgerald, President of the Deep Ellum Community Association, describes how local artists designed around 40 different T-shirts promoting not Deep Ellum, Dallas, but Deep Ellum, Texas.

“That kind of fits, because we’re kind of iconoclastic. We are a little bit different than the rest of Dallas,” Fitzgerald says.

Defining Hipster

Some, like Fitzgerald, object to the “hipster” moniker. They associate it with those who are slaves to trends, and only adopt particular lifestyles because it’s, well, the hip thing to do. Scott Williams, Executive Vice President and Chief Creative Officer of Commune Hotels & Resorts  -- parent company to quirky boutique hotel brand Joie de Vivre -- succinctly explains why few hipsters self-identify as such. 

“Hipsters used to be on the fringe; they’re now mainstream, so most people don’t like to be referred to as hipsters or [from] hipster neighborhoods,” he says.

Megan Conway, the Vice President of Communications for Travel Portland, has another definition. “We see hipsters as people who are thoughtful about every aspect of daily life, from clothing to food and music, politics, the environment, community, and more,” she says.

Though “hipster” is undeniably a loaded word, one thing is clear: It is spreading. I think Conway is right in that the term connotes not only a way of dressing, but a way of eating and drinking and living and voting – and, of course, traveling. And Williams is right in that it is going mainstream. The strong reactions the word incites relate to that inherent conflict: How can those who view themselves as on the fringe and trend-defying, also be part of a trend? But it is precisely this embrace of individuality that has become a cultural phenomenon.

Portland, Oregon is a well-known hipster hub that is experiencing tourism growth. Pictured: Clyde Common at the Ace Hotel, Portland.
Portland, Oregon is a well-known hipster hub that is experiencing tourism growth. Pictured: Clyde Common at the Ace Hotel, Portland.

The Hipster Movement

Even though not everyone agrees on the definition of “hipster,” its various components seem to have become pervasive. The movement’s scruffy, retro aesthetic, ironic accessorizing, clever branding, and passionate embrace of craft beer, great coffee, and eco-friendliness have invaded dozens of neighborhoods.

Earlier this year, Gawker published the results of a poll that had asked readers to define the “Williamsburg” of their city, in reference to the uber-trendy and undeniably hipster-centric Brooklyn neighborhood. Everyone seemed to have an answer. The article listed the “Williamsburg” for nearly 100 cities, from Lowertown in St. Paul, Minnesota to Haymarket in Lincoln, Nebraska to Avondale in Birmingham, Alabama.

And just as my husband and I, devoted Brooklynites, fell in love with Deep Ellum, other travelers seem to be embracing these destinations. 

“We find that many visitors want to see the city like locals do – they want to get out into neighborhoods and they love it if they discover an area that is on the rise, but hasn't yet been fully developed,” Conway says.

These up-and-coming neighborhoods could be poised for the type of growth seen in Brooklyn and Portland. Fitzgerald – though he bristles at describing Deep Ellum as “hipster” -- recognizes the neighborhood's potential for expansion. “It’s a really hot time. In a year this neighborhood is going to be completely rocking. At that point I suspect we’ll have 20 or 30 more small businesses,” he says.

Identifying the commonalities between these various destinations could positively impact growth. Fitzgerald thinks like-minded communities might be able to band together.

“One of the things that we’ve talked about doing is finding eight or 10 neighborhoods across the world that have the same sort of feel [as Deep Ellum], that are more organic and genuine and facing gentrification,” he says. “It could be that we kind of cross-promote each other. Drive a stake in the ground that says we’re the kind of neighborhoods that need to survive.” 

Brooklyn and Portland as Case Studies

The Wythe Hotel is one of many new hotels to open in Brooklyn in recent years.
The Wythe Hotel is one of many new hotels to open in Brooklyn in recent years.

Brooklyn has experienced an influx of lodging options over the last few years, including the hip Wythe Hotel (opened in 2012), and McCarren Hotel & Pool (opened the year before). There were 22 new hotel projects planned for Brooklyn as of January 2014, according to Curbed.com, and Brooklyn launched its own tourism website – ExploreBK.com – earlier this year to help accommodate increasing tourism demand.

Things are looking similarly rosy in Portland, Oregon. Conway says the city saw a rise in hotel occupancy rates and average daily hotel rates from 2012 to 2013, as well as in domestic and international travel through Portland International Airport.

“All of these indicators clearly show an increase in trips to Portland,” she says.    

Impact on Hotels

It’s not just tourism boards that are recognizing the appeal of targeting hipsters. One might describe hipsters as individuals who consciously resist the mainstream and the generic, and hotels are increasingly following suit by creating more personalized stays. 

In particular, boutique hotels -- smaller properties that are known for their personalization -- are seeing a rise in popularity. Williams says that the boutique hotel segment is fast developing. “It’s a very large segment that wasn’t out there 15 years ago, or wasn’t legitimized yet. It’s obviously growing at an incredible pace world-wide.”

The Joie de Vivre brand is described on the Commune Hotels website as “quirky, one-of-a-kind hotels with personalities grounded in and reflecting the neighborhoods that surround them.” 

“What we’re noticing with that psychographic, the 'H word,' if you will – we call them creative spirits…They are totally engaged into the act of travel. There is an ironic sensibility to that class of traveler,” he says. “What could be looked at as a hotel that might not be a typical choice is now a preferred choice because of its individuality.”

He cites as an example the Phoenix Hotel, a former motel with a rock-and-roll history that has become a hip crash pad in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. “There’s a wonderful originality to the people who stay there,” he says.  

The Ace chain is known for its quirky hipster decor and amenities.
The Ace chain is known for its quirky hipster decor and amenities.

More and more hotels are opening in edgy, up-and-coming neighborhoods, like the Tenderloin. The Ace Hotels mini chain, among the first to target the hipster market, is known for doing just this.  The London outpost is in Shoreditch, which the Ace Hotel London website dubs “London’s most creative, engaged district,” and the Portland, Oregon outpost is on the edge of the Pearl District, an artsy area formerly occupied by warehouses.

It’s also the amenities that can lend a hotel its distinct personality. Conway notes the Jupiter Hotel’s “Keep Portland Weird” package as an example. It will appeal “to hip, young travelers with offers that include a moustache, glasses, and flannel shirt disguise,” she says. 

The hipster-friendly Hotel San Jose in Austin, Texas offers guests loaner typewriters and instant cameras.
The hipster-friendly Hotel San Jose in Austin, Texas offers guests loaner typewriters and instant cameras.

At the Hotel San Jose in South Congress, Austin, guests can indulge their retro side by borrowing typewriters and Fiji instant film cameras. At every outpost of Ace Hotels, guests can rent rooms with turntables and records.

At all of the aforementioned hotels, original, thoughtful design is paramount. The Portland flagship location of the Ace chain is chock-full of vintage furniture, such as reclaimed school chairs and nightstands made out of books or suitcases. At the Ace in New York, there are funky, one-of-a-kind murals in the rooms and plenty of Americana (a giant American flag, an animal throw blanket) in the lobby.  

Value also often comes into play, as these boutiques want to fit into the budgets of young, creative types. Some locations of the Ace have rooms with shared bathrooms or bunk beds. We’ve also seen more and more pod hotels – properties offering tiny and affordable but trendy living spaces -- opening every year.

Distinct Neighborhood Cultures

When my husband and I landed in Dallas for a wedding, we didn’t really know what to expect. We assumed we’d be able to find good barbecue and a healthy dose of Republicans, but we never expected to find hipsters. 

And even though we felt right at home in Deep Ellum, it would be a mistake to only view it – and other hipster neighborhoods – through the lens of how they compare to their better-known counterparts.

“[Deep Ellum] doesn’t have that ‘hey let’s do what Portland’s doing’ impetus to it. It’s very much us,” Fitzgerald says. “We have such a long history with culture and art. [Our personality] comes from that and not from following national trends.”

Fitzgerald tells me about his favorite bar, which doesn’t have a sign – but he’s quick to note that “it’s not in the cheesy kind of Brooklyn hipster way where you have to go through a refrigerator or something like that.” My husband and I have a favorite bar in Williamsburg that also lacks a sign, and does not involve entering through a refrigerator, but I don’t mention it.

It’s true that Deep Ellum’s vibe is undeniably Texan. Being a hipster in Williamsburg is about as unexpected as breathing, but in Deep Ellum, there’s something more authentically countercultural about it. The residents of Deep Ellum feel the need to advertise their liberalism a little more, like club members sharing a secret handshake.

In the collectibles shop, my husband picks up a framed photo of the first President Bush and his wife. “That’s the one I didn’t hate as much,” the storeowner remarks casually. Near us, two girls are whispering about an upcoming gay rights meeting. A mile west in downtown, I had spotted a flyer proclaiming in all caps, “The sodomites are coming!” The cultural tensions here are more tangible than back home, to say the least.

Deep Ellum, Texas, is one of many up-and-coming "hipster" neighborhoods across the U.S. Photo by Joe Mabel.

Deep Ellum, Texas, is one of many up-and-coming "hipster" neighborhoods across the U.S. Photo by Joe Mabel.

After exiting the shop, we wander down the block and stumble upon a street market with a band. There are artisan pickles for sale, and great coffee. At first, we are reminded of Smorgasburg, a popular Brooklyn food festival. But then we notice that most of the stalls are selling salsa; we’re in the midst of the Dallas Salsa Fest. Earlier, at the neighborhood’s popular barbecue joint, Pecan Lodge, a sign had warned us not to carry unlicensed firearms. Even the name of Deep Ellum is Texan – it’s a southern pronunciation of one of the neighborhood’s main arteries, Elm Street, that stuck.

“It’s a neighborhood that’s got real soul. Originally there were a lot of freed slaves here, and a lot of Jewish mercantile [inhabitants], and other outcasts of southern Dallas society who set up shop here,” Fitzgerald says. “It was this sort of safe zone where races could meet and mix.”

We discovered the neighborhood quite by accident, after a woman on the plane recommended Pecan Lodge as the best barbecue joint in Dallas. But she recommended it with a caveat. (I should probably note that my husband was wearing a blazer and tie, rather than his usual weekend uniform of a beer T-shirt and New Balances, as a result of hopping on the plane straight after work.) We may have given her the wrong impression; she might have taken us for the sort that wouldn’t enjoy rubbing elbows with the bearded and tattooed. 

“Just so you know, the people in Deep Ellum, they’re a little, well—” She looks us up and down, evaluating. “But you said you’re from New York, right?”

“We live in Brooklyn.” 

“Then you probably won’t think anything of it.”

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