The good people of Yelp, the app that allows you to review basically every establishment on earth, put out their yearly series of “heat maps” that track establishments associated with certain words: noodles, prix-fixe, and romantic are some of the options. One of the options is “hipster,” which, no surprise, is a word that has increased in frequency over the years in Yelp reviews. Business Insider collected the heat maps Yelp had released from 2010 to 2014 and came to the conclusion that “hipsters have taken over New York City.” They aren’t the only ones: Every year, when Yelp updates the heat maps, blogs point to them as an examples of the shifting face of New York City. And it’s tempting to read the growing red dots of “hipster” as areas of escalating gentrification; there’s definitely some overlap. But actually, what the map proves is the spread of the word “hipster.”
The word “hipster,” unlike the words “noodle” or “pre-fixe,” doesn’t actually have a solid definition. It’s a label that distinguishes you from people who are very like you, but you hope not to be mistaken for. It’s a term that can mean anything from “record collectors” to “obsessive facial hair-scapers” to “a young twenty-something professional who does not live in Murray Hill.” If “basic” means someone that likes the wrong things, “hipster” means someone who consumes the right things but for the wrong reasons. It’s a convenient catch-all term, but it’s become so diluted screening Yelp review for “hipster” reveals little about the evolving shape of neighborhoods, and more about the evolving use of a word.
Consider what happens when you type in “hipster” into Yelp’s search bar with the location “Brooklyn, NY.” Three bars pop up, two of them in Flatbush, not exactly an area known to be teeming with hipsters. And the descriptions are of “indie/hipster music” or a crowd “good hipsters” which, your guess is as good as mine.
Scroll down and there are mentions of bars that are free of “irritating hipsters” and biscuits that “put hipsters to shame.” Hipster is supposed to indicate a vague sense of beliefs attached to a young, creative class, but the inelegance of the term is why it isn’t helpful on the heat maps. The spread of the Yelp red dots to the Upper East Side is pretty much proof of that: However real estate agents swing it, the Upper East Side is not a hip place.
Gentrification is one of the looming forces behind hipster hatred. There’s definitely a connection between the term and the idea of elite, snobbish, white youngsters pushing the old denizens of the neighborhood out. But again, these maps aren’t very helpful in spotting where gentrification is happening. It took until 2014 for Crown Heights to light up on the map, currently one of the most contentious gentrification battlegrounds. And places like Park Slope and the East Village, which were gentrified long ago, light up on the map as hipster havens. When someone uses the word “hipster,” the picture in their head is probably different from yours. We need a better word. We need a better map.