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Hipster Apocalypse - children of the upper middle class priced out of Manhattan

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A stoop fights the hipster invasion


They appear on the sidewalks, looking a bit like refugees. They are young upper middle class professionals in expensive urban hipster wear. Today they are standing in the borough of Queens, where they look astounded to find themselves. The girls usually look a bit like Velma from Scooby Doo and the boys’ look they forgot to shave or have breakfast. They seem nice, and when you talk to them, they are nice.

Don't be fooled though, they're ruthless colonists. In their $500 dollar bespoke tennis shoes they represent the first break of a tidal wave of change that is about to hit your neighborhood. Before you can say “organic kale chips in sea salt” there will be hundreds of them. The old corner pizza joint will close and reincarnate as a vegan ice-cream apothecary. Just you wait.

The borough of Queens used to make the professional classes sniff. Even five years ago it was common to hear moneyed white people talk about it as though pronouncing the name could contaminate them. No one goes to Queens they would say, meaning no one white with a trust fund and two accomplished Ivy League parents.

For most of the years I have lived here this was true. On the mental map of upper middle class life next to the legend of Queens were the words Here Be Dragons. The only white people living there, I was told, were fresh off the boat Irish and the people from Eastern European nations that you could hardly say never mind spell.

But something happened in the 1990's and the 2000's that changed the demographic calculus. The gilded reigns of Mayor Giuliani and Mayor Bloomberg have achieved what no one else could; they have finally priced the upper middle class out of Manhattan.

In recent years Manhattan has become a floating island filled with cash, a twenty-four hour playground for the superrich who drive up the rents and property prices for the rest. On every New York City block now they're building doorman fronted glass and steel towers with a starting price of at least a million dollars per floor. You can't move for foreign oligarchs eager to begin their own subtitled chapter of Sex And The City.

Mayor Bloomberg, the beaming billionaire, can barely contain his glee, but as he celebrates the renewal of the city the upper middle class have been doing something they're really not used to, they're watching house prices tip over into the red zone. So welcome to Queens.

How you feel about this, like everything in life, largely depends on where you stand. You could indulge your own schadenfreude and say they had it coming. Or you could look deeper and see some worrying trends. In one sense this endless real estate deal has been the story of New York for centuries, as wave after wave of newly arriving demographic transformed what had gone before.

But in another entirely new way it represents a dangerous precedent. If even the upper middle class are being exiled from the Eden that was Manhattan, where even they can no longer afford the stratospheric rents, how exactly is this progress?

I feel a little sorry for them, when I see them blinking with incredulity on those Queens street corners, where they look genuinely surprised to find themselves after decades of gracious living. You can tell it wasn't a plot development they had anticipated. The light at the end of the tunnel wasn't supposed to be Queensboro Plaza.

Meanwhile Manhattan is doing something it has never done before in its history. It's transforming itself into Caracas. Eye-popping wealth is buying up each city block and driving everyone with less zeroes in their bank balances across the East River and the Hudson.

Once upon a time you needed an army to colonize an island, but now you just need a checkbook. In the future fascinated historians will study this transformative moment, when the world's super rich turned New York City into the world's most expensive lifeboat. But if you're living here right now it's hard not watch the process happen without a deep shiver.

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