Visiting Shoreditch and Whitechapel – juxtaposition incarnate

Last week Noemie and I went into London to Brick Lane.  Brick Lane, one of the central streets of the East End, was once a hub of Jewish life in the city.  Nearby, one finds the oldest operating synagogue in England, Bevis Marks, and there are vestige of Judaism scattered throughout the area.  As you can see in the photo of “Taylor’s Yard,” there are still bits of old signage and Jewish culture.

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Perhaps most fascinating about the less affluent neighborhood is that like many similar places in major cities, it has become a haven for hipsters.  Why, we can ask, has Shoreditch gone from a Bangladeshi area to one with a growing population of tattooed young-adults in pork-pie hats?  Young urbanites are looking for a sense of history and community, but one they can play with and customize infinitely and isn’t too expensive.  Mostly made up of people my generation, the residents of Shoreditch are the children of baby-boomers.  Many of us were raised at the height of consumerism and enjoy juxtaposing decontextualized symbols of pop-culture.  Pop-culture icons of the 80s and 90s are visible on t-shits with absurd quotations.  Andre the Giant, Steve Urkel, and Super Mario are present but usually expressing an ironic nihilism that is foreign to their original milieu.

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The hipster generation, the one that was sold dreams of cushy suburban homes and upward mobility has instead chosen to move back to inner cities, craving what many of our parents sought to flee.  Suburbia exists as a world of boundaries.  One’s home is surrounded by a lawn or fence, and neighbors have to call before coming over.  The family home of the boomer-generation idealizes separate spaces and individualized interests.  Children’s rooms might be decorated in their taste or color corresponding to their gender.

The hipster generation is looking for juxtaposition.  It places together different cultures, styles, and people, packing them densely together in an act of rebellion against the partitioned, suburban style of the baby-boomers.  

BoJack Horseman is perhaps the ideal show to look at to understand the mid-20s to early 40s population.  It is a mix of anthropomorphic animal characters and humans.  Even boundaries between species are not respected.  The lines between reality and fantasy are blurred by alcohol and drugs, under-the-sea adventures, celebrity cameos, and rapid fire pop-culture references.  In a word, juxtaposition.  The plot meanders and sometimes diverts entirely to explain backstory or binge on 2007 music and fashion.  At any moment, there might be several jokes and subtle references happening simultaneously.  If one doesn’t pay close attention, there are connections that could be lost.  Watching the show with my wife Noemie, we took a short break to view a youtube video of an old Pace Picante Salsa commercial, briefly mentioned by one of the cartoon characters.

After walking visiting the pop-up market food stalls of Shoreditch and Whitechapel (we’re back in reality now), Noemie and I accidentally wandered into a communal space reminiscent of a scene out of Mad Max.

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In an empty rubbish yard next to the railroad tracks, the residents of Shoreditch had founded a city.  It is more than a community garden, it is a walled compound with individual gardens for personal use but also several houses, club-houses, and tiny cafe’s built out of rubbish wood.  Naturally curious, I struck up a conversation with one of the purveyors of local cupcakes and espresso.  He explained that the area was a communal space and anyone could bring (or borrow) tools to build a garden or structure of their own, paint, grow vegetables, or start a small business.  So long as they are known and trusted by the residents, anyone can come and play.  A few people even seemed to be living in self-built structures.

The compound was the perfect summary of what the hipster-generation is looking for, a blurring of boundaries.  Each person was entitled to build their own unique project (because each person is a special snowflake) but they are built in close proximity to each other in order to create a sense of community.  One man had chosen to build a scale model of the Hagia Sofia Mosque/Church that doubled as a cafe.

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One point that makes it difficult for communal institutions to adapt to the ‘young-adult’ crowd is failure to understand juxtaposition.  Personal identity for the hipster generation is about the close proximity of dozens, or perhaps hundreds of different components.  In order to understand what is going on, one must be steeped in pop-culture as it evolved over the past thirty or so years.  Moreover, it is important to mix and combine themes, time periods, and realities.  It is perfectly summed up by the centerpiece mural of the community, “Meeting of Styles”

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This is the future.  Extreme juxtaposition.  To quote Mr. Peanut-butter from the critically acclaimed BoJack Horseman series, “what is this, a crossover episode?”  Yes, it is, everything is a crossover episode.  There are many lessons that can be drawn, but best not to appear to eager.  Just retain a sense of ironic detachment and you’ll be fine.

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