Urgent New York Times Trend News: Middle-Aged White People Have Jobs, Move Out of the City
The Sunday Styles section of the New York Times exists to make folks mad, to be sure (and to sell handbag ads), but it is not really worth getting mad about this past weekend's paired section-front irritants—a profile of BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith, and a trend piece about people forsaking Brooklyn to hipsterize towns in the Hudson Valley—at least not at face value. Each hits the obvious flabbergasting or infuriating notes as it is designed to: OMG LOL BuzzFeed b/w Aren't Hipsters Awful. As far as the intentional content goes, there's nothing to do but roll one's eyes and move on. Let's go ahead and do that, shall we? First BuzzFeedBen:
"‘Thirty-three Animals Who Are Disappointed in You' is a work of literature," Mr. Smith said defiantly, referring to an April Buzzfeed post that has so far received 2.5 million views. "I'm totally not joking." The author of the piece "spent like 15 hours finding images of animals that would express the particular palette of human emotion he was going for and wrote really witty captions for them," he added. "And that in some ways is harder and more competitive than, say, political reporting."
*Rolls eyes.* (Although, honestly, this is correct analysis. More thought does go into a half-decent animal slideshow than into any Jim VandeHei/John Harris production.) And but now the people moving from Brooklyn to "hipsturbia" ("hipster" + "suburbia"):
He wears his hair in a top bun and bears tattoos with his sons' names, Denim and Bowie, on his forearms.
*Rolllllllllls eyes.* OK! Now. What really underlies and unifies these two pieces is a telling, unexamined conceptual error on the part of the Times. It is the same thing that leads the paper to treat such well-established forms of human behavior as having children and writing about it or getting rich and hiring a decorator as novel phenomena—a weird, pervasive denial that young people turn, at a steady and predictable rate, into adult people, and even into middle-aged ones.
Again and again, the Times keeps asking the reader to be surprised by something that is not a surprise at all on its merits. So here the Times offers up Ben Smith, "the Boy Wonder of Buzzfeed." Ben Smith is a married, 36-year-old father, who after performing well in a series of journalism jobs for more than a decade has become the editor-in-chief of a fairly new publication. Less a disclosure than a statement of fact: I used to work with Smith at the New York Observer. He was diligent, productive, talented, perfectly pleasant, and ambitious. Why wouldn't (let alone shouldn't) he be successful by now?
Particularly, why does the headline writer suppose there's something unusual about his age? Plenty of people have been editors in chief in their 30s, especially at publications that aren't clogged up with a lot of seniority. Harold Hayes was 37 when he took over Esquire. Harold Ross was 32 when he started the New Yorker. Henry Luce, a genuine boy wonder, founded Time at 24.
Gradually descending from journalism's Mount Olympus or Mount Rushmore, David Remnick and Anna Wintour were both under 40 when they took their current jobs. Janice Min became editor in chief of Us Weekly at 33; Josh Tyrangiel was 37 when Blooomberg chose him for BusinessWeek; Jon Meacham was 37 when he took over Newsweek; Arial Foxman got Cargo at 30.
(John Cook, the new editor-in-chief of Gawker.com, which is like BuzzFeed a native online publication, is 39.)
Nor does Ben Smith have any of the affectations commonly identified with "youth"—an unusual hairstyle, a flamboyant substance-abuse habit, colorful athletic shoes, and so on. If he did, those things still would not actually make him young, but he does not even try. He is a grownup who has a grownup job. Take away the false implication of precociousness, and what's left is the news that BuzzFeed exists, and that someone has to run it. You might think that the Times, busily purging its employees over age 50 to save money, would be more comfortable with the notion that people in their 30s can do things.
That same confusion about age and status is behind the "Creating Hipsturbia" story. People who have been living in Brooklyn are now moving up the Hudson ... why? Here's why:
The couple had enrolled their oldest son into the gifted and talented kindergarten program in the local public school, but they were disappointed by the school's overcrowding, unruly students and bureaucracy.
Not wanting to shoulder $20,000 a year or more for private schools, the suburbs seemed like the best option, she said.
Trend alert: These people in their 30s are heading for commuter suburbs because they are looking for better schools for their children. Also they have found that they are able to afford more living space outside the city than they can afford in the city.
(Intermission! Giorgio Armani has a tight, squared-off handbag in what looks like crocodile. Ralph Lauren has a big sloppy handbag in blue leather. Bottega Veneta has a woven handbag with a sort of sinister fringe around the top. Louis Vuitton has checkered handbags of yellow and white or tan and white or black and white. Coach has a $258 handbag, with tassels, slung right over the model's crotch. Now back to the non-handbag content.)
Why are they seeking better schools and more living space? They are doing this because they are in their 30s and have children. Same reason generations of people born in Queens made their way further out onto Long Island. But these people, and Sunday Styles, believe they are doing this in a different cultural register. They are moving to "culturally attuned, sprawl-free New York river towns" with "bearded mixologists, locavore restaurants and antler-laden boutiques." Here's a 36-year-old acupuncturist:
"When we checked towns out," Ms. Miziolek recalled, "I saw some moms out in Hastings with their kids with tattoos. A little glimmer of Williamsburg!"
Let's assume this is just ambiguous punctuation, and the children are not the ones with tattoos. So we have tattooed mothers, out in public. Just like Williamsburg, or Orlando, or Duluth. Tattoos are ordinary and conventional things, in this country and this time. There is no contradiction between being the kind of person who wears tattoos—or grows a beard, or drinks artisanal cocktails—and being the kind of person who moves away from the city for middle- or upper-middle-class comforts.
If you plucked a young white-flight family out of the '70s and dropped them into Hastings-on-Hudson today, the father would throw away his Norelco forthwith and the mother would start making gin infused with the lawn clippings, because that's what adults do aspirationally now. The reason that the Times finds "Dutch-style bicycles" and "monofloral honey" and gluten-free red-velvet cupcakes available on Main Street is that it is currently possible, or at least seems possible, to support a commercial lease in a Hudson Valley commuter town by selling those things to the kind of people who live there. Is there vinyasa yoga available now in Hastings-on-Hudson, as the lead announces? Wonderful. It's catching up to Omaha.
Or, if you turn it the other way, it captures a certain magical-thinking overemphasis among Brooklyn dwellers on the question of by which bridge or tunnel one happens to enter Manhattan. But. Humor the Brooklyn side, in this case.
The current ex-Brooklynites portray themselves as fleeing their old borough's high costs, rather than escaping crime and danger. But even in the bleakest days of American urban decline, white flight always considered itself a flight toward something. The antidote to muggers is the antidote to bankers who buy lofts with cash: space and distance. And the result—"the relative lack of racial diversity," as the Times puts it, delicately and low in the story—hasn't changed much either. Who is moving to the suburbs? The same folks who have always been moving there.