Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Why Jozi’s hipsters are good for the economy

This past weekend I took a rather cynical friend of mine to the Market on Main, luring him along with the promise of plenty of hipsters to serve as the objects of his withering scorn. In the end, while there were plenty of bourgeois bohemians or bobos around, I was somewhat disappointed by the absence of hipster goths on bicycle (I’d seen four of them the first time I visited Arts on Main; it was memorable). Nevertheless, as people forked out R30 for lemon, sugar and cinnamon pancakes and R20 for a cupcake-sized quiche, it struck me that this was the kind of urban regeneration I’d been reading about for years.

Back in 2003 I tracked reviews of a book that really intrigued me. Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class claimed that the key to successful cities able to compete in an increasingly globalised, hyper-competitive world, was the ability to attract what he called the “creative class”.

Florida argues that the creative class is the driving force of economic growth as the world shifts away from heavy industry and manufacturing. By this he means workers whose jobs, broadly speaking, involve innovation. Florida defines two main types of creative worker, the “super-creative core”, which includes people directly involved with innovation (science, tech, design, media and so on) and “creative professionals”, who use high levels of knowledge and skill to solve complex problems.

Florida’s arguments have been influential, and many cities have taken them to heart. A lot of his assertions have been disputed — the notion of a “creative class” may be too broad and amorphous to be truly meaningful, and the evidence is not cut and dried — but his ideas are interesting nonetheless. In order to attract this creative class, cities must offer the three Ts: Talent (a pool of skilled, educated workers), Tolerance (of diversity) and Tech (the infrastructure to support entrepreneurial activity).

Tolerance is an intriguing one. Florida contends that there’s a strong correlation between the ability to attract the creative class and a culture of tolerance. So cities with gay-friendly cultures that embrace ethnic diversity and unconventional people — writers, artists, musicians — do better than cities that don’t. Florida even has a “gay index” and a “Bohemian index” to measure this kind of thing. Basically put, hipsters are good for the economy.

They’re certainly good for Joburg, from what I can see. If it weren’t for the hipsters, the regeneration of Braamfontein and parts of the Joburg CBD would not be anywhere near as successful. Developments like the Newtown Cultural Precinct, Arts on Main, Main Street Life, 70 Juta and even Randlords and Kitchener’s are examples of how a willingness to take risks can lead to an injection of cash into a previously neglected area. Life is returning to streets hard hit by the flight to the north and CBD car guards, once distressingly short of cars to guard, now enjoy an embarrassment of riches.

We like to think of the decline of the Joburg CBD as exceptional, but it’s comparable to many cities across the globe. Urban decay, the flight to the suburbs and associated urban sprawl is a story told over and over again. Most suburban Joburgers are firmly entrenched north of the shooter curtain, psychologically speaking, and would never dream of venturing across the Nelson Mandela Bridge. Cities need über-cool risk-taking types who’re looking for urban grit rather than instant lawns in gated estates.

It’s those same arty, unconventional types (who aren’t afraid of parallel parking) who make it possible for developers like Jonathan Liebmann to justify investing more than R100 million in the CBD. Already responsible for Arts on Main and Main Street Life, Liebmann is rolling out further developments in what he calls the Maboneng Precinct. Revolution House, a formerly hijacked building, will house a skateboard park in the basement as well as band rehearsal rooms, film studios and two floors of apartments. There’s also a parking garage in the works, which means that people from Fourways will no longer have an excuse not to head off down the M1 to take a look.

So, yes, while it might be fashionable to be horrible about hipsters, Joburg needs them. The more people in skinny jeans and pretentious T-shirts drinking organic fair trade lattes the better.

  • iqhira

    and here I thought a hipster was a type of jeanpant.

  • PM

    what makes you certain that these particular hipsters are members of the creative class? How do you know that this isn’t simply another example of gentrification?

  • MLH

    Hotline to heaven: Look Ma, I learnt a new word today: ‘hipster’. I read a blog about hipsters. I still have little or no idea what a hipster is, but let’s not clog the stratosphere with that irrelevant little detail. Love.

  • Oscar

    Gentrification? Sounds more like generalisation to me.

  • Hugh

    Could they indicate crumbling urban decay on the way? I recall Hillbrow being populated by these types

  • Hugh

    How about moving away from Gondwanaland ? Google has 272 000 documents with that name

  • Aragorn Eloff

    I agree with PM – the so-called ‘regeneration’ of the inner city, while not altogether a bad thing, brings with it gentrification. A brief look at property price history in Newtown, Braamfontein, etc. shows this.