Karen Heller: Philadelphia: It may not be all hip, but it's interesting

Mica in Chestnut Hill.
Mica in Chestnut Hill. (David M Warren)
Posted: January 24, 2013

Many years ago, my sister moved to Portland, Ore., when it was merely a rainy city with low rents. It was not remotely hip. There were bars on many corners where old men drank their breakfast.

Now, Portland has become insistently hip. Those bars are yoga studios. There are guys in beards and women with bangs in vintage clothing. They're all doing do-it-yourself stuff.

We know this because almost daily there's an article telling us Portland is hip. There's the IFC series Portlandia. The city is famous for craft beer and fair-trade coffee roasters.

You would drink a lot of beer and coffee, too, if it rained all the time and the sun was as rare as a blue moon. Also, Portland's idea of diversity is that some hipsters have beards and others do not.

Brooklyn is also considered an epicenter of hip, particularly the Williamsburg section, though rents are triple the mortgages of most Philadelphia homeowners, and that's after being split among enough roommates to field a baseball team. We know Brooklyn is hip from HBO's Girls, though a young Philly friend told me: "The girls on Girls are not remotely hip. They're crazy rich white people without jobs."

Progress: Having a job is actually hip. But can a city of Mummers with a calcified political machine and the Rocky statue be hip?

"What makes me want to live in a city is a thriving, creative energy, and enough people making music and making art doing interesting things," said Jayme Guokas, 37, a carpenter and furniture-worker who has his own company, Craftwork, and also plays in a band. For seven years, he's lived in East Kensington, "where we have a good sense of community, it's really inexpensive and relatively safe. I feel like people are making efforts to revitalize neighborhoods."

Tom Fitzgerald is half of the "fabulous and opinionated gay couple" Tom and Lorenzo (Marquez), who operate an eponymous website that attracts 300,000 daily visitors. "I would never call Philadelphia fabulous," said Fitzgerald, 45, "but I do think it's evolving. There's an energy that comes from a thriving arts scene that's becoming broader and deeper."

During the last decade, the city added 50,000 residents between the ages of 20 and 34, many of them in Fishtown and East Kensington and parts of West and South Philadelphia, helping to expand the city's core.

The other day, I heard that Germantown was becoming hip. Chestnut Hill, too. This is ridiculous. Chestnut Hill has a store called Hipster Home. This does not make it hip.

"I think it's certainly vibrant and a great place for young people to live," said Mike Kaiser, 26, community outreach director of Generocity.org, an information portal connecting area nonprofit organizations. He's also a board member of Young Involved Philadelphia, an organization that wouldn't have existed a decade ago because, frankly, we didn't have enough people who were both young and involved.

While growing up in the Northeast - not declared hip yet, but who knows? - Kaiser said, "Philly felt so quiet and dead. Now this feels like the right city. It's really interesting and refreshing."

In 2006, Luke Butler came here for graduate school. He moved from London, terminally cool but ineffably expensive. At age 29, he is now chief of staff for the deputy mayor for economic development, courting technology start-ups and entrepreneurs to move to the city. He said, "Companies can't attract young talent in the suburbs." He loves it here. He tweets as phillyluke.

What makes our city more interesting? Young people, affordable and good restaurants, interesting neighborhoods, new businesses, growing art and music scenes, bike lanes. Like Portland, great craft beer and independent coffeehouses. And we have sun. We have no television show celebrating our burgeoning hipster status - no Philadelphia-IA - but there's always time.

Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter at @kheller.

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