By its very nature, hip is something ephemeral and ultimately indefinable. Yet you know it when you see it—by the way a place looks and feels. What follows is our list of the 15 hippest neighborhoods in the U.S. and Canada, chosen on the basis of conversations with well-positioned alternative press editors, gallery owners, community organizers, coffee shop clerks, music promoters, art critics, gay activists, club goers, urban planners, cyber-journalists, and advertising honchos, as well as assorted idlers and lingerers. We've also included places that are emerging as hip neighborhoods in each of the 15 cities, because hip is a restless, competitive force that never stays put for long. If a certain corner of the city was the hip place to be five or 10 years ago, you can almost bet that it's not so any longer.
This is, in part, a matter of economics. Artists generally lead the charge, always on the search for space that can be rented cheap. But they want atmosphere too—old buildings, places to walk, maybe a waterfront, and it can't be too far from downtown. Then come the coffee shops, which draw writers and musicians, and the galleries. Gays come next, then young lefties, attracted to the creative energy but also seeking a connection to the folks who've lived there all along: African Americans, Latinos, hoboes, Eastern Europeans. An old tavern in the area begins booking alternative rock bands and offering microbrews on tap. Restaurants pop up, first exotic ethnic eateries taking over abandoned storefronts and then the swanker ones that spend more on interior design than food. At this point, many of the old-time residents are gone due to rising rents. Graphic design firms and architects set up shop, and word goes out that the area's not so hip anymore. But more people keep coming. Starbucks opens. Ten-dollar cigars are on sale at the corner grocery. It's very crowded on Friday and Saturday nights. Lawyers and investment bankers buy condos. The Gap opens. Restaurants offer valet parking. The city council talks about building a sports stadium nearby. Planet Hollywood opens. By now all of the artists have relocated to a nearby industrial zone or working-class neighborhood, where a new gallery/coffee shop/performance space just opened up in an old gas station. And the game starts all over again. . . .
1. Lower Garden District
The reason New Orleans is home to some of the hippest neighborhoods in America is that it’s the least American city in the United States. It's Latin not Anglo-Saxon, sensuous instead of puritanical, with a culture shaped as much by Africa and the Caribbean as by Europe. New Orleans has always been a lodestone for restless folks who have trouble fitting into the Middle American dreamscape. The Lower Garden District, a racially mixed stretch of 19th century streets, is now blossoming with galleries, experimental theatres, and music joints where New Orleans' piquant homegrown aesthetic mingles with cutting-edge influences from around the world.
Soon-to-be-hot: The Faubourg Marigny and Bywater districts, next-door to the French Quarter on the east, attract the city's younger hipsters, lured by the classic "shotgun" cottages and cheaper rents. Parts of the area are still pretty rough, but music is everywhere, spilling onto the sidewalks from clubs like Cafe Brasil and Vaughn's.
2. Inner Mission
In this lively district south of Market Street, Mexican grandmothers on their way to Sunday mass at Mission Dolores pass Web-page designers and bicycle messengers returning from Saturday night raves. Vibrant, messy, and noisy like a Third World capital, this area is home to panhandlers and poets, twenty-something seekers and established immigrant families.
Soon-to-be-hot: Artists and cyberians are trickling into the hard-edged Hunters Point/Bayview area near Candlestick Park. Notorious parties, but auto body shops still outnumber coffee shops.
Only one subway stop from Manhattan, Williamsburg combines accessibility and affordability. Abundant vacant warehouse space first attracted artists here 10 years ago, and since then it has gently inched toward gentrification. But this is no SoHo, with through-the-roof rents and throngs of gallery go-ers. Old Italian and Polish couples still stroll the streets, and resident artists are more likely to show their work across the river.
Soon-to-be-hot: Just south of Williamsburg, Red Hook is poised to become the next hip 'hood as machine shops are retrofitted into studio space. Less convenient than Williamsburg or nearby Park Slope, this area, which doesn't even have a subway stop, seems hundreds of miles from the manufactured fashion-world cool of Gotham City.
4. The Plateau
Two decades of clamor and uncertainty about Quebec's status as a Canadian province may be a drag on Montreal’s economy, but not on the vitality of its culture. Local pride has inspired Montrealers to create a trés hip scene here along Boulevard Saint Laurant and Rue Saint-Denis. Conversation buzzes in several tongues throughout outdoor cafes, cellar restaurants, and galleries in brick rowhouses.
Soon-to-be-hot: A bit farther north, Little Italy draws a crowd that finds the Plateau a little too rich for its taste. There are classic old-world coffee shops with opera on the juke box, of course, but also a dash of Latin and Caribbean spice with salsa clubs and bodegas.
5. College & Clinton
U2 hung out at the Bovine Sex Club in the Queen Street West area, but that was centuries ago on the hip timeline. The scene has shifted to the pricey pool halls and Italian eateries around this intersection, where writers and filmmakers flock. Parking's a big hassle here, which keeps the neighborhood interesting and discourages suburban evening trippers.
Soon-to-be-hot: Walk five minutes west to Kensington Market, a scruffy (at least by Toronto standards) zone anchored by a vegetable and fish market and teeming with secondhand stores. Theater people, along with slackers and runaway teens, live upstairs above the storefronts.
6. Wicker Park
When novelist Nelson Algren moved into rough-and-tumble Wicker Park years ago, it was seen as a sign of perverse cantankerousness from the man who wrote Walk on the Wild Side. Actually it showed a shrewd head for real estate, if only he'd lived long enough to cash in. This area on the near northwest side, long a Polish and Mexican enclave of small brick cottages and storefront shops, now hosts a boggling selection of coffee shops, bars, and restaurants. But rocketing rents have sent some scenemakers packing for the near south side.
Soon-to-be-hot: Pilsen, a Czech settlement, is now a merry mix of white ethnics, Latinos, blacks, visual artists, Asians from nearby Chinatown, and creative newcomers like Frank Aurel, of the cult band Poi Dog Pondering, who has a new recording studio here.
The once-celebrated hip haven, Capitol Hill, is now so upscale that, in the words of one former resident, "You need to dress up to go to the store." So Belltown, at the north end of downtown, has taken over the role of the incubator of artiness. Galleries, restaurants, and bars—including 211, the last rowdy pool hall in town—share the streets with human-scale apartment buildings. The Speakeasy Club stages theater performances, readings, and silent films accompanied by local bands.
Soon-to-be-hot: The Pike/Pine Corridor, Capitol Hill's grittier neighbor, holds less appeal for chain stores and hence features quirky book stores, dance clubs with up-to-the-minute music, and even a playful sex shop called Toys in Babeland.
8. Olde City
At dusk the UPS trucks pull out and pedestrian traffic takes over this warehouse district near the riverfront shared by artists and wholesale dealers. There's a neighborly village feel here; the sculptors are on a first-name basis with coffee shop clerks and loading dock foremen. On occasion, the whole neighborhood has pulled together to fight proposals for corporate-franchised restaurants.
Soon-to-be-hot: More adventurous hipsters have migrated across the freeway to Northern Liberties, a factory zone with huge lofts and old rowhouses that can be had for a song. It can feel a little isolated—there's no grocery store nearby, not to mention a bistro or record shop—but the recent arrival of the Lion Fish coffee shop and the Silk City Club diner foretell the coming of more hip infrastructure.
9. Commercial Drive
Longtime home of lesbians, Italians, and both "Red" and "Green" revolutionaries, The Drive looks, at first, like any other slightly-down-on-its-luck blue-collar neighborhood. But a stroll down the street—which, despite a name that sounds like a freeway frontage road, is actually a classic urban shopping district—turns up Rasta shops, topless bars, old Italian coffee shops, and feminist bookstores. When a new Starbucks outlet opened here, someone scrawled "Die Yuppie Scum" across its front.
Soon-to be-hot: Mt. Pleasant, a more somber quarter of Victorian architecture and loft space, is where the artier crowd hangs its berets.
Once stomping grounds for the famed proto-grunge band, The Replacements (their Let it Be album cover pictured the band on the roof of a classic south Minneapolis two-flat), Whittier and its marginally ritzier neighbor, the Wedge, still bustle with flannel-clad kids, many of them in art school or start-up bands (or both). The City Council member representing Whittier is a regular at the local rock clubs, and a Wedge bowling alley exhibits performance art.
Soon-to-be-hot: Across the Mississippi from downtown, artists and attendant hipsters have descended upon the Northeast neighborhood, a Polish and Ukrainian stronghold. Eastern European culture is holding its own against the advance of the avant, with the under-30 crowd trying to keep up with the over-60s on the dance floor at various polka bars.
11. Los Feliz
In a city defined by the production of cultural commodities, the hip set tend to segregate themselves by industry. The more literary, swanky wing of the film industry mixes it up with writers in Los Feliz, situated just east of Hollywood. Vermont Avenue is the strip where the action is, and predictably it became the location for the super-hipster movie Swingers.
Soon-to-be-hot: Sitting between Los Feliz and downtown, Echo Park is a Chicano neighborhood that’s accommodated Anglo bohos for years without losing its own identity.
An independent township a few miles northwest of downtown, Hamtramck is an island in Detroit. It boasts narrow streets, compact development, and a pedestrian scale—the very things that the Motor City's chief product destroyed nearly everywhere else. Strongly Polish, the town was the seat of Detroit's famous '70s and '80s punk subculture and is still home to a Buddhist temple. The club scene has branched out, embracing other musical styles (although Lili's 21 remains an Iggy Pop shrine), and little coffee shops are popping up everywhere
Soon-to-be-hot: Graphic designers, techno music producers, underground art entrepreneurs, and filmmakers are busy at work behind the rundown facades of old factories in the Lower Woodward Corridor, an emerging hot spot between two European-style squares on the edge of downtown.
13. U District
The recently opened U Street subway stop on the long-delayed Green Line sparked a critical mass of cool restaurants, clubs, and shops in this area near Howard University. In a still mostly segregated city, the U District stands out; young blacks and whites convene at hip-hop shows and go-go clubs.
Soon-to-be-hot: Up the hill from the well-established Adams-Morgan nightlife strip, another multicultural scene is gelling in the middle of a Latin barrio. Mt. Pleasant can't support a full menu of hip commerce yet, but politically progressive kids are starting to frequent its Salvadoran restaurants and old-time dive bars.
14. Davis Square
Out in Somerville, a blue-collar suburb of Boston awash in artistic-energy spillover from Cambridge, something is happening. Two of the 20 young writers in Granta’s fiction issue last year hail from here, and a lively cultural milieu has popped up around Davis Square. With its bookstores, Irish pubs, and adventuresome Somerville Theater, it's an alternative to franchise-filled Harvard Square.
Soon-to-be-hot: Back across the River Charles, Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood is a multicultural melting pot attracting many lefties and lesbians.
15. Lincoln Road
This is one stretch of Miami Beach's Deco District that has not been gobbled up by supermodels and jet setters, although the entertainment industry, including MTV Latino and Barry Diller's new station, is arriving in full force, so it's just a matter of time.
Soon-to-be-hot: Across the causeway in Miami proper lies Buena Vista, which has a reputation for crime (overblown, many say) but also growing numbers of young couples joining Haitian families in the area. A section of old warehouses in the neighborhood is being promoted as the Design District. Stay tuned.
Research: Daniel Kraker, Elizabeth Thompson, Gabrielle Zuckerman.
Image: Infrogmation, licensed under Creative Commons.