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Coffee shops. Yoga studios. Brunch spots. Art galleries.
Try as they might, these businesses can’t shake the rep that they’re the four horsemen of gentrification. Especially in Los Angeles, new cafes and galleries have become ground zero for gentrification protests. But the people who live in these changing neighborhoods, or study them, have linked another kind of business to gentrification — the vintage clothing store. And by vintage, they don’t mean Goodwill, but the boutique stores where secondhand clothing is “curated” rather than collected.
Laira Martin, a journalist who lives in LA’s hip Silver Lake neighborhood, knows both varieties of resale shop well, but she didn’t always like buying used clothing.
“When I was younger, we went to thrift stores and Goodwill out of necessity,” says Martin, 25. Because she was bused to magnet schools across town with classmates who could afford to shop anywhere, growing up poor in a pre-gentrified Silver Lake made her self-conscious, a feeling her secondhand clothes intensified. But beginning in middle school, she noticed that her well-off peers were regularly visiting vintage stores. Her classmates’ interest in the shops she had no choice but to patronize made her rethink her stance on thrifting.
“I started to turn a page,” she says. “I realized you can find great things at vintage shops. You don’t just shop there because you’re lower class and don’t have money.”
For most of Martin’s life, Silver Lake has been gentrifying, a term Rachel Meltzer, a professor of urban policy at the New School in New York, says is often overused. She describes gentrification as follows: “If you look back at the historical definition, it literally meant to capture this idea that the gentry, those of the professional class, were moving into neighborhoods with working-class and poor households.”
She adds that the newcomers tend to be whiter with more discretionary income than the incumbents. “They can sit and have a $4 cup of coffee and sustain that,” Meltzer says.
Accordingly, businesses move into gentrified neighborhoods to make a profit.
Now that most of Silver Lake has gentrified, Martin has the option of shopping at her childhood haunts — the Goodwill on Hollywood Boulevard and Out of the Closet on Sunset Boulevard — or at chic newcomers like Flounce Vintage, near the hot brunch spot Sqirl. All over LA’s Eastside, which has seen several areas gentrify this century, vintage stores have sprung up, with more than a half dozen in hip neighborhoods like Highland Park and Echo Park. But it’s not a phenomenon unique to Los Angeles or even to the United States. British scholars such as Philip Hubbard, professor of urban studies at King’s College London, have written about the link between gentrification and vintage stores globally. He discusses the connection in his 2016 paper “Hipsters on Our High Streets: Consuming the Gentrification Frontier.” Another King’s College professor, Andrew Brooks, tackles the issue in his 2015 book Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-Hand Clothes.
So, why do vintage clothing stores and gentrification often intersect? Hubbard points the finger at hipster sensibilities.
“Hipsters shun mass-produced goods in search of the one-off, and wearing vintage clothes — even if they are actually mass produced — still marks them off as rejecting current tendencies towards ‘disposable fashion,’” Hubbard says. “It is of course about a certain display of style, and their ability to recycle upscale goods and styles abandoned by the consumer masses.”
Young and educated with with widely mocked tastes — craft beer, beards, brunch — hipsters have been linked to gentrification because they often move into urban enclaves from the outskirts of cities. They may enjoy the amenities that cities offer, finding the suburbs they grew up in too sanitized for their liking. New to the workforce, many are unable to afford housing in posher areas or want to avoid long commutes from the suburbs. Because they are young, hipsters aren’t usually rich but tend to be upwardly mobile, with jobs that place them on stronger financial footing than the longtime residents of gentrified areas. Even those who struggle typically have access to financial support networks via their middle- or upper-class families that inner-city residents have traditionally lacked.
Hubbard says that because hipsterism is a global trend, so are clusters of vintage shops in gentrified areas. He’s seen the shops in parts of London, Stockholm, Berlin, and Sydney.
“That’s the contradiction here,” he says. “Relatively affluent, creative young people want to search out the distinctive and the one-off but tend to gravitate towards the same kind of spaces — vinyl shops, vintage shops, boutiques, barista coffee shops. So there is a common ‘global’ idea of what is stylish and local, which tends to be the same everywhere, but does shift over time.”
Martin says that both the stylish vintage upstarts and their older, less glam counterparts have their benefits. It takes her longer to shop somewhere like Goodwill, but she enjoys the hunt.
“You have to sift through piles and piles of stuff,” she says. “That’s the fun; that’s what makes it enjoyable. When you go to a vintage store, every piece in there is curated. Somebody has done the sifting through. It’s the best of the best. If you go to a Goodwill you might spend 40 minutes there and pay $5, or you can go to a vintage store and spend five minutes and pay $50.”
Overall, Martin prefers the Goodwills of the secondhand clothing world to the boutique shops, unless she’s looking for something very particular. While she acknowledges the advantages of both, the boutique variety is sometimes pitted against the traditional model. In a 2013 article called “10 Signs Your Neighborhood Is Becoming Gentrified,” Complex listed replacement of a Goodwill or Salvation Army by a vintage clothing store as the No. 7 sign a place is gentrifying.
Hubbard says that hipsters frequent both “charity” stores and vintage clothing shops that acquire inventory from a range of suppliers, including faux vintage and boutique brands. The second type of store, however, may signal the arrival of gentrification.
“Vintage shops are mainly established by people who have dropped out of creative work or whose partner is in the creative industries in some way,” he says. “They tend to target similar consumers and if they take off, it tends to indicate the beginnings of gentrification. But some fail to gain sufficient footfall, as they are in the wrong place. One vintage shop in a town probably isn’t enough to discourse it as hip and happening; you usually need a little econology of coffee shops, a gallery, a microbrewery, some boutiques, to create a ‘buzz.’”
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The paradox is that even these businesses, identified as harbingers of gentrification, sometimes fall victim to gentrification themselves. When Elluments, a boutique vintage shop in Dallas, closed last year, the owner blamed it on gentrification. “After months of negotiation, we’ve been priced out of our space,” Felicia Dunnican stated in a Facebook post.
Meltzer says it’s not uncommon for landlords in gentrifying neighborhoods to dramatically raise rents, but some, particularly private landlords, take a more aggressive approach than others. Tenants with longer leases, of course, have the most protection against gentrification.
“It’s not unusual for a commercial tenant to have a 10-year lease and that keeps them safe,” she says.
Before it closed, Ellumens offered cheap duds, designer vintage, and $5,000 furs unlikely to be found at the local Salvation Army. And Dunnican, who studied at the the Art Institute of Dallas, fits Hubbard’s profile of the creative-turned-vintage store owner. In fact, Dunnican received pushback for blaming gentrification on her shop’s demise. “It’s funny to see a vintage clothing store talk about gentrification,” critics of her Facebook post quipped.
Dunnican did not respond to Racked’s request for comment. For nearly five years, her brick-and-mortar shop had been in Dallas’s Deep Ellum neighborhood, a historic district that had been on the wane but is now home to an assortment of brewpubs, cocktail bars, and art galleries. But not all vintage shops launch in tandem with gentrification of a community. Owl Talk in LA’s Eagle Rock neighborhood is a case in point. It opened in 1994, when the area had more auto and barber shops than bistros, bars, and breweries. When Barack Obama attended Occidental College there in the 1980s, he frequented one of the handful of eateries there then, Casa Bianca Pizza Pie, which was established in 1955 and to this day accepts cash only. By the early 2000s, hipsters priced out of places like Silver Lake and Los Feliz began moving to Eagle Rock, prompting the Los Angeles Times Magazine to publish a gentrification feature about the community in 2001.
Owl Talk co-owner Sharon Kroner says that she and her sister, Kathleen Kroner, settled on the neighborhood by happenstance. Kathleen, she recalls, was dating a local clothing store owner in Eagle Rock, so they decided to follow suit. The cheap rent didn’t hurt either.
She says they didn’t know what to make of the neighborhood initially. In the mid-’90s her sister was even robbed by two youths, Kroner remembers. But they never considered it a bad neighborhood, simply a lonely one because there weren’t many businesses around. By the 2000s that changed, as did their clientele.
“It does bring more foot traffic,” she says of gentrification. “But the bad thing was the higher rents.”
While their early customers tended to be struggling, unmarried creatives — artists, musicians, students — she says Owl Talk now gets quite a bit of patronage from people who are solidly middle class and up.
“A lot of people are more family-oriented because the schools are good,” she says. “You get a lot more moms. They’re friendly but they’re definitely not as laid-back. It’s like the Westside came to the Eastside.”
Historically, the Westside of Los Angeles has been largely affluent and white, while the Eastside has been more racially diverse and working class.
Kroner says she has noticed the trend of hip, and often minimalist, vintage stores moving into gentrified areas, like nearby Highland Park. But she says Owl Talk, where items range from a few bucks to several hundred dollars, offers competitive prices. She and her sister also use Facebook, Etsy, and their store’s website to reach customers. They sell products online to attract clientele who can’t make it to their shop in person. A 2015 writeup in Vogue has also raised Owl Talk’s profile. Since trends come and go, Kroner says, “We always look to different things because fashion changes. Retail is still up in the air.”
Kroner has seen a number of businesses open and close during her 24 years as an entrepreneur in Eagle Rock. But one establishment on the outskirts of the neighborhood has been in operation for decades despite not being particularly chic or trendy — the Goodwill on Colorado Boulevard. Hubbard says that while some people dislike such charity shops, believing they lower rents, they’re beneficial because they serve the entire community.
“There is some evidence that they fulfil a range of useful functions,” he says. “They are ‘connective’ forms of retail as far as I can see in the sense that volunteers from different walks of life will work alongside one another in these spaces. They are quite inclusive in sense that the more affluent can visit them looking for one-off goods or clothes, but they are also affordable for the very poor. So I think thrift stores are part of the mix of shops needed to sustain a Main Street that caters for the many, not the few, and I’d encourage more people searching for vintage goods to visit them.”