The proprietors of In Sheep’s Clothing, a bar in Los Angeles, could deafen me with the arsenal at their disposal. There are the Klipsch Klipschorn loudspeakers with Bob Crites crossovers. There is the Line Magnetic LM218 integrated tube amplifier. As for the Condesa Carmen rotary mixer, don’t get me started. It is as formidable as the restored Garrard 301 turntables with their Auditorium 23 Hommage mats.
Instead, the music is ostentatiously soft in both genre and volume. Patrons are advised by way of signage to keep their chatter below the ambient level. It is tempting to attribute all this to the preciousness of Angelenos, spoilt as they are by a mostly quiet city, with its noise-dispersing amplitude. But then these “listening bars” exist in Barcelona (Curtis Audiophile Café), in London (the Patel brothers’ Brilliant Corners) and, with deeper historic pedigree, in Tokyo. Some people go to them out of devotion to the music itself. Others among us, it has to be said, just want a night out without grievous harm to our ageing ears and vocal cords.
The proliferation of these aural havens might signify nothing at all. Or it might confirm my sense that cities are becoming more hospitable to the middle-aged. In the past, my stately progress towards 40 would be forcing a decision around now: remain an urban creature, and pay a toll in stress, or join the flight to the suburbs and farther afield? As it is, there is not a sliver of a trace of a dilemma. Cities, even in their modish quarters — In Sheep’s Clothing fringes the LA arts district — answer to the wants and needs of mid-life above either youth or dotage.
No doubt, this is Darwinian selection at work. Top-tier cities increasingly price out the young. The old will always be at a disadvantage in them. This leaves the urban realm to those in between: we who earn more or less enough to go out and are still physically capable of doing so. Businesses who fail to accommodate our tastes cannot always fall back on another age cohort. The shuttered nightclubs of Britain attest to that. Their decline is telling as to where consumer power now lies.
If the urban terrain is being re-landscaped in favour of the middle-aged, the work is led by hipsters. And if this seems perverse, it shouldn’t. Their movement has connotations of youth — the name doesn’t help — but these have always belied a fogeyish streak. It is there in the incessant slowing down of things: slow food, slow fashion, slow travel. It is there in the nostalgia and revivalism. Whether in Los Feliz or London Fields, what tends to mark out a hipster enclave is that it is less, not more, intense than a city’s average. And, at least to this bachelor’s eye, family-friendlier too.
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It is on that last score that readers will contest this rosy view of the city as a forty-something’s playground. Had I children to cram into a subdivided Victorian terrace at larcenous rents, the outskirts or the countryside might beckon me. But if sheer expense has complicated parenthood, the ultimate mid-life event, then other urban trends have vastly eased it. The decline of crime in western cities since the early 1990s, perhaps the social policy miracle of our times, has made them safer places in which to rear children. The improved air quality in LA and elsewhere since the age of leaded petrol has done much the same. There is also the phenomenon — patchy, but often stunning where it exists — of urban school improvement, variously attributed to studious immigrants (de rien) and the attractiveness of cities to the best teachers. There is more to the taming of city life than the listening bar.
The trick is to guess where all of this is going to end. There used to be something of a biorhythm to a city: the inflow of young people, their exhausted retreat a decade or two later. I wonder how close we are to exactly the inverse cycle: the young biding their time in the provinces, we urbanites not making way for them until a disgraceful age.
Email Janan at firstname.lastname@example.org