Working-Class Cool

Is it “cool” to call yourself “working class”?  Maybe, in bohemia, it always has been, but when I stumbled across two online projects out of Brooklyn, I was intrigued.  What should we think about their use of “working class” as a marker for cool?

Working Class Magazine is a slick online publication that promotes artists and low-to-the-ground lifestyles in the Williamsburg/Greenpoint neighborhoods in Brooklyn. It was started by a group of New York transplants in their twenties, including the managing editor, Megan Martin, who came to New York from San Francisco, where she worked as an editor for an arts magazine and attended journalism school.  After trying to freelance, explained Martin via telephone from her day-job, she “got fed up and decided to start my own magazine.”  Martin admits that her own family background is not working class and the name of the magazine is not related to any explicit “working class” content.  “It seemed very catchy,” she explained.  “Without this name we might not have received the attention we have.” The magazine only just started to receive modest advertising revenues, which Martin hopes to use to compensate Carol King, who currently designs the magazine for free.

Martin, who also works part-time as a bartender, may not see herself as working class, but certainly the creative workers who donate all of their time and a fair amount of their own money to publish Working Class Magazine are not rolling in dough.  The current issue, the “Free Issue,” is a kind of anthem to scrimping.  One article examines things you can get for free on Craigslist, including opened boxes of Tampons and only-just-expired cans of food.  Another article shows, in true DIY fashion, how to rehab a chair found on the street.  The design of the articles is arty, but the information might come in handy if you live in New York on an annual income of under $35,000 without benefits.

That’s the situation that Rebecca Lando found herself in when she decided to start an online TV show, Working Class Foodies, which promotes gourmet eating on a budget.  She and her boyfriend, who both work in the New York film industry, had some connections at Next New Networks, which was adding a food channel, Hungry Nation TV, to its impressive lineup of online TV networks (most notably, $99.00 Music Videos and BarelyPolitical.com).

Lando wanted to be in front of the camera, but her boyfriend wanted to stay behind it, so Lando called up her brother, Max Lando, who was living with their parents in Sarasota, Florida, and had a background in theater.  They filmed the first 24 episodes of Working Class Foodies last fall, and they are now in the middle of their second season.

Working Class Foodies shows viewers how to make delicious, seasonal dishes for as little as $4.00 per person.  They pledge to keep all of the dishes they make under $8.00 per person, but the meal price-tags often go much lower.  In a recent episode Max made bluefish with rosemary, lemon, and garlic, while Rebecca made mussels steamed in beer.  The siblings sometimes engage in playful banter, but the focus is really on the food, and the food they make looks really good.  Also, refreshingly, the Landos cook in a “real” kitchen—a small Brooklyn apartment kitchen to boot.  No marble counter tops or racks with thousands of dollars of cookware here.

The Landos are passionate about local, organic, fresh food.  They told me that the title of their show doesn’t really refer to a historical, blue-collar working class.  Instead, the label “working class” is their shorthand for the project of making delicious food affordable and approachable.  They have taken some flack for the label.  “In one of our first reviews,” Max explained, “they called me out for studying poetry in college, saying that I couldn’t be working class.  But, really, they just missed what we were trying to do.”

Rebecca and Max grew up in Pittsburgh before their family moved to Florida, and they admire the blue-collar history which marks city of their birth.  Interestingly, Pittsburgh is also embracing the kind of food that they prepare:  “Pittsburgh has a bigger slow food movement than New York,” said Rebecca.

It would be easy to dismiss Working Class Magazine and Working Class Foodies as inauthentic, poser projects—the work of a bunch of hipsters using the ironic “cool” of being legitimately downtrodden to market their projects.  But I see something more hopeful and more interesting.

First, I see an opportunity to expand the definition of what it means to be “working class.”  Surely these young, creative workers, who earn low wages and have neither benefits nor job security, have much in common with waitresses, janitors, and retail clerks, despite the difference in education and social status.  As hundreds of thousands of Americans who once thought they were solidly middle class find themselves getting by on much less, why exclude them from the coalition of progressives fighting for better wages, health care, and social services?  As these groups gravitate to the label working class, perhaps some commitment to working-class politics might follow?  It’s worth a try.

Second, these hipsters might have something to offer the rest of us on a budget.  A recent kafuffle over a group of twentysomethings who used foodstamps to shop at Whole Foods suggests that some might resent the mash-up of taste and class. But shouldn’t we promote healthy eating on a budget, instead of ridiculing it?  And is it so wrong to want to be fashionable—even beautiful—when you’re struggling to make ends meet?

In the end, if underpaid urban hip-types want to use the label “working class,” I’m OK with it.  As far as I can tell, they qualify.  Now, if I can just score an invitation to dinner!

Kathy M. Newman

Kathy M. Newman is professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University.  She was involved in the effort to unionize Teaching Assistants at Yale University in the 1990s and she is currently finishing a book, Blacklisted and Bluecollared: How Americans Saw Class in the 1950s.

This entry was posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Working-Class Cool

  1. PR Saunders says:

    “Working Class” does not mean factory workers carrying lunchpails anymore. As the industrial age is now a postscript in our history, workers are about anyone who makes from minimum wage to $115,000@year. You ask what workers make that kind of money, well the few remaining people on railroads (about 120,000 down from 1.5 million in 1966), skilled trades, truck drivers, and others. Of course to make this kind of bread, they have to live on the job 24/7-365 days a year. At one time, workers and small business folks identified with each other because they were in the same boat, and really are in the same boat now. I think calling this publication “Working Class,” is fine. It really tickles me that there is a this effort coming from the younger generation, and it is in the tradition of the working class presses of the past, no support from the establishment, keeping it going with wit and pluck. I am glad that I found it and wish they had an RSS so I could feed it to my blog, “Working Class Blues.” Art has and is still a valuable component of working class expression and protest. In my teaching, I have always included a facet of it in my courses.

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  2. Pingback: OPINION: Working Class – what's in a name? | Working Class Blog

  3. Perk says:

    I agree with Newman that the “Working Class” publication has promised. Class should be about actual income and wealth, but cultural trappings and attitude. It’s especially promising if the writers start talking about regressive tax and corporate subsidies and anemic anti-poverty programs instead of on-the-street survival skills alone.

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  4. Pingback: Manufacture This » Blog Archive » Working, working, working…

  5. Josh says:

    It seems to me like if a goal is to make more people more conscious of class oppression and the unjust distribution of wealth & resources, making sure the term “working class” is reserved for blue collar labor workers is not an important strategy. Instead, gathering concrete compelling facts that clearly demonstrate the unjustness of this distribution and suggesting plausible avenues for rectifying the unjust distribution of wealth (one little push at a time) would be much more effective. We’re all on the same team with regard to the unjust distribution of wealth if we’re reading this blog, it seems to me. No need to fight amongst ourselves when there’s much bigger fish to fry…

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  6. bitchesgetstitches says:

    my favorite paragraph in this post is:

    “First, I see an opportunity to expand the definition of what it means to be “working class.” Surely these young, creative workers, who earn low wages and have neither benefits nor job security, have much in common with waitresses, janitors, and retail clerks, despite the difference in education and social status. As hundreds of thousands of Americans who once thought they were solidly middle class find themselves getting by on much less, why exclude them from the coalition of progressives fighting for better wages, health care, and social services? As these groups gravitate to the label working class, perhaps some commitment to working-class politics might follow? It’s worth a try.”

    i love the optimism of this paragraph and i strongly believe in the usefulness of newman-esk optimism in general, but there is something to be said for keeping the boundaries of an identity semi-permeable. while focusing on commonality can be a great for building coalitions against oppression, the search for commonality can ignore the specificity of experience that may prove to be an unbridgeable gap. there is a definite privilege in being able to move across the country, and choose one’s identity rather than having one imposed on you, a privilege i don’t necessarily believe working class people have.

    i would argue that it takes more than one’s place in the economic pecking order to claim this specific label because it is more than economics that define the working class; there are issues of taste, shared history, educational opportunities, and (lack of) privilege in general that go into belonging to a given class. if these particular people are invested in taking on this identity in a respectful way, they’ll need to work for it. we’ll see how long that lasts.
    (un)fortunately, they’ll have to prove it to actual working class people, not we who have the time to comment on blogs between classes.

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  7. Marx and Engels were both middle-class, but their sympathies were entirely with the working class. I think it depends on how you see class. If you use a racial model, people stay in the class they were born in. But if you use a tribal model, your class is the one you join.

    But “join” means far more than “provide lip service to,” of course.

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  8. Alisa says:

    A really interesting post, Kathy!

    A colleague of mine is the son of an English shipping baron. He’s also one of the more active members of the Fair Labor Action Coalition at my University. Certainly he’s adopted a working-class label for himself, but at what costs to working-class people? In some ways, he reminds me of the subjects for Dick Hebdige’s _The Meaning of Style_ — advocating working-class “style” (by this I mean dressing as those without money might) and thereby obscuring exploitation of the working-class. I find it encouraging that someone of privilege is committed to working-class issues, but I also find it problematic, as when he’s done with FLAC he can still be the son of a shipping baron.

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  9. Mack says:

    The hipsters on foodstamps article is really problematic. For one thing, the idea that low-income people on foodstamps can shop at trader joes/whole foods/farmer’s market’s presupposes that the majority of low-income people have access to such venues. The article only highlights hipsters who live in trendy (i.e. predominantly expensive) urban neighborhoods.

    I also think it’s a reach to suggest using “working class” as a catchy magazine title with little working class content may result in working-class politics, class consciousness, or a deeper understanding of social inequalities (class or otherwise) in our society. I think we also need to interrogate the following: Do the producers of this so called “working-class” knowledge have any connection to the experiences (political, social, economic) of other working-class, working poor, low-income folks? And what does it mean when people who do not self identify or are apart of a particular group membership “speak” for a group explicitly or implicitly? Do working class, working poor, and low-income people have access to these resources? Or are they designed for the hipster, college educated, 20 something crowd (I recognize that these groups are not mutually exclusive)?

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  10. Bennett Steury says:

    I think the economy has changed opinions on what it means to be working class. For so long people have tried to “Keep up with the Jones’ because credit was available and status was important. Now that people are realizing the Jones’ are in bankruptcy court and have lost everything, it’s not so cool to live beyond one’s means.

    Many in the working class have lived frugally out of necessity and have been successful in getting by by the skin of their teeth. I think it’s interesting that the people in this article are bringing this fundamental idea to the mainstream. Maybe if we all lived by the roots we’d appreciate what we have and who we share our lives with more.

    I would like to see these foodies bring real life food into the equation…maybe it’s just me but I grew up working class and never had anything close to steamed mussels on my plate. I’m sure these artsy folks from the magazine could come up with some creative uses for duct tape on a budget too. My dad could’ve written a book…

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  11. Pingback: OPINION: Working Class – what’s in a name? | Working Class

  12. Carla says:

    Funny, I’d just come across Working Class mag and I must admit, was initially turned off. My prejudice against subsidized hipster-types got the best of me. But the openness of your article really turned me around. The working class, as you point out, is quite broad and diverse. It includes manual laborers, intellectuals, artists, foodies, etc. Recognizing that is a good thing.

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  13. James says:

    Aren’t we all kind of working class?

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  14. Ben points to something that’s true: you can be American “middle class” and either working class or petit bourgeoisie. Heck, as people like sports stars illustrate, you can be upper class and working class. Blue collar and white collar used to be clear class markers. It’s more complex now.

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  15. Ben Lariccia says:

    “In one of our first reviews,” Max explained, “they called me out for studying poetry in college, saying that I couldn’t be working class. But, really, they just missed what we were trying to do.”

    I think that Max points to a real problem here–working class has been too narrowly defined. The working class has contributed art, drama, music, prose and POETRY to the nation.

    In Youngstown when I was a kid, many steelworkers identified themselves as middle class. I think these tough times that we are in now may help us see class more clearly than in the recent past. I don’t think that Max and friends in the article are trying to be “cool.” I think they’re up against some very limited budgets.

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  16. Whose definitions are we using? To people who have read Marx, if you don’t own the means of production, you’re working class. A bartender might be an upper class slummer, but odds are they’re working class.

    I encounter a surprising number of people who think class still works like it did in 15th century: you can’t move from the class you’re born into. But today, though that’s true for most people, many people do rise and fall in class terms.

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  17. Jon says:

    This post reminded me of the Community Acupuncture movement. They base their work on a book called “Acupuncture Is Like Noodles” that proposes a working class model for acupuncture. The author tries to differentiate between the values of working class people versus middle class spa consumers of alternative health care. It worked well enough to get me in the door. Incidentally they don’t necessarily mean white working class. Theirs a CA clinic near me that advertises in Spanish and caters to farmworkers and laborers.
    http://www.communityacupuncturenetwork.org/
    I will say that most of the CA people I’ve met might be called urban hipsters, but they seem genuinely interested in the great American taboo, class.

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  18. Paula says:

    I appreciate your giving these folks the benefit of the doubt that they don’t mean to co-opt the term “working class” for the sake of some sort of “cool” cred. But I do find it rather suspect when a group self titles themselves. That said, I agree that eating healthy, fresh food should not be seen as a class issue. It should be available and affordable for everyone.

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    • Kathy Newman says:

      Hi Paula—I thought you’d be interested in these projects since they come out of Brooklyn….and also the Working Class Foodies have had the blogger “Not Eating Out in NY” on their show….anyway, thanks for commenting!

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  19. Kristi says:

    I could not disagree more with the assessment here:

    Surely these young, creative workers, who earn low wages and have neither benefits nor job security, have much in common with waitresses, janitors, and retail clerks, despite the difference in education and social status.

    Perhaps a useful, more contemporary way to define ‘working class’ is ‘one for whom work is compulsory.’

    If you’re living in Brooklyn and doing any of the ‘work’ these designers/writers/editors/food program producers are doing, work — in the real survival sense — is not compulsory. They have *nothing* in common with the working class. It is just an offense to the people who actually are when you co-opt their identity. But why not? You, privileged people, have taken everything else.

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    • Kathy Newman says:

      Dear Kristi: I really appreciate the time you took to reply. Having talked to these artists, however, I can assure you that they are “compelled to work.” They are not independently wealthy and are not being offered the support of their parents. They all have regular jobs in addition to the creative projects they are doing virtually for free. Thanks again for reading and commenting.

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  20. David Shumway says:

    Working-class foodies? Why not. Being working class is not a matter of taste or style, but of one’s role in the economic order. Working class foodies help us to remember that class should not be confused with markers of status, and that the food our parents fed us is not necessarily what is best for us.

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  21. Great article. It reminds me of the folks that get upset when they eat Thai food prepared by folks from Mexico. As Kathy mentioned, this is an opportunity to expand the definition of certain terms. Sure, the folks that have started to use the term working class have social capital of the highly educated, but this could be a new, hybrid version of working class.

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  22. George Calko says:

    As with everything, I think if you have to self-label, you have instantly lost some if not all of the meaning behind what you’re labeling. I feel the same is true for the term ” working class”. You are instantly not “cool”, if you have to tell other people that you are “cool”… The real meaning of the terms we give ourselves comes from some other place, usually from someone far removed from our own diorama.

    So, where do we go from here? Does a white collar worker have a “working class night” when he or she makes dinner from the pantry instead of ordering take out on the way home from the office? Even though that food in the pantry may have been mail ordered from a specialty store? Even the people in the article posted mention the fact that there is no real connection between what they do or report on vs. the American perception of what working class actually is. Comfort food and the slow food movement isn’t restricted to a class. The people mentioned in the article are self-admittedly not “Working Class” they just thought it was catchy and productive to their cause, which was selling adspace to generate ad revenue.

    Just as Olive Garden (not to pick on Olive Garden…) claims to be real and authentic Italian food, these people are claiming to be working class. I cannot say that Olive Garden doesn’t have Italian food, or that it doesn’t taste good, but is it authentic? Is what these people are doing authentic? I find that somewhat disturbing, and it leaves me feeling that when a description no longer acurately fits what it is applied to, it is the description that suffers, not the other way around. If it is truly bohemian, then let it be bohemian… But when every description is homogenized to the point of complete compatibility with all walks and classes, then it no longer serves to accurately work for any of them. It has been watered down to serve less than any of them, even though it sounded good at first.

    I don’t want to put any of these people down, mind you. I am glad to see people return to a more simple method of living, and I believe in what they are doing. Living closer to your means is a discipline that we should all look to incorporating into our lives. But, that doesn’t mean that “working class” is the only class saving money and looking to home for more quality of life.
    Fads come and go, but classes of people are generally here for generations and generations. Whether you are working class or not, whether you are upper class or not, whether or not you have jumped between classes doesn’t matter if you can’t differentiate between them in the first place.

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  23. Eric Kroczek says:

    Nice. I like your optimistic take on the “creative-class” working class as being more than just poseurs, but rather having actual awareness of a white-collar working class identity.

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