ONE REBEL’S CAUSE: LYON PORTER OF URBAN COWBOY B&B
The term hipster might date back well into the 20th century, but the hipster you and I know (or think we know) today is a resolutely post-Millennium phenomena. I’m not a mind-reader, but I can see you’ve got the image of a 20- or 30-something plaid-clad beardy taking shape behind your eyes; he works in tech but looks like he lives on a ranch surrounded by people who think the internet is a fanciful daydream of science-fiction scriptwriters. He was a barista before he got into startups, but still spends plenty of time hanging out with old pals, supping on single origin roasts filtered through a contraption that Back to the Future’s Doc Emmett Brown would be proud of.
He cares about the provenance of his socks. That are so artisanal they itch like hell to wear, but the wool was hand-collected from fences in the Appalachian Mountains and, as such, the free-roaming sheep didn’t even have to go through the rigmarole of being sheared. The feeling within overpowers the incessant itch. But I’m not a mind-reader. Your materialising spectre of hipsterdom might be one of those who watch macho American sports ironically, preen their mullet, and drink copious amounts of terrible mass-produced Pabst Blue Ribbon. Ironically. Equally, they may have stepped straight off the set of a 1980s John Hughes movie, spend all the money they make from taste-making on Instagram at American Apparel, and look down their noses at you past a lowered set of vintage aviators. Moustaches and fixed-gear bicycles have definitely popped in to your thoughts.
Thing is, everyone wants to call out a hipster for doing hipstery things, but the hipster itself has become so assimilated into contemporary culture that it’s almost impossible to define. This is no skinhead, no mod, punk, hippie, greaser, Teddy Boy, grunger, or metalhead — the 21st century counterculture is an indefinable product of the digital age; where subcultures are born and killed off within weeks. You might well be a hipster yourself, or at least somebody has thought you are. The notion, the name, it conjures negative connotations, yet we all live a little bit of that life. I’m anal about coffee, and craft beer, and my jeans are helluva tight — do I think I’m a hipster? No. Do other people think I’m a hipster? Probably some do. Are some of those who think I am actually hipsters themselves who don’t think they are, but are? Gets tiring, doesn’t it?
Something we can all agree on, is that Brooklyn — Williamsburg more specifically — is ground zero for hipster activity. This whole artisan movement may have kicked off in Portland, and Nathan Barley’s Hoxton may have solidified the normal person’s distrust for folk who work in media, but Brooklyn has carved out its own position in the history of gentrification; its name alone lodging itself firmly in the modern lexicon as a byword for up-and-coming creative communities. The New York borough has rainbow bagels, its corner stores have more variations of soy milk than you thought could exist, kombucha and kale are everywhere, guys in flannel shirts hand-make impractical pre-war things like axes and pocket-watches, and naked troupes of performance artists on the subway don’t even get a second glance from the locals.
Fitting then, that Brooklyn should be home to what has regularly been dubbed the world’s most hipster B&B. ‘We’re certainly not your grandmother’s bed and breakfast’ says its founder Lyon Porter, addressing the stigma attached to those two Bs. An overwhelming application of clashing floral prints, terrible coffee, overcooked eggs, sticky carpets, and coloured bathroom suites; just five of plenty of stereotypes everyone associates with the bed and breakfast. But not here. In Williamsburg. Ground zero for hipster activity. Urban Cowboy B&B is a physical manifestation of the hipster veil. A kind of Disneyfication of the wool socks and their storied provenance, a film-set realisation of the plaid shirts and grubby fingernails. Albeit a very lovely one.
Indeed, its rugged, Americana-inspired interiors (sourced in collaboration with interior designer Renee Mee) have been lauded far and wide, from French Vogue to New York Magazine, The Washington Post and Architectural Digest to just about every design blog on the internet. It is a rustic, lived-in romp through the mythologised America of our fantasies: rough raw woods and free-standing fireplaces, battered leathers, carefully-sourced antiques and native American prints. And an Adirondack cabin in the backyard. But it is, too, the unattainable rugged lifestyle that the Socality Barbie Instagram account so shrewdly mocked. Which delivers us back to the hipster conundrum. What of the ‘cowboy’ behind this precisely realised vision?
‘A rebel? … ’ Lyon Porter takes a long pause when I ask him if he sees himself as a rebel, before continuing in his softly-spoken all-American accent: ‘I guess some people would say that, I suppose the cowboy is seen to be rebellious.’ The cowboy. That brings me to the big question here — why does a top Manhattan-based real estate broker, and former professional hockey (that’s ice-hockey to everyone outside of the States) player, see himself as a cowboy? ‘The cowboy symbolises freedom,’ Porter tells me, which makes sense when you find out where the key inspiration behind Urban Cowboy comes from: a surfing trip to Maderas Village, a laid-back artist-led community resort in Nicaragua. A surf camp that employs somebody with the official job title ‘Ambassador of Vibe’. You get the picture.
Roused by what had been achieved at Maderas Village, the freedom it imbibed in him, Porter set about creating what he calls his ‘dream house’. He aspired to have garage doors that could open up front and back, a cabin out back, and a hot tub — symbols of freedom, symbols that define the Urban Cowboy narrative. The narrative that’s seen a second chapter recently written — the frontier spirit of Williamsburg leading the way to a city full of real life, bona fide cowboys; a city of honky-tonks and dive bars, the Grand Ole Opry and all that is both rootin’ and tootin’. Nashville.
Now, in what is probably the peak 2010s moment of this story so far, Lyon, accompanied by his model turned innkeeper partner Jersey Banks, head out on a road-trip cum photoshoot. A wood-panelled 1989 Jeep Wagoneer towing a 1972 Argosy Airstream and plenty of essentials: ‘whiskey, blankets, fireworks, and cowboy hats’. The good-looking couple stop for social media-ready pitstops, stay the night at a ranch in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and camp ‘with bears’, before rolling into East Nashville, where — as the official story goes — they found an old Victorian mansion ‘as if by providence’ within two hours of landing in Music City. As is the case with everything Urban Cowboy-related, I take this with a pinch of salt.
The Victorian mansion is now an eight-suite (and one rustic cabin, obvs) bed and breakfast, where two shared parlours give musicians, creatives, and bourbon obsessives a place to call home. Porter describes its aesthetic as ‘Southwestern Deco’ — exceedingly more opulent than his lived-in Williamsburg house, here the geometry of Art Deco comes face to face with a hedonistic trippiness that residents of infamous hippie commune Drop City would have been proud of.
Regularly comparing the rolling-with-the-punches nature of hockey to real estate, it’s clear that Lyon Porter has a tough side that counters his Instagram-friendly appeal. He explains his favourite quote is one from former president Calvin Coolidge — ‘persistence and determination are omnipotent’ — and pats himself on the back about having risen from selling $1,500 studios to a $65 million building. Indeed, the press kit for the recently opened Nashville property bills Porter as a ‘NYC Real Estate Broker and Developer guru’, and recites his title as Real Estate’s Rising Star Under 35 — as awarded by both real estate news publication The Real Deal and the New York Times. ‘It’s more important to be able to take a punch than to give a punch,’ he explains in an interview with the former, recounting an old boxing adage.
Lyon Porter’s background and his continuing high-flying career, coupled with the location, aesthetic, and narrative of Urban Cowboy, leaves the Ohio-born entrepreneur as a sitting duck for cynics who might suggest he’s ruthlessly exploiting peak hipsterdom. But there’s a dogged determination beneath that wide-brimmed hat, a confirmation that he feels at peace in the freedom of being a cowboy. ‘It is someone who is not afraid to go their own way,’ he explains when prompted on the definition of an Urban Cowboy, ‘to follow their dreams and to not care what others say or think. It’s all about living your truth and going with your gut.’
Could that be why today’s counterculture is so difficult to define? Is that the truth behind the countless variants of what we outline as ‘hipster’? That maybe there’s just more honesty behind it all than sneering old curmudgeons can imagine? Porter is not shy about the suited-and-booted career behind his free-wheeling cowboy persona. And why should he be? ‘I want to redefine my generation’s idea of what a bed and breakfast can and should be’ he affirms, with that hard-fought determination. From bruising professional sport to dickie bows and power lunches, Wild West-inspired rusticity in Williamsburg to ‘Southwestern Deco’ Nashville (with plenty of Instagram likes in between), this cowboy epitomises the contrariness of our association with the word hipster in 2016. Lyon Porter’s story is littered with contradictions and triumphs, paradoxes and heart-felt honesty. And, one thing is for sure, it is never dull.