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Why Is San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee at Hipstamatic's House Party?

Hipstamatic as an app may or may not work, but as an old-fashioned clubhouse, its influence is growing.

Sarah Rice

On a recent evening, the founders of photo-editing app Hipstamatic had a gala at what they call the “Haus,” and San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee came by to check it out.

Photographers and developers ate hors d’oeuvres downstairs alongside a photo show (the gala benefitted a photography foundation) and made s’mores upstairs on the roof deck.

“I’m here exploring,” the mayor said, eyes wide as he gazed around the chic brick building in the city’s SoMa neighborhood where a grand total of six employees spend their days typing away. “Trying to find my artistic side and my youth.”

As Hipstamatic’s technological power may wane (it was one of the first to take iPhone photography seriously, but has been eclipsed by Instagram), the app and its headquarters have become something unusual: A community center for local photographers, a party pad, a foundation and a semi-private club with an email blast of 1,000 regulars.

The company bought the 106-year-old house in 2010 when SoMa was cheaper, sandblasted the walls to show the exposed bricks, poured new concrete on the first floor, and set up a roof deck with an outdoor bar. Their first annual Haus of Hipstamtic Gala benefitted its photography education foundation, Cause Beautiful, which teaches cellphone and iPod photography to inner-city kids, and is run by Luanne Dietz.

 Mayor Ed Lee meets the Hipstamatic team
Mayor Ed Lee meets the Hipstamatic team
Sarah Raice

The gala was a formal affair, with guests in gowns and suits, and a touch of a retro-hipster aesthetic (suspenders). Waiters circulated with trays of mushroom pizza.

“In New York, there are always parties or readings at places like the Ace Hotel or Soho House, and when we moved to San Francisco, we couldn’t find it as easily, so we wanted to create it,” Hipstamatic co-founder Mario Estrada said. “We wanted to create a place where people could just come and chill.”

The Haus of Hipstamatic is hardly ever quiet. Estrada curates pop-up restaurants, poetry readings, concerts and photography shows.

While the founders have been running Cause Beautiful for a few years, they’re now trying to expand it, and they’ve brought Dietz on full-time to do so. Through the program, they bring iPod touches into middle- and high-school classrooms at Life Learning Academy on Treasure Island and Coliseum Prep Academy in Oakland.

“Our overarching goal is to empower people to cause change with their camera,” said Dietz, who was doing her own outreach before, called The W.H.Y. Project.

The iPod touch (which has a camera) and smartphones are actually the ideal cameras for modern middle-schoolers, Dietz said.

“The iPod is cheaper, easier to use, and it’s safe — you give a kid a professional camera and send them out into their neighborhood, they’re going to be a target,” she said. “No one looks twice at a kid taking pictures with an Android or an iPod.”

 Luanne Dietz, who runs Cause Beautiful
Luanne Dietz, who runs Cause Beautiful
Sarah Raice

“And there’s a familiarity. You can give any student an iPod, and they’ve at least held one in their hands before.”

Many of the students also like the look of square images versus traditional rectangles, in large part because of Hipstamatic’s influence, and, later, Instagram’s.

“This next generation sees images in square,” Dietz said.

She said they raised enough at the gala to expand into a third classroom. And this Friday they’re launching a flash sale of donated photos.

Some startups succeed. Most fail. But in the chaos, communities find new new centers of gravity. The Hipstamatic founders, four young men from Wisconsin, seem to like the idea of their “Haus” as an impromptu social spot for a community of growing affluence that doesn’t have many cultural centers. Hipstamatic as an app may or may not work, but as an old-fashioned clubhouse, its influence is only growing.

Upstairs, near the s’mores station, Mayor Lee spoke to Hipstamatic’s four founders: “I really enjoy this space. You own it, right?”

Yes, said the founders.

“Good,” said the mayor.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.