Why Your Neighborhood Is Home to So Many Coffee Shops

I can’t lie. I love coffee. And, as I write this piece, I could use a cup. Not just any cup would do. It needs to be strong and black. Never bitter. And, preferably, one with floral notes. Those tend to go down smoothest. I am reminded of spring each time I take a sip.

I can never claim to be a connoisseur, though. Distinguishing the Ethiopian bean from the Nicaraguan variety is much too cumbersome for me. And I could’ve sworn the French Press was a hairstyle. Nevertheless, I can do for a warm cup on nights like these. It comforts me. It connects me even. One sip and I travel back in time imagining writers before me doing the same. I picture the greats—James Baldwin, Richard Wright, bell hooks—hunched over tiny desks pecking away furiously at an old typewriter in a room just barely lit with incandescent glow. They sip deep. Forever pensive. Two strokes away from an indelible line etched in history. Sadly, my daydreaming never quite captures my own reality. What I usually end up with is a serious case of writer’s block, a sore neck, and no coffee.

And so, I often go without. But not for lack of options. Everywhere I turn I am inundated by coffee’s bounty. No bull. I pass two maybe three establishments, which I suspect to be driven largely by coffee revenue no matter where I travel. My latest estimates total 18 coffee shops within a half mile of my home. For a coffee lover, the abundance is like manna from the sky. But, why so many? Even with the growing number of residents, I’m sure the ballooning amount of coffee shops would make it difficult for any one of them to ever reach capacity.

Should I mention that I’m also a newcomer? I moved to my neighborhood six months ago. So, the coffee shop phenomenon is a fairly new experience for me. But frankly, everything is. Locals tend to say I don’t know enough to know what I don’t even know (A mouthful I know). And indeed, this is true. However, I can’t help but shake the feeling that the excess of coffee shops belies something more unpleasant. As I patronize these shops, partake in their food stuffs, and become immersed in the ambience of each—what am I complicit in? What does my neighborhood forgo as yet another one of these establishments take root?  

 

People watching is my favorite pastime as I grow accustomed to this place and it is not unusual to catch me peering in or out of shop windows watching folks engrossed in the minutia of the day. Sometimes, I even approach these strangers, which lends to the most intriguing conversations. They range from the emotional to the eclectic, deepening my perspective on the neighborhood’s underlying characteristics.  

“How long you been here?” comes up quite often in conversation. Innocuous at first I later learned it was a way to  size me up and determine my pecking order around here. The question occurs so often, in fact, that people have created various methods of shorthand to characterize their placement in the bizarre hierarchy. For instance, “I’m a native” is a local favorite. Its reserved only for those who claim the city by birthright. You can feel the pride emanate from within as if to declare the town as their own. The pride bursts forth when one speaks of the hospital that birthed them, the ward that raised them, and the school that molded them. I can tell that to be indigenous here is to covet a sentimental belonging that captivates and swells.

Then there are those who are “transplants” and here for reasons too numerous to name. I run into this group quite often. Work, school, and love serve as common themes to tales that are decidedly banal even if varied in their locution. There’s a few differences when speaking to this set of people compared to the locals I encounter. While the latter declares proudly their claim to the city, the former comes off a bit timid. Which to me, is an unconscious acknowledgement to their status in a place rich with provincial heritage. The relative newcomers never admit to calling where they now live home. At least not in public. And when they do come clean, their hometown immediately follows as if to emphasize the temporary nature of their stay. They get rather comfy here nonetheless.

And that’s how it usually  goes.  On one extreme, there’s the group intent on retaining the longstanding character of the city. On the other, there’s the  group who normalizes their desired lifestyle through outsized influence. The opposing forces create a noticeable tension. Each side acknowledging the other’s presence, entrenched in a contentious engagement that determines the ultimate status of each.

While coded in speech, the physical manifestations of this tension are all but.  Finite resources necessitate that both claim ownership to the same things. The same government, the same parks, and ultimately, the same neighborhoods forcing a strategic game of chess and one-upmanship.

In my neighborhood, for instance, the coffee shop serves as the pawn of choice. Their owners advance the priorities of whatever group manages to claim (or retain) the coveted real estate. Their names are dead giveaways to the underlying purpose. Sankofa?  Oh, they’ve been here awhile. One of the few stalwarts left. The Wydown Coffee Bar? Those are the new kids on the block. Read the critic review below if you don’t believe me.

The garage doors are open at this coffee bar in trendy [Main Street], which garnered a following for its artisanal java and homey baked goods during its pop-up phase.

It’s mildly amusing to imagine coffee shops competing for fictitious turf as one pelts the other with medium-roast coffee beans and day old pastries. But, the market competition misses the point entirely. To me, what matters is how the competition continues a startling reality based on who belongs and who doesn’t.

What I failed to mention, or rather, decided not to share in any worthwhile detail until now is the history of where I reside. Fortunately for me, historical records pick up where my crude observations leave off. History reveals a place undergoing a decades long transformation. People initially interwoven into the social fabric fraying at the seams as others begin to weave an entirely different tapestry. Others who complain about the cost of living but who still spend premium rents for one- and two- bedroom “luxury” tenements. Others who access affordable credit and build their “starter” home of choice, or “start-up” their new business in an area with huge upside. Others who engage in consumption levels that make it profitable to locate trendy, aspirational businesses in places that went without for so long.

Others like me.

As I write, I still could go for a good cup of coffee. However, this time I stop to think, if only for a moment, of the forces at work shaping my environment. The forces that, decades ago, abandoned my neighborhood to the natives today when suburbia was in vogue. The same forces that after peak outer borough mania subsided made way for my neighborhood to become suddenly valuable again. The same forces that bring in fresh people that polarize the city along political, economic, and cultural lines.

We often think that what shapes the places we live in has to do with invisible forces beyond our control when, in fact, the culprits are quite literally right under our nose. Ideally, I’d go buy a cup of coffee right now. However, I’m worried that if I do I’d contribute to the problem. Who am I kidding. I am the problem.