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A Brief History of the Coffee Shop as a Symbol for Gentrification

Neighborhood change has long gone hand in hand with the coffee bean.
hipster coffee

It's a timeless axiom that once a high-end coffee shop arrives in a low-income neighborhood, residents can kiss goodbye manageable rents and a lasting local culture, not to mention the absence of man-buns. There's certainly a measure of truth to that sentiment: Coffee shops have accompanied neighborhood change in places as far-flung as Williamsburg, New York; Oak Park, Sacramento; and Delano, Wichita. But the coffee shop ire has reached new heights in recent weeks, following the opening of a café in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles last month. Weird Wave Coffee Brewers has become the center of anti-gentrification protests, and, last week, a vandal shattered its glass front door in what several reporters have interpreted as a gesture in support of these "White Wave" protests.

Yet despite the popular narrative that exists, scholars remain divided over whether coffee shops can actually usher in a class shift in a neighborhood, or whether high-end coffee shops follow in the wake of an uptick in housing prices. On the one hand, a 2015 study by two researchers at the online real-estate company Zillow found that homes closest to Starbucks locations experienced a 4 percent greater appreciation than those further away. On the other, that same year independent researchers mapped the relationship between rent prices and coffee shops in San Francisco between 2010 and 2015 and concluded that many of the coffee shops they located predated a spike in housing prices. Nevertheless, coffee critics have reason to fear that new stores mean their neighborhood is changing: There's a long history of coffee shops accompanying an influx of middle-class people and tastes into poorer neighborhoods. Though coffee's long been an affordable drink for the masses, coffee shops have—for just as long—appealed primarily to the leisure class.


Though Ethiopians were the first to brew coffee, the earliest coffee shops came in the mid-16th-century Ottoman Empire, a regime at the height of its power and wealth. Some at that time were small neighborhood joints, while others were Empire-funded, and could feature terraces, views of the river or city walls, and lamps to allow the joe-drinking to extend long into the night. These coffee shops were so impressive that, in the 17th century, "building a grand coffee-house became one of the first things Ottoman rulers did in newly conquered cities, to demonstrate the civility of their rule," University of London professor Markman Ellis wrote in his 2004 book The Coffee-House: A Cultural History.

Over the course of the 1500s, rulers and religious leaders denounced coffee as a poor influence that could lead to gambling and improper sexual relations. But that didn't stop caffeine-needy Ottomans, who continued to drink the stuff in secret. Today, coffee remains an important, even daily, drink in several Arab countries.

There's a long history of coffee shops accompanying an influx of middle-class people and tastes into poorer neighborhoods.

Thanks to a trade boom throughout the 1650s that left the British populace with more disposable income, 17th-century Britain became history's next haven for coffee shops. Like today's "third-wave" cafés, coffee houses spread throughout the city quickly—the first opened in 1652, and, by 1700, there were more than 2,000 coffee houses in London alone, inhabiting more retail space and paying higher rent than any other trade at the time. The shops quickly became a hub for political discussion and debate at a time when dissidents were concerned about the state of the nation following the death of Lord General Oliver Cromwell, and during the Restoration of Charles II. They were called "penny universities": Just one penny, the saying suggested, would buy a cup of joe and the stimulating intellectual discussion that accompanied it—though a "penny" wasn't as cheap then as it sounds today.

Like today's temples to the pour-over brew, these forums still appealed primarily to those with money and leisure time to spare. The one penny they required for admission was no small sum to some, as an unskilled laborer earned just eight pence a day, Matthew Green told the Guardian last year. Historical accounts suggest men who attended the coffee shops spent many hours there; in the 1674 satirical pamphlet Women's Petition Against Coffee, authors joked that coffee houses allowed men to "Soberize themselves," providing a break for sobering up between trips to the tavern. If that critique was a total joke, it was probably founded in a real complaint: In 1675 Charles II banned coffee houses altogether because they had become "the great resort of Idle and disaffected persons." Cash-strapped day laborers, in other words, probably were not frequenting London's ubiquitous, time-sucking coffee houses.

A 1652 advertisement for the U.K.'s first coffee house.

A 1652 advertisement for the U.K.'s first coffee house.

Merchants who missed London's booming coffee house culture established North America's first models in the colony town of Boston in the late-17th century. And coffee became a popular drink following the Boston Tea Party, after which the Continental Congress passed a resolution against tea drinking stateside. But by the 19th century, a dip in the quality of coffee shipped to the United Kingdom and the rising popularity of tea rooms supplanted coffee's important role in British culture; meanwhile, America's consumption of coffee only rose throughout the first half of the 1800s—some Civil War soldiers even carried coffee with them in the buttstocks of their guns.

A small coffee shop renaissance in the United States in the 1950s and '60s parallels their spread in Boyle Heights and Crown Heights today: Like several third-wave institutions, many of these cafés took root in immigrant neighborhoods. Teenagers flush with disposable cash and leisure time flocked to Italian immigrant neighborhoods like New York's Greenwich Village, San Francisco's North Beach, and Boston's North End to try out espresso drinks—then a novelty—and hang out with countercultural artists, writers, and musicians. (This same renaissance occurred in the U.K. in the '50s and '60s, but there, teenagers frequented coffee shops in bohemian neighborhoods like Soho.) Some of these Italian coffee shops became known as "folk music coffee shops," introducing a young demographic to diverse works and performers.

"Prior to the rise of coffee houses, there were few places in which middle-class Americans ... could hear performers who came from racial backgrounds and ethnic groups very different from their own; or meet performers who came from remote parts of rural America," Stephen Winick wrote in 2014 for the Library of Congress blog. These so-called "espresso revolution" shops attracted middle-class types to neighborhoods where they ordinarily didn't tend to hang out, much like hipster coffee shops do today. But in contrast to those shops, which often draw criticism for instituting an outsider culture, many organically sprung from locals' Italian heritage.

In the '90s, Starbucks expanded the American consumer base for brews with foreign names. Though the coffee giant initially opened stores exclusively in downtown areas, high profits in two suburban stores in New York state convinced the company executives to expand past city limits. Today, you're nearly as likely to spot a Starbucks in many suburbs as you are a McDonald's. In his 2005 essay, "Consuming Third Place: Starbucks and the Illusion of Public Space," Temple University professor Bryant Simon wrote at length about Starbucks' attempt to scrub clean coffee house culture:

Whatever the lasting pull of the traditional coffee house, a darkish hue hung over these places. These were not the hangouts of mosts and dads or Madison Avenue executives and Wall Street traders or honors students and cheerleaders—the people Starbucks was looking to get into its stores.

Starbucks embraced this normalization of the coffee shop with open arms: It emphasized benign, inoffensive furniture; curated easy-listening Nora Jones playlists; and encouraged its customer base to linger and enjoy another pre-packaged pastry.

Thanks to Starbucks, specialty coffee is now a mainstay in most urban neighborhoods, clearing the way for high-end, un-franchised stores to follow. Third-wave coffee also builds on the gentrification-like influences of past coffee crazes—it combines the appeal of the Ottoman Empire-era cosmopolitan hangout with the promise of a cheap space to spend time thinking, like in 17th-century Britain, with the added bonus of giving outsiders an excuse to visit a new and ethnically diverse neighborhood, like in the '50s and '60s.

But third-wave institutions are also tailoring the coffee shop experience to particularly 21st-century Western types—namely, foodies, remote workers, and suckers who will shell out $16 for a specialty brew. Today's coffee shop may perpetuate the institution's history of accompanying urban change, but it's also making the distinction between its space and the lower-income neighborhood it has come to inhabit clearer than ever. By rendering a simple cup of joe an ever-more-specialty item, it's appealing mainly to those who have the expendable resources—time and money—to educate themselves and indulge.