A little background: I spent 2014 writing for a website based in London called “The Urban Times,” where I reported and wrote on environmental issues, technology, urban development, international policy, and current events. I also dabbled in more editorial styles of writing. Unfortunately, “The Urban Times” shuttered in December 2014 and the site finally went down more recently. Fortunately, I saved all of my work offline.
On Sunday, ATL Urbanist posted a piece about the “café table dichotomy,” or in which transportation and the design of the urban infrastructure of an area impacts the design of private/public urban spaces in that area, such as café patios. I wrote a similar piece for “The Urban Times” that I wanted to share, only to find it was no longer on the Internet, so I have lovingly recreated it here. I hope you enjoy, and if not, at least consider the impact of our shopping and transportation habits.
I’m a simple man; I like walking, reading, writing, good food, good drinks, and good coffee. I am a regular at as many cafés as I can be because that is where I do some of my best thinking and writing. And I’m not alone: many people find that the din of a bustling coffee shop increases creative thinking. So when I found myself in two very different cafés one morning not too long ago, I was amazed at how they reflected their surrounding environments and displayed perfectly the difference between the urban and the suburban.
I had spent the night at a friends on the North side of Atlanta, far from my own neighborhood, in an area known as Ashford-Dunwoody to be exact. It is a suburban area nestled between Atlanta’s Buckhead business district with its tall towers and office parks, and the Brookhaven neighborhood, home to Oglethorpe University. On our way to the train, we stopped in at a Starbucks to grab some breakfast where I got a small (tall?) cup of coffee and a breakfast sandwich (a fairly spartan order compared to those before mine).
“No ma’am, Candler.”
“Oh, no ‘h.'”
Waiting for our orders, I took a look at my surroundings: dark leather chairs and dark stained wood furniture with shiny accents. It had a creative-looking décor, but it was all too typical for Starbucks. You could pick this Starbucks up and plop it anywhere else in America and not even notice. It’s a manufactured feel, creativity-commoditized and mass produced, like the bright colors and smooth surfaces of the McDonald’s across the lot and every other one in the world. Despite Starbucks’ best intentions, to me their coffee shop, with all its pomp and mood lighting and sterile cleanliness, felt stale. Though there were people chatting and coming in and out, if felt stagnant. My order was ready.
I sighed under my breath. “Yep, thanks.”
But it was not all that different from the scene at any other café, other than its location: sat on the corner of a shopping strip, it looked out over the black top to the busy road, flooded with the beginnings of Atlanta’s notorious traffic. But it was not all that different from the scene at any other café…
Or was it?
I rode the train downtown and walked a couple of blocks through Five Points, the heart of Downtown Atlanta, past the historic buildings and restaurants and new streetcar tracks. I knew I could pick from the university-run coffee shop, a hip coffee room, or a coffee shop/bakery in one of the coolest markets in the world. Or another Starbucks.
I chose Ebrik, the coffee shop Middle Eastern influence that I had been to a couple of times, but hadn’t been in a while. “Hey, how’s it going, buddy?” the guy behind the register asked as soon as I walked in. He finished taking care of the people in line ahead of me and asked me how I had been, what I was up to, and what he could get me. Simultaneously, one of the other employees, Ibrahim, saw me and came over to talk, calling me by name. “Hey, Candler!” (No “h.”)
I sat in the armchair in front of the window, looking out at the people walking on the busy city street, stopping to say “hi” or read the sign outside the shop. I drank my coffee and ate my banana, and began working to the undulating rhythm of Curtis Mayfield in the background.
Both of these institutions have a nearly identical purpose: serving drinks, mostly coffee, and some food. But they could not be more different. Starbucks is consistent, manufactured, with a forced sense of coolness, like that guy you know who buys really expensive designer clothes and accessories to look cool, but isn’t. It feels designed not to be a destination but only to move people in and out as quickly as possible; a conduit for pumpkin spice lattes.
Ebrik on the other hand isn’t just a place. It is the brainchild of Ibrahim and his partners, the dream they have made reality. It is the labor of a local design student who filled the room with a personality all its own. It is an oasis of coffee and calmness, a respite from the bustle of the streets downtown for students, businesspeople, and ordinary folks like me. There is no other place exactly like it.
This perhaps is what’s wrong with a Starbucks in the suburbs; it lacks the individuality that is crucial to make a place more than just a physical location. From an urban design perspective, Starbucks perpetuates the developmental pattern across the U.S. – and beyond – that is responsible for immeasurable environmental damage: Sprawl. This damage comes in the form of increased vehicle miles traveled and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions, stormwater runoff from increased hardscapes and impermeable surfaces, and deforestation. That said, I am ecstatic about Starbucks’ ethical sourcing practices and environmental initiatives.
Yet more fundamentally, this style of designing identical pipelines for daily commodities masked as experiences, especially in suburbs where local independent businesses typically have a harder time sticking out and succeeding in the seas of shopping strips, is impersonal and mundane. And just like going through the drive through at a fast food chain, the experience found at a Starbucks is sterile and lacks the individuality that gives every café on some city street its own feel. I’m not saying that Starbucks is terrible and there are of course Starbucks’s all over cities; however, in a city there are also other alternatives to Starbucks. When Starbucks is the only option, that’s when the banality of it really comes out. This banality is endemic of suburbs and is but one reason why being in a diverse city is simply better.
Maybe I’m just a café snob (very possible). Or maybe I’m on to something. As more young people are drawn into cities and eschew the car-centered lifestyles that the suburbs are built for, I guess we’ll see what happens to Starbucks and the state of the café. In the meantime, I’ll walk on to the next café.