Starbucks Saves the Neighborhood

There is a belief among members of America's coffeehouse class so common that it's become a cliche. It goes something like this: We had a good thing going with this espresso thing until Starbucks came along and turned it into McLatte. On the cutting-edge NPR show "This American Life" host Ira Glass describes his audience as individuals united by a "fear of Starbucks." San Franciscans, always desperate for a way to exhibit their hipness, buy the hometown Peet's brand as a protest against the coming of Starbucks. Entire Web sites are devoted to rants against the coffee giant ("Tired of buying coffee on a marketing board's line of swill? Fight back!").But while the alternative intelligentsia rant about burnt lattes and homogenous stores, some urban planners see the ubiquitous coffee chain as nothing less than the savior of American cities and suburbs. "This may sound outrageous, but I think Starbucks is creating one of the most significant social changes in the last 15 years," says one developer and urban theorist. The coffee chain, which is expanding at a rate of six new stores a week, is a business that markets itself as an oxymoron: a nationwide community gathering place. If it is successful -- and in Seattle it already is -- Starbucks may join McDonald's and Holiday Inn in the pantheon of American businesses that changed the pattern of American life.To see how this is happening, visit a downtown Starbucks any weekday between 9am and noon. The parking lot is often jammed with suburban chariots: Isuzu Troopers, Windstar minivans, and the odd Lexus or two. Inside, the dozen or so tables are cluttered with laptop computers, spreadsheets, accounting binders, and memos of the sort labeled "Business Voice Mail." The place is a deal-making hive. At the back bar a camel sportcoat pitches to a blue blazer with phrases like "we're doing that regionally" and "they're very interested in having us come aboard." At the table beside them a producer discusses casting issues: "I'm still waiting for applications to come in for directors . . ." The woman sitting next to me does her calculus homework.David Fleming and Paul Neutz, partners in an Internet startup, are typical members of the morning crowd. They each work out of a different town. Phone, fax, and e-mail keep them in daily contact but when they need to meet face-to-face they rendezvous at the coffeehouse. "We meet here about once a week; it's a halfway point for us," says Fleming. "Starbucks is our virtual office," adds Neutz. When they want some privacy the partners rent the meeting room in the back for $5 an hour.Stick around and you'll observe a subtle changing of the guard. In the later morning mothers with young children stroll in from the Barnes & Noble superstore next door. In the afternoon schoolkids stop by to do homework. Most evenings you'll find a clutch of Web designers trading gossip after a day of Internet isolation. On Thursday nights the Amway people come in and do what Amway people do.Each customer clutches a green-on-white Starbucks cup, but the point isn't that Starbucks is selling a lot of beanwater. The point is that people are buying their coffee and staying. They're hanging out. They still have to drive to get here, but for people trying to bring public socializing back into the suburbs, the fact that they're mixing here is a big first step. "I don't think Starbucks' success has that much to do with coffee," says Peter Katz, author of The New Urbanism and a leader of the back-to-the-village movement among American architects, planners, and developers. "It has more to do with the social element. Starbucks is selling community."Other urban theorists go further. "Starbucks is a force for civilization," says David Sucher, a Seattle developer and the author of City Comforts: How to Build an Urban Village. An urban village, loosely interpreted, is a neighborhood built to human scale, where people are encouraged to get out of their automobiles and walk around, where homes and retail shops coexist in a way that encourages the formation of unique communities. City neighborhoods are urban villages. Isolated suburban tract houses are not. "I mean 'civilization' in the literal sense -- it's an urbanizing force." Sucher is no shill for Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz; he happens to own the building that houses the Honey Bear Bakery, one of Seattle's great independent coffeehouses. Sucher, Katz, and their colleagues are so gung-ho for the coffee chain because it offers a way out of what might be called the great suburban disenchantment. Fifty years after America's postwar suburban boom began in Levittown, New York, the excesses of sprawling development have caught up with us. Traffic congestion has turned burb-to-city (or burb-to-burb) commutes into nightmarish marathons. Pedestrians have become an endangered species as stores and strip malls cater to car-bound customers.Infrastructure costs, for building farther and farther away from the city, have soared. By 1995 the Bank of America issued a report that concluded continued suburban expansion was no longer economically viable. "The suburbs, where most people in America live now, are not really people-friendly places," says Peter Katz. "They were built around privacy and exclusivity, and they succeeded too well. We created places where people feel tremendously lonely and isolated."Enter, in the late 1980s, the "new urbanists," led by people like Katz and the Miami architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who advocated a return not to dense cities but to neighborhood villages: compact, pedestrian-friendly mixed-use neighborhoods. Neighborhood hangouts are crucial to the formation of these new villages. Civic planners call them "third places," after a phrase coined by sociologist Ray Oldenberg, author of The Great Good Place. According to Oldenberg, our day-to-day habitat includes home, the first place; work, the second; and a third place where we go to relieve the day's stress, mix with friends and strangers, and go about the business of being social with our neighbors. The ideal third place is within walking distance, serves a range of ages and incomes, offers a place to assemble, and above all is fun. "In third places, the entertainment is provided by the people themselves," Oldenberg writes. "The sustaining activity is conversation which is variously passionate and lighthearted, serious and witty, informative and silly. And in the course of it, acquaintances become personalities and personalities become true characters -- unique in the whole world and each adding richness to our lives."Third places have become so desired that families may move across the continent to find them. Author Terry Pindell recently scoured America looking for cities and towns that had the third places that made a "village." In A Good Place to Live, the story of his search, Pindell recalled that it was the very lack of these places in his hometown of Keene, New Hampshire, that drove him away. "[My chief complaint was] the void I myself felt so strongly in Keene -- the lack of community gathering places where you can walk in at almost any time and be assured of either encountering old friends or making new ones."These places are an integral part of European life but have never found their place in America. Germany and England have beer gardens and pubs, but American taverns have always had an unsavory taint to them. Children are prohibited and women may feel unsafe. Italy and Spain have piazzas and plazas, which might work in the American Southwest but as for the rest of us temperate-climed creatures, forget it.America's cultural roots also hindered the growth of third places. Douglas Kelbaugh, a professor of architecture and urban design at the University of Washington, points to the Puritan family-oriented ethic and the Jeffersonian strain of agrarian individualism. "The people who came to this country in the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states were religious fanatics who believed more in a strong family life than in the public realm," he says. "And that whole Jeffersonian tradition of independent, well-educated farmers associated urban life with vice." Americans, Kelbaugh says, have always put more money and emphasis into private dwellings than public spaces.The coffeehouse might change that. Social interaction has been the very raison d'etre of the coffeehouse since its inception in the 16th century Near East. Much of the business of the British empire was conducted in the 17th century coffeehouses of London, which became so popular as political gossip-markets that Charles II tried (and failed) to close them down. Coffeehouses are swapmeets of information. Flyers are posted on the walls, word of mouth about books and movies passes among the patrons, and informal political debates find spontaneous release. Coffeehouses and other third places encourage the voluntary social mixing (albeit within a given store's demographic) that breaks down barriers between races, genders, classes, and political persuasions. "It's better to have the daily friction of rubbing shoulders with people you don't know, who may be strange or even scary to you, than to live in insulated gated communities, have little interaction, and have cataclysmic social upheavals every generation or so," says Kelbaugh. "Better to have lots of little exchanges than a few big ones like the Los Angeles riots."Local coffeehouses have been doing this for years. Funky independent joints cater to an offbeat, alternative clientele that come 'round for a daily dose of shoulder-rubbing in an atmosphere free of glossy brochures, Brita filters, and track lighting. The problem is, not every neighborhood can support an independent coffee house. The very existence of these local joints in our larger cities, and their absence in the suburbs, is one of the reasons creative and quirky young people move to cities like Seattle and San Francisco in the first place. This is where Starbucks comes in. It's a simple idea: Square America needs a hangout too. Starbucks joins the concept of the coffeehouse with mainstream America's demand for brand name assurance. In its larger urban stores the company has created the kinds of places that, transplanted into suburban and even rural areas, could become the nation's neighborhood haunts. Starbucks has already opened small stores in rural burgs that have been adopted as meeting places and coffee break stops.Don't think the company doesn't know what it's doing. Starbucks employees are so steeped in third place theory that a barista at my neighborhood store started quoting The Great Good Place at the first mention of the word "neighborhood." Competitors want to sell America coffee. Starbucks wants to become America's neighborhood hangout, and thereby sell more coffee."We consider Starbucks stores community gathering places," says Arthur Rubinfeld, the Starbucks senior vice president who oversees real estate expansion and store design. "Our product can help form the community base, along with the grocers, dry cleaners, and laundromats." Though most of its stores are small quick-stop joints ("beverage stores," in Starbuckspeak), the company's future may lie with the larger "flagship" stores with seating for 50, leather chairs, maybe a fireplace. "That's where you really get the opportunity to do things like have live music or poetry readings," Rubinfeld says. "It's more akin to the European cafe, where people gather in the morning, afternoon, and into the evening hours playing chess, reading, perhaps getting onto the Internet."If Starbucks can successfully open its large flagship stores in the suburbs and beyond, it may become one of those rare businesses that both feeds off and supports a significant change in America's social habits. In the 1950s and 1960s Holiday Inn and McDonald's were able to turn that trick and become corporate giants. Kemmons Wilson, the man behind Holiday Inn, had one great insight: America's up-and-coming middle class loved to take car vacations on the nation's fresh interstate highways, and it needed reliable, affordable places to stay. The McDonald brothers mechanized the burger joint and Ray Kroc took it nationwide, sensing the need of young suburban families for an affordable restaurant that welcomed rambunctious children.According to Starbucks lore, CEO Howard Schultz had a similar moment during a trip to Italy, when he wondered why Americans didn't have coffeehouses to hang out in. It was his good fortune to wonder at a time when the consumers who grew up on Holiday Inn and McDonald's were looking for an upscale third place. The older chains contributed to the nation's auto-mobile sensibility; if Starbucks succeeds it may help people get out of their cars and talk to one another.On a Friday night at 9:45 it's tough to find an empty seat in the flagship store I visited in Seattle. In one corner Steve Thompson leads his local jazz trio in a mix of standards and original compositions. The clientele is a mix of after-event adults, studying students, dating twentysomethings, and a surprising number of high school kids hanging out on a Friday night. Three teenage boys dis a mutual friend -- "He's weird, dude. The guy's a freak" -- over at the far window. At one table two teenagers exchange nervous date talk; at another four Arabic men converse in a Middle Eastern language. For a homogenous chain store it's a surprisingly eclectic mix. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that this chain store stays open until 1am every night, and stays busy long after its neighbors have gone dark.When his set ends Steve Thompson tells me about the Starbucks circuit, a sort of alternative jazz circuit that's opened up in the last year or so. The music slots are not unattractive jobs. They're one of the few paying gigs in town and store managers have stacks of audition tapes cluttering up the back room. Thompson's trio turns up regularly at the three local stores. "It's smoke-free, and we always get a good audience," says Thompson. (Since Thompson's flute playing requires short sharp breaths, the smoke thing is no small matter.) "People come for the music and for the social company. A lot of us don't like to go to bars. People aren't drinking [alcohol] as much, but you still want something to drink so you come here and drink coffee, tea, juice, and spend some time talking to people sober."Ask Starbucks customers why they hang out at night and many will tell you it's like relaxing at a tavern without the smoke and booze. "The ambiance is nice," says JoAnn Chrisman, who stops by the Starbucks in her neighborhood on Wednesday nights to take part in a French discussion group. "You can go by yourself and feel comfortable."There is no consensus about where the mainstream coffeehouse crowd is coming from, but most urban planners agree it's not entirely drawn away from taverns. Speaking from his office at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, Ray Oldenberg says part of the new coffee culture is spawned by economic and domestic realities. "A lot of people in their twenties live at home for economic reasons, and it drives 'em nuts," he says. "They have to get out of the house, and a coffee shop is a pretty good place to spend time and not much money."Large demographic shifts are conspiring to fill the coffeehouses, and they only begin with the late nest-leaving of adults in their twenties. Go to a coffee bar any weekday from 9 to 5 and ask yourself, Don't these people have jobs? Most of them do. Some of them are working right through their double espresso. The increasingly fluid office environment of the 1990s combined with technology like cellular phones and laptop computers has freed many white- collar workers from the cubicle. Why not write that report (or this article) at a coffeehouse without the distractions of managers and co-workers? The people reading novels or chatting at 2 in the afternoon may work part-time, or in a temp job, or may be between contract-work gigs. The point is, fewer and fewer workers have to be physically present in offices any more. But they still crave the social interaction that offices provide. So they go to coffee. There's something else at work too, and it has to do with the blurring of commerce and leisure. A few years ago when book superstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders were expanding into the territory of small independent booksellers, the indies raised hell about the chains' underhanded pricing deals with publishers, which allowed the superstores to undercut the smaller merchants on price. The last few years have seen megastores run their smaller competitors out of business in town after town, but I don't think lower prices are the only reason the Goliaths are whupping David. Part of it comes down to the fact of a chair. At Barnes & Noble customers sink into overstuffed chairs, casually leafing through books they may or may not purchase. On some days it looks like a college library, with readers' legs draped over chair arms and one man out-and-out snoozing. An hour later the same people are here -- there's the Chicken Soup for the Soul woman, the Boating magazine guy nodding out. People come and hang out even if they're not interested in buying a book. Barnes & Noble isn't a bookstore, it's a private library."The growth businesses of the '90s are the ones that deliver a higher quality of life without costing people additional money," says urban theorist Peter Katz. On that score Barnes & Noble is the big winner, with Starbucks coming on fast. (Most Starbucks shops offer uncomfortable faux-sidewalk-cafe chairs but the new flagship stores like Queen Anne have deep padded leather loungers.) It's no coincidence that two of the busiest Starbucks in my area are next to Barnes & Noble superstores, where they create upscale leisure ghettos.The lesson hasn't been lost on entrepreneurs starting up independent coffee shops in Starbucks' hometown of Seattle, Wash. Between them Jeff Babcock and Tim McCormack have more than 30 years in the coffee business. Babcock is a longtime coffee wholesaler; his partner McCormack was one of Starbucks' early roasters in the 1980s before becoming a tea buyer for Caravalli. Last month they opened Zoka, an airy coffeehouse in the hip Seattle neighborhood of Wallingford, half a block from the Honey Bear Bakery, the local coffee-and-cakes joint that's perpetually overflowing with customers. Though the emphasis at Zoka is on the connoisseurship of coffee beans, the setup is textbook third place: big windows, big wooden tables and comfortable chairs, two couches, a steamer trunk coffee table, and an atmosphere that encourages customers to linger. "We wanted to be in a neighborhood, not downtown or on a major arterial," says McCormack. "We wanted a steady local clientele, people who'll socialize, bring the kids, listen to music. We didn't want to be just a place to get a latte and get out." Only a couple of weeks after opening, Babcock and McCormack seem to be on their way. A local author has begun regularly setting up shop, and a poetry group asked if they could use the space."It's like being back in the 1950s," Babcock says, commenting on the neighbors who regularly drop by, "where people walk around." Where people walk around. The greatest harm that Starbucks can do is add dots of green and white to the franchised clutter of the American landscape. This is not an insignificant concern, although one that is probably a bigger problem nationally than locally. In terms of American culture, it is not for the good that we can drive from Seattle to Miami and see nothing but chain stores in between. No clean, well-lit chain can replace the soul of a homegrown hangout. And Starbucks' well-publicized "2000 by 2000" expansion plan to open 2000 stores by the year 2000 (they'll near 1500 by the end of 1997) can do nothing but exacerbate the enfranchisement of America.But on the community level Starbucks may be a benefit in at least two ways. First there's what might be called the missionary effect. Starbucks goes into suburban and rural areas and establishes outposts of coffeehouse culture. With its deep corporate pockets the company can hold on through the store's thin early months while the community picks up the caffeine habit. If it works, the neighborhood has a store that draws 600 to 800 customers a day, many of them lingerers who are likely to nose around in neighboring shops: who are likely to walk around. The community also becomes accustomed to the idea of hanging out in a coffeehouse, which may open up the market for an independent, homegrown competitor. (Starbucks executives call this "expending the upfront dollars in educating the community.")Starbucks is already a hot market indicator. "You go to any city and you can tell where the vibrant neighborhood is if there's a Starbucks there," says developer David Sucher. "It's a good landmark. If you're driving around in an unknown city, you see a Starbucks, you say 'Oh, let's get out and walk around, this is probably an interesting neighborhood.'"It's also a sign that other businesses can make money in the neighborhood. Starbucks real estate director Arthur Rubinfeld points proudly to the company's Mount Kisco, New York store, which opened in a stagnant section of the upstate commuter town. "When we went in there were many For Lease signs in the windows," says Rubinfeld. "If you go back there today most of those signs are gone. We were not the direct cause, but we helped it become a much more lively, vital place, a community gathering place."Other coffee chains aren't unaware of Starbucks' power to draw a customer base. Around Seattle it seems as though the expansion strategy of Tully's, a competitor, is based on the tactic of opening directly across the street or next door to a Starbucks. Though it annoys Starbucks officials, it's a tried-and-true strategy. A Ramada Inn official was once asked what criteria he used for picking a location. "It's really simple," the official said. "All I do is go into a city and find out where Kemmons Wilson has a good Holiday Inn and I put a Ramada Inn right next door." It's such a good idea, in fact, that Starbucks has opened stores within blocks of each other to capture its own customer overflow. On Vancouver, BC's fashionable Robson Street two Starbucks stores face each other kitty-corner across a busy intersection.By opening stores that create a critical mass of walking, talking, reading, dealing, loitering customers, the coffee chain that the coffeehouse class loves to hate might just attract enough competitors and compatibles clustered around it to create neighborhoods where people walk around and talk to one another.

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