The Starbucks Is Not the Problem

Williamsburg's Starbucks (image: NY Eater)

Outer-borough hackles have been raised in the past several weeks over a familiar player in the ongoing War on Gentrification—Starbucks. Much has been made of two new Brooklyn locations: one in Williamsburg, which opened this week, and one in Crown Heights, set to open this fall in the first floor of a brand-new apartment building. In Brooklyn, Starbucks is the Angel of Death of the Hip, casting its long shadow across neighborhoods of Authentic Cool, corporatizing everything it touches. In reality, Starbucks may be a buzzard at worst, arriving long after the fight.

The refrain on gentrification in Brooklyn hardly changes: Everything was better a year (or two) ago, and (more felt than said) gentrification is everyone who moved in after they did. It’s a hypocritical stance, but familiar. It’s also a relative stance—one- and two-year residents of Crown Heights may throw up their hands over a Starbucks at Franklin and Eastern Parkway even as they happily reserve a table at Barboncino or Mayfield.

Not that there’s anything wrong with an oyster happy hour, necessarily, but let’s remember which came first. A Starbucks is not an outpost, a base camp for a higher climb. If anything, a Starbucks is a high-water mark for a certain degree of change in a neighborhood, from industrial hinterland to nouveau bohemia, or from working-class enclave to middle-class playground.

What Starbucks outrage represents is resistance to a certain kind of neighborhood change: “chainification,” the neon, strip-mall, late-stage iteration of what’s been happening this whole time, but a little more visually obvious. And so Billburg is become the LES. But in all fairness, at this point in the evolution of New York’s culinary culture (read: artisanal snootiness), a Starbucks is a Dunkin‘ Donuts with wifi and better seating. In a world where everything costs $4, and a new, more labor-intensive brew method is invented every other week, Starbucks is the opiate of the masses.

Coffee epicures have long made the case that a Blue Bottle (or a Café Grumpy, or a Gimme! Coffee, or a Momofuku Milk Bar, all of which are chains in their own right) is preferable to a Starbucks or a Dunkin‘ Donuts solely on the level of Craft (the patron saint of artisanal food), and they aren’t wrong. I’d rather spend $4 on Blue Bottle coffee than Starbucks coffee, just on the basis of taste, but the fact remains that there was $4 coffee to be had in Williamsburg and in Franklin-Avenue Crown Heights long before the Starbucks came. Put another way: If you come, they will build it.

It’s tidy to think of Starbucks as a final straw, but it’d be more honest to call it a final brick—a final brick in a brand-new, high-rise, luxury building, on the first floor of which is a chain coffee retailer.

Follow John Sherman on Twitter @_john_sherman.

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  1. Café Grumpy, Gimme! Coffee, Momofuku Milk Bar, other indie cafes do not hire inner city minorities. Most hire only the hipster, young, attractive, white, transplant from, suburban Midwest who think and act as if they are god’s gift to the gentrified neighborhood

  2. People used to decry the bookstore chains coming in — perhaps for good reason. But is Kips Bay better because Borders is gone? Is Seventh & 21st better with B&N gone (and Trader Joe’s in its place)? Are Astor Place and Lincoln Center better with B&N gone? Yes, indie bookstores are the best, no question. But for some neighborhoods in NYC a Starbucks coming in would be a sign of something good; I think the Magic Johnson Starbucks went into places where Sbux really was a step up from nothing. It’s too bad the company follows the indie coffee shops (usually) rather than sets up in a poor underserved neighborhood where there’s currently no place else to go for that kind of coffee. (Not being a coffee drinker, I don’t quite understand the different kinds, but I know this coffee is different from the ones at McDonald’s or an old-fashioned street cart. Or is it?)

  3. The thing is hipsters think that they are too cool for Starbucks, yet secretly they patronize a Starbucks whenever they go back home for good in live and mom and dad’s basement or to ask for more funds from mommy and daddy and suburbia middle-America. Starbucks isn’t the problem; hipsters and their pretensions loftiness are.

  4. I was priced out of Williamsburg in the late 90s. Now just about the same thing is happening in Bed-Stuy-Clinton-HIll. It’s not as vanilla as williamsburgh, just yet. and we even have the occasional petty crime! In the mean time, I enjoy having the excellent italian coffee place around the corner (a chain of 2 restaurants!) that the gentrification process has brought to my doorstep. Soon enough though, I might have to take off again… this time older, and a little less spry in my motion, and with fewer options. Hello Newburgh.