In celebration of International Coffee Day, I’d like to talk about how we can rethink one of America’s most coveted beverages. Many Americans love their daily morning cup of coffee. For me, it’s all about the coffeehouse. It is a place where a buck entitles you to stay for as long as you like, and it’s a cornerstone of communication and connection that holds something vital for our disconnected generation.
[ A History ]
The coffeehouse has been a social hub of public discourse since its introduction into British society in the 1650s. The concept of the coffeehouse immediately resonated with the British bourgeoisie; by 1700 there were two thousand coffeehouses in London, and they were considered “the site for the public life of the eighteenth century middle class”. Initially, these places took on many communal functions, characterized by civil discourse and intellectualism and home to the first modern newspapers and ballot box. Some go as far as to suggest coffeehouses are the birthplace of modern democracy. Coffeehouse culture quickly caught on in colonial America and became a defining aspect of American culture dating back to 1689.
One aspect of coffee culture that has been retained over time is that of “bourgeois sociability.” Many coffeehouses in 18th century London began to represent community, harmony, and civility. The coffeehouse was a crucial institution in the development of the public sphere of society because it embodied the “civilized self.”
The modern-day coffeehouse experience, mass-marketed by Starbucks, is one of relaxation, leisure, community, and enjoyment. It is a respite from the stresses of political and economic life. This redefined purpose of the coffeehouse is, best described by Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place, a cure to the more “jangled and fragmented” American lifestyle. Oldenburg’s research concerned the specialness of commercial places that served as a location to unwind, relax, and talk. This social space was coined the “third place” because it was neither home nor work, but rather a place where people simply felt comfortable. Oldenburg felt that this place would facilitate conversation, both between friends and strangers. This place has become a necessary solution to America’s interactional ills. The disconnection in a world of technology and constant work can be offset by the civil engagement produced in the coffeehouse. The public nature of a coffeehouse interaction enables the physical and psychology intimacy of face to face conversation.
[ The Ignition Initiative ]
For the most part, NYC is full of strangers. It’s one of those weird places where you can be surrounded by people but feel completely lonely. Coffeehouse culture here is mostly people conversing with their own friends or students and the self-employed staring intently at their Macbook screens.
However, my favorite coffee shop, Birch, has something called the Ignition Initiative. The initiative presents a new twist on American coffee culture, and it’s one that could really show promise for promoting human connections in a place where connection has traditionally thrived. As can be seen below, the shop has little placards with thought-provoking conversation starters. To participate, one simply places a placard on her table and waits for some one to approach.
Participants in the Ignition Initiative receive an extra free hour of WIFI (Birch provides 1 hour per customer), and it also resolves the issue of crowding, where one person has commandeered an entire table.
I have to admit that I haven’t yet tried this out yet, since I’m usually there to do schoolwork, but I’d love to give it a shot. Would you?