It’s a bright February morning at the Proud Archivist (now the Proud East), a coffee shop facing the canal just off Kingsland Road in London, and regular Matthew Green is greeting the manager as if they’re old friends. Their cheerful interaction rises above the low din of the subdued crowd, some of whom are chatting, most of whom are typing away on laptops.
The fact that the Proud East is one of about five similar cafes within a five-minute walk in this Dalston neighbourhood brings to mind the fact that, in the past decade or so, the words: “There are a lot of coffee shops opening up around there” has become a precursor for: “There goes the neighbourhood.”
But if Green – who as well as being a regular is also a coffee historian, earned his PhD from Oxford and leads historical coffee tours around London – had his way, coffee houses like the Proud East would help facilitate something entirely different than gentrification: meaningful interaction.
One can almost imagine Green walking into a late 17th-century London coffee house and uttering the salutation that, he says, was de rigueur: “What news have you?” Today, it’s fair to say that’s been replaced by a more modern (and loathed) version: “What’s the WiFi password?”
However, as the coffee shop has become a byword for what everyone hates about urban change and gentrification – first come the creatives and their coffee shops, then the young professionals, then the luxury high-rises and corporate chains that push out original residents – it’s worth asking if that charge is fair. As the function of the coffee house in London has evolved over time, was its early iteration so radically different than the ones many of us type and sip away in today?
To hear Green tell it, there have been three major spikes in speciality coffee culture in the UK over the past 350 years. The first began when a Greek man, Pasqua Rosée, opened the first coffee house in 1652against the stone wall of St Michael’s churchyard near Cornhill in London. That sludge-like coffee, Green says, was in keeping with the Turkish proverb: “Black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love.”
Over the next 50 years, as the coffee house became a popular alternative to taverns and alehouses, they also became something else: a place for London’s “coffee house politicians” to air their grievances. One could argue that these intelligentsia and knowledge economy workers – Samuel Peyps and Sir Isaac Newton were regulars – were not too dissimilar to the types of freelancers and creative class workers we find in places like The Proud East today. But instead of ranting on Twitter or in the comments section of newspapers, Green says patrons of London’s early coffee houses revelled in the novelty of boisterously voicing their opinions to their (almost exclusively male) companions.
“It was the birth of this idea that people have a right to have an opinion – even if that opinion is then subsequently ignored,” Green says. “It is widely acknowledged that English coffeehouses were vents for political discontent, places where people could let off steam and grumble, and I’ve no doubt this contributed to the relative political stability of England in the 18th century.”
Much time elapsed before the second boom, in the 1950s and swinging 60s, when coffee houses like Le Macabre in Soho and Il Cadore in Rugby became hubs of the youth and counterculture, and introduced a subset of Britons to the singular pleasure of a Gaggia-pulled cappuccino with chocolate powder sprinkled on top. For the youth who frequented them, these were identity-forging spaces, where changing ideas of fashion, gender, and politics were formed, and the likes of Jimmy Cliff and Tommy Steele were discovered among the young and diverse clientele. As Matthew Green has written:
Photographs and films of Soho’s coffee bars reveal a youthful, cosmopolitan clientele comprised of advertising executives, musicians, poets, journalists, actors, bon vivants, West Indian immigrants and, in particular, teenagers, whether dressed as Brylcreemed teddy boys or scruffy, Gauloise-smoking bohemians … Too young to drink alcohol in pubs, and unexcited by youth clubs or Lyons Corner Houses with their stolid bourgeois clientele, they found in Soho’s coffee bars the chance to forge their own distinctive identities away from the watchful suburban eye: to pose, flirt, sing, smoke, and watch the latest live music with a plenteous supply of coffee, Coca Cola and cigarettes.
The third boom is the past decade’s massive growth in speciality coffee shops, spawning barista competitions, dedicated coffee magazines such as Caffeine, and the London Coffee Festival, taking place across the capital in early April. The global research platform Allegra World Coffee Portal estimates 100% growth in the sector by 2020, outpacing the conventional coffee market year on year.
While the modern iteration of the coffee house is decidedly more subdued (pendant lighting, minimalist aesthetic, distressed wood) than the likes of Soho’s famed Le Macabre, where patrons sat on dark coffins and tapped their cigarette ash into skulls, Green says what they signify in the culture is similar.
“The coffee house has always been a mark of sophistication … and a barometer of gentrification. Even going back to 1650s they were a sign of a rising tide of economic prosperity, because that’s when there was a trade boom.”
Blogger and entrepreneur Sam Floy made waves last year when he and a team of data scientists created a series of heat maps correlating coffee shop density with those London neighborhoods classified as “up and coming”. In his widely shared blogpost, he noted that a home-buyer’s best bet for a return on investment was “a high density of coffee shops, a low density of chicken shops, and low house prices”. The real estate sweet spot according to this logic? Peckham, the rapidly gentrifying south London neighbourhood.
This kind of crude measure of gentrification is what a lot of people mean when they either celebrate or lament the appearance of coffee shops: the fact that it’s not so much caffeine they serve as rapid neighbourhood change, which has made much of London unaffordable to the working class. Green says that, while it’s easy to blame hipster culture for their proliferation, it wouldn’t have been all that different back in the day.
“Depending on where the coffee house was in London, the social environment around it was different. So although there’s this myth that coffee shops were egalitarian spaces because anyone who had a penny who could get in, you have to remember that an unskilled labourer would earn only eight pence a day.”
Coffee shops are about work in another way, too: the rise of the “gig economy” – the proliferation of freelance workers, digital contractors and entrepreneurs who don’t have an office and can’t afford to rent one – has been crucial in shaping their new role.
According to Darren Elliott, co-founder of Timber Yard, a growing chain of hybrid coffeeshop workspaces around London, many people who disparage modern coffee-shop laptop-tappers don’t understand that they are often working there in an attempt to leave the house and interact with other people.
“I love looking in through the outside window and seeing everyone on MacBooks, it’s busy, it’s exciting and yet you’ll get someone walking passed saying ‘Oh my god, look in there, everyone is on a laptop! What’s wrong with them! Why don’t they talk to each other!?’ And yet it couldn’t be any more social: every one of those people are talking to other people.”
Timberyard researched ways to make their cafes more conducive to working and collaboration, including a mix of communal tables and private areas, the ideal music volume, and using both natural and artificial lighting. They also host regular events, a Facebook group called “London Creatives” and workshops and yoga classes after hours. Using the kind of tech jargon that is the native tongue of most of his customers, Elliott calls the space a “platform for community”.
“We communicate with these people online on a daily basis and at the same time we’re very much a real space – three real spaces – and the two facilitate each other. That human interaction is very important.”
Green, for his tastes, still yearns for something a bit more off-beat, to reflect the ongoing 350-year-old coffee tradition in Britain. He’d like to see more coffee shops like the floating one on London’s canals, or an establishment where tables are arranged around different topics and current events, with reading material on each.
“I find so-called coffee connoisseurs complete bores,” Green said. “The idea that someone could talk to me about a cup of coffee for more than 20 seconds – it’s just not about that. For me, it’s about the social experience in the space.”