Some time ago there was a stink in my neighbourhood when Starbucks – aka the devil in a frothy, milky cloak – opened a store on our small shopping strip. Oh, the outpouring of anger. Our independence would be lost forever; we were going to be “chainified”. The odd local celebrity penned words demanding its removal.
Now, as it happens, I was not a fan – don’t like their coffee, don’t like having my name misspelled on their cups. Anyway, the campaign – and a slightly odd site – did for them. They left.
So do you want to know what we’ve got instead? Well, after an unappealing pop-up, we have another chain. The Starbucks of British stationery suppliers: Ryman. Locals insist they are happy with the outcome, although the Smythson buyers among them are hardly likely to be spotted in there.
Although my neighbourhood is gloriously socially mixed, most of the new shops and cafés that open here are clearly smarter than what went before. We are being gentrified! Argentinean tapas, anyone? And that’s where Starbucks came in: it catered for a different crowd.
When you are a student (as has been pointed out to me by a Monocle intern), Starbucks can act as a good shared workspace. Just look through the windows: the people in there don’t care if the muffins make you fat, they are there because it acts as a kind of library (well, minus the books). And this is the problem with too many local campaigns: they tend to be organised by people who know how to get their voices heard and have too tight a vision of what’s good and what’s bad.
London is currently basking in the glow of a new round of house-price inflation (although how it helps anyone who needs somewhere to live is never quite explained) and it’s changing London at an incredible pace. But there are too many places popping up for people like me in what should be diverse neighbourhoods. I love a good yoghurt shop concept and a restaurant with carefully curated whites, but I also like a chemist, a hardware shop and newsagents. And I also don’t expect every shop to be serving my needs.
The smartening up of London is not going to stop: too much foreign money is sloshing in looking for places to be hidden away. But we have to be careful that it’s not just the same few well-connected people who decide how our streets should look and sound.
This will be made even more acute as the middle aged and middle class stay in the city and do not move out to the suburbs which, in many cities, are being bequeathed to the poor (in the UK heroin use is booming in the ’burbs where new migrants find cheaper housing than in the newly desirable city centre). These well-to-do types know that they don’t want another Starbucks. Trouble is, they are soon lobbying their local civic leaders to close down noisy joints and businesses where you might hear the sound of people using a hammer or welding a car.
The city needs to be made in the image of everyone and no one. It needs to be allowed to let Starbucks sit alongside the organic café and the Indian takeaway. It’s the collisions and compromises that make a city work. And, sometimes, a place to write your PhD while nursing a lone coffee.
Andrew Tuck is the editor of Monocle.