J’AIME TA COULEUR CAFÉ

The typical latte cup from Climpson&Sons, crafted to perfection

Every time I wake up in the morning I feel an almost automatic urge to sponge up caffeine into my body. Without that my day simply doesn’t start. This acquired habit –or plain addiction, one would say – is particularly overwhelming on weekends when I could pretty much do with buckets of it. But my helpless dependence is not just about coffee itself; it has to do with the coffee shop too. Seeing familiar faces, checking the theatrical moves of the baristas, sitting down and watching the world go by for a while are all part of a ritual that has become more and more common in certain neighbourhoods. So, what to make of these places? What’s so special about them and why do people value their local, independent coffee shops so much?

Coffee shops are not just sites where one simply eats/drinks. These places should be understood in terms of agency and social production as well. Besides being devoted to a particular drinking habit, independent coffee shops are places where customers constantly produce interpersonal relationships, either face-to-face, or through other mediated forms. These people living in the ‘live-wild’ zones of global cities like London are primarily interested in [inter]play, exploration and invest a lot in cultural capital, thus, the ubiquity of books, newspapers, laptops and etc in these places. It could therefore be argued that, in some way, the independent coffee shop phenomenon in East London owns its success to an environment that is remarkably dynamic and pluralistic in social terms. Furthermore, coffee shops are able to offer a distinct service in a welcoming ambient that is affordable and highly self-gratifying.

What’s also quite interesting to observe is the importance of these spaces in creating a sense o locality, community and neighbourly sentiment. It is precisely this emotional bonding that, to a greater or lesser degree, works toward creating 3rd spaces, which are increasingly important in the contemporary urban landscape for they provide some sort of anchorage in environments often characterized by displacement, detachment and constant mobility of its agents/subjects.

Another way of complicating this idea is the recurrent privatisation of public space and the omnipresence of global brands. Richard Florida, Richard Lloyd, and Sharon Zukin, have similar arguments where the figure of ‘the creative’, ‘the artist’ and the ‘neo-bohemian’ have a significant role in the process of urban regeneration – in what could be described as an early stage of certain processes of gentrification – marked by partial, but sometimes total, substitution of small local business by chains. That’s why, in my opinion, the coffee shops are so special. They provide the space where certain kinds of socialities and practices are re-enacted and developed further as part of a strategy of actualization and self-entrepreneurship that is not possible in any standardized, mass-fabricated environment. They function beyond mere sites of commodity consumption (i.e. finality in Marxist terms) like the big chains. They capture the essence of a locale and add value to it – emotional and social value, as it were.

Clockwise from top left: 'Tina We Salute You', 'Climpson&Sons', 'Hurwundeki', 'Cofee@153': reading, chatting, browsing, looking...

Walter Benjamin’s anecdotal memories registered in Berlin Childhood: 1900 offer another interesting insight on the relation between ‘space-making’ and affect. In his explorations of Berlin he describes in detail his strategies to transform seemingly banality into extraordinary experiences in what could be translated into time-space appropriations:

“I had been looking for something that would have made the island entirely mine, that would opened it up exclusively to me. With a single feather I would have taken possession of it – not only the island but also the afternoon”.

Similarly, the denizens living in East London refer to their local amenities like bistros, pubs, second-hand stores, coffee shops and etc, as ‘my local one’. It is as if in such claims over geographically positioned assets lies a sense of comfort and belonging, intrinsically implied every time one stops by his/her ‘local coffee shop’ to have a sip on the thick, dark drink and perhaps a bite too. I realized that, quite often, these people are subjects in transition, away from home, postmodern diasporas coming from everywhere and with as diverse occupations as one could name: Finish textile designer; Brazilian interactive designer; Korean media student; Greek journalist; German filmmaker; Japanese working in 3D animation; British photographer; and so on and so forth. These types come to coffee shops not only because they have developed a peculiar taste for Arabica, but, because establishing a [bodily] presence in those places has become one important component of identity-making and style of life in the contemporary urban environment.

In its former incarnations, as in Cairo or Istanbul, coffee shops provided a background against which men would socialize, play, watch, listen to Arabic music, etc. Nowadays, it is more likely that people will make associations with the somehow clichéd and highly romanticized notion of the Parisian café evoked in the representations of late nineteen century ‘bohème’ found in modern literature and painting, where artists, writers and the like would idly congregate and be seen indulging in a hedonistic life style. This affect, bringing together nostalgia, romance, flânerie, consumption and sociality offers, in my view, a kind of continuity of narratives involving persons with either a developed aesthetic disposition, as stated by Bourdieu, or seeking to legitimize their position in the social structure. As a result, this milieu is marked by a kind of transubstantiation of stereotypical identities: the aspiring writer, seeking inspiration for a poem is substituted by the TV producer, laptop in hand, catching up with work emails; the struggling painter gives way to the PR consultant making phone calls while waiting for eggs Florentine; the accessories designer drinking skinny-latte with a friend takes the place of the bygone flapper. This picture develops a particular complexity when all banality and prosaicness of everyday events unfolding in coffee shops are re-framed by the panoptical view of the observer (whoever he/she might be) whose gaze – or flânerie, for that matter – guides him/her to increasingly loose categories. To put it another way, the variety of types one may encounter in these coffee shops seem to represent the epitome of postmodern urban diversity but, conversely, cannot even be categorized as such anymore as they bear overlapping identities (or a range of seemingly irreconcilable components forming their identities): the yummy mummy who used to play in a post-punk band during her teens and now runs a dotcom business from home; the antipode barista who has a degree in political sciences but also works in music festivals; the ever present figure of the hipster who is now pursuing a career in marketing; the marketing professional who is pursuing a career in video-art. The cornucopia of interests, hobbies, professions and activities is endless.

L'eau a La Bouche, the best spot for coffee and flânerie (not necessarily in this order)

Keith Tester offers an argument that interconnects two of the concepts already reviewed in this paper: one by Benjamin and the other by Baudelaire. He calls it the dialectical nature of ‘doing’ and ‘being’ and their relation with finding one’s personal truth. Tester maintains that whereas in Baudelaire’s work there’s an interplay and possibility of interchanges and construction of meaning, in Benjamin’s, on the other hand, the logic of capital eliminated these possibilities for mystery and discovery were substituted by the stark factuality of the commodity and the market. Therefore, what I observe in coffee shops is more of a residue of what that interplay between more or less well defined characters and categories used to be in the past. The negotiations in which the postmodern counterparts enter are far more complex, more problematic nowadays, I believe, considering how fragmented and volatile our cultural landscape has become in the aftermath of the post-industrial period.

A barista at Tina: I could swear I saw him playing a gig the week before

Places like ‘The Bridge’, on Kingsland Road; ‘Climpson&Sons’, on Broadway Market; ‘Tina We Salute You’, in Dalston; ‘Coffee@157’; ‘Hurwundeki’, on Cambridge Heath Road; ‘Taste of Bitter Love‘,  and many more, display clear signs of high reflexivity for they help produce and are at the same time produced by actors and agency. This combination of attitudes, tastes, and backgrounds create (generically speaking) a contrasting ambient imbued with an unique aura that is capable of retaining, at least to some extent, the bare essence of some long gone traditions where decompressed time-space, theatre, flânerie and authenticity were all but elemental components of the coffee-drinking experience in pre-commodified, low-mediated urban environments. Therefore, it is contrasting because independent coffee shop as spaces do suggest the possibility to accommodate both low-pace (although only momentarily) and nostalgia with connectivity, interplay, and intensive exchange, all at the customer’s sole discretion.

The remaining question now is no longer single or double, but skinny, soya or decaf?

LONDON OPEN-CITY 2010 (PART II) BALFRON TOWER: TRELLICK’S OLDER (AND POORER) SISTER

Balfron Tower, street level view

The second part of my Open House London runnaround was a visit to Balfron Tower in Poplar, East London. I was originally planning a viewing at Trellick Tower, on the opposite side of town in the affluent W10 postcode but it was obviously booked out the very minute reservations started to take place on the website. The alternative then was to go and check its predecessor in far less glamorous surroundings instead.

It is impossible to ignore the complex of building’s presence in contrast to other estates around it. Despite its derelict look the whole Brownfield Estate pays testimony to the poignancy of some architects who got involved in the rebuilding of East London during the decades following WWII. The complex, containing three buildings: Carradale House, Glenkerry House and Balfron Tower were conceived by Ernö Goldfinger, perhaps mostly known by his Bond’s namesake villain (it’s said that Ernö and Ian Flemming were disaffected neighbours which lead to the later indiscreetly teasing his friend with a such a honourable tribute).

The flat I visited was on the 24th floor with amazing views of, errr, Canary Wharf. Like 20 or so other artists, the flat was allocated to a painter who benefitted from Bow Arts Trust initiative to fill the empty premises with creatives aiming at, (1) helping these individuals continue their art practice by offering living-work spaces at a very low rent, (2) preventing the infiltration of rogue elements and particularly squatters. I must say, the view of Canary Warf was breathtaking, not to mention the amount of light filling the living room. It was a smart move by the local authorities I thought, one that promotes the reinvigoration of areas lacking in productive activities and contribute to positive change in poor, disenfranchised neighbourhoods. However, this can also mean a first step towards gentrification, I sensed. According to Open-City organisers, Tower Hamlets Council is planning a total refurbishment of the building meaning, relocating artists and, pushing the vast majority of residents out. It is clear that the architectural value of the complex along with their proximity to the financial district of Canary Warf make for an extremely profitable opportunity. For better or worse that’s the London way.

The funny thing though was the perplexed gazes we, visitors, received from residents walking in and out of the building. It is a fact that a lot of people in the city don’t actually like (or comprehend) this concept of architecture. Modernism, frequently dubbed ‘brutalist’ in the UK, is a far-fetched ideal for most of the people, be it at an aesthetic or functional levels. Thus the odd look fired at us while we were waiting to enter the premises. Just to prove my point, as I was resuming my visit with a few more shots of the facade a local resident on her mid-forties, along with her sturdy English bulldog, approached me and in a puzzled tone of voice asked: ‘why arh ye lads so fascina-ed by thiz buil-ings? Ta’in pi-tchas en aw. I think they arh pree-ey f***ing ugly, mate!!’

Ah, the joys of East London…