Porto Rico to Starbucks: How Gentrification Is Changing Your Coffee

Over the summer, I worked at a coffee shop down in Greenwich Village. One day, I noticed my boss’s silver ring. We started talking and he told me about the silversmith who used to be next door to the coffee store. Everyone loved him, but gradually he became disillusioned with the Village, and eventually his landlord forced him out with rising rent prices. Instead of being able to shop at an artisan silver jewelry store, I worked next to a frozen yogurt franchise that summer.

That wasn’t the only instance of gentrification in the area. In fact, the coffee shop where I worked had to close down their location on Thompson Street. Peter Longo, the owner of Porto Rico Improting Co., posted on his website that “I am sad to announce that Auggies, our den of inequity in Soho on Thompson Street, has closed. The ‘rent is too damn high.’” The only reason why Porto Rico is able to keep its flagship retail location in the Village is that they own the building they’re located in.

Greenwich Village has such a rich history of housing artists, radicals, revolutionaries, and all sorts of different marginalized people; it once stood as a beacon of culture and intellectualism in New York. The birth of the LGBT pride movement began in the Village during the Stonewall Riots in 1969, the Beats movement of the 60s, and the punk scene of the 70s/80s.

True there are still jazz and comedy clubs, record stores, and a lot of other independent vendors in Greenwich Village, but now there are Starbucks, frozen yogurt places, and Duane Reads next door in case you need to take a break from all the history and culture the Village has to offer with a Grande Mocha Frappuccino.

Porto Rico Importing Co. and the silversmith are but two victims of the larger trend of gentrification occurring in New York City.

The gentrification in the area, in terms of the business practices of those interested in drawing a new crowd of people into the neighborhood, is aggressive and downright nasty. The Coffee Bean chain that opened up half a block away from my coffee shop made their sign and awning eerily similar in color and shape to our store, directly trying to siphon off customers from the existing competition.

There seems to be a hierarchy of gentrification or an order. It starts off as an “authentic” neighborhood. Then, starving artists move in. After that, they bring in their actor friends. Next it’s the lawyers. Media moguls come in and finally the area is ready for the ultra-rich to move in. This process is described by intellectual Richard Florida in his article entitled, “The Rise of the Creative Class: Why Cities Without Gays and Rockbands Are Losing the Economic Development Race.” In it, he defines a term called the “creativity index,” which is an indication measuring a city’s ability to “translate that underlying advantage [of the creative class] into creative economic outcomes in the form of new ideas, new high-tech businesses, and regional growth.”

The irony of gentrification is that because of rising rent prices, the process often kicks out those who lived there originally, destroying the “authenticity” of the neighborhood that everyone was looking for in the first place, turning the area into a swath of Starbucks and Duane Reads. Thus the original tenants of the area move out, new neighborhoods spring up, a new wave of starting artists move, and the cycle repeats itself.

Florida describes this phenomenon in his article, writing, “Economists speak of the importance of industries having “low entry barriers,” so that new firms can easily enter and keep the industry vital. Similarly, I think it’s important for a place to have low entry barriers for people—that is, to be a place where newcomers are accepted quickly into all sorts of social and economic arrangements.” This perfectly fits into this idea of gentrification, where the authentic neighborhoods attract those in the creative class. However, as the neighborhood gets more and more expensive and property values rise, the original tenants and the first wave of people to move in get pushed out.

For those living in the neighborhood before the gentrifying process began, their community is swept out from underneath their feet. On paper, gentrification seems like a good thing – property value goes up, crime goes down, the area is “improved.” In real life, the transition rarely goes smoothly, and “improvements” often come at the expense of those who gave the neighborhood the authenticity that made it great in the first place. Maybe a tourist walking into the Village for the first time will get their usual order at Starbucks instead of getting a new experience and a great cup of joe for Porto Rico Importing Co.

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