What the Mermaid Taught Me

Once upon a time in America, coffee was just coffee. Pretty much the same for everyone. With the exception of Italian neighborhoods and counterculture hang-outs — mostly in college communities and artsy urban enclaves — you couldn’t divine much about coffee drinkers by the brand they favored, or the take-out cup they carried.

Then came Starbucks, dispensing designer coffee for the masses. It reduced our tolerance for weak bilge and burned sludge, and seduced us with a taste for the good stuff, while being a relatively decent corporate citizen within the constraints of a free-market economy. But as it grew and replicated over the land, insinuating itself onto our street corners and into our culture, many organizers began to view the sassy green mermaid as the epitome not of gratification, but of gentrification.

When it comes to Starbucks though, there seem to be as many narratives as there are coffee drinkers — as I quickly discovered during my research for Wrestling With Starbucks, a book that uses the coffee company as a lens to explore how we define and practice our values in the global economy. My own interest had been piqued in 1999 when I joined fellow activists in Seattle to protest the World Trade Organization and found myself only yards away from an anarchist attack on a Starbucks store window. How, I wondered, had a chain of coffee shops with a relatively benevolent reputation come to engender the evils of capitalism run amok? Several years later, spurred by a writing assignment from ColorLines magazine, I endeavored to find out.

Although I’ve spent most of my life in the labor movement fighting for the redistribution of wealth and power, I decided to begin with what I soon discovered was a radical assumption: that the Starbucks Coffee Company, the labor movement, and the global justice movement all wanted to make the world a better place. In other words, I began by taking all of them at their word, and then dug deeper.

Like most parts of the Starbucks landscape, the intersection where race, class, and real estate meet to form gentrification is rife with contradictions and often eludes prevailing assumptions. English sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term “gentrification” in 1964. She had been studying various London districts as they began to get richer, as abandoned changed to desirable and cheap lodging became more or less expensive. “Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district,” she wrote, “it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.” Activists tend to see Starbucks as a harbinger of such change, which has become synonymous with displacement of poor residents by more affluent ones and, most often, the displacement of people of color by whites.

There seems to be a set and inexorable pattern to the whole thing. Take, for instance, the formerly black-majority Central District of Seattle. According to the Associated Press, November 2001, “The good economy of the ’90s and the deliberate efforts of residents like [DeCharlene] Williams, who founded the Central Area Chamber of Commerce, helped eradicate crime. Businesses like Starbucks moved in, and many blacks — once corralled into the Central District by racist red-lining policies of banks, insurance companies and real-estate firms — found themselves moving out.”

Some communities organize to protest the effects of Starbucks — and other chains. In 2005, San Francisco’s redevelopment authority approved a Starbucks for Japantown over strong community objections. “Many people in the neighborhood voiced the concern that Starbucks’ presence would have diminished the revenues of local small businesses, such as Café Hana, May’s Coffee Shop, Benkyodo Diner and Café Tan Tan,” reported the local Nichi Bei Times. In that case, Starbucks acceded to neighborhood wishes and decided not to sign the lease.

However, that scenario is not the most common. Generally, when Starbucks moves into economically or culturally upscale locations, everyone is happy except a few cranky bohos. In white middle-class and striving neighborhoods, there are seldom problems or protests. Then lower-income neighborhoods of color, desperate for amenities, demand inclusion as well. And just about at that point, white political activists and artists began to see the chain as predatory and worthy of opposition. Although there are a few wealthy villages (think Martha’s Vineyard) and historic districts that eschew chain stores on principle, the blowback against Starbucks has generally been the purview of übercool politicos and culturalists. Consider the notices plastered onto some San Francisco Starbucks windows in 2003: “The global economy requires a relentless substitution of quantity over quality and shareholder value over human values,” read the announcement, which culture jammers (the name ascribed to inventive practitioners of satirical brand desecration) had printed on fake company letterhead. “At our current market level, Starbucks cannot in good conscience guarantee all of our beans meet both our rigorous quality standards as well as our commitment to social responsibility. We are moving over and making room for local coffee bars.”

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