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Columns

First Come Coffee Shops — Then, Gentrification

By Charlotte A. Nickerson, Crimson Opinion Writer
Charlotte A. Nickerson ’24 is a History concentrator in Dudley House. Her column, “AirSpace,” appears on alternate Wednesdays.

In the life of an average college student, one frequently encounters the classic coffee shop aesthetic: deep warm colors and cool neutrals, design or photography books, generously applied plants, reclaimed wood, and hanging Edison light bulbs.

Every day, many Harvard students shuffle into Bluestone Lane, use their BoardPlus at Barker Cafe, or grab lunch at Flour Bakery. With all our frequent stops at campus and beyond’s coffee shops, one can’t help but wonder at this classic coffee shop aesthetic and the changing of neighborhoods it seems to herald.

In the 18th century, writers like Joseph Addison and Richard Steele wrote of coffee houses as the centers of public, intellectual life. In the late 1900s, however, the American second wave of coffee reconceptualized the beverage from intellectual fuel to a luxury experience; a small, upstart coffee shop in Seattle would help ship this movement to the rest of the United States, and then the world.

That coffee shop was Starbucks.

The open, industrial style of Starbucks and later third-wave coffee shops contrasted with the clean, basic style of past large chains. To meet legal requirements for their specialized equipment, they occupied former factories and industrial buildings. By incorporating a minimalist aesthetic, devoid of vibrant colors and distracting symbolism, they directed focus toward the product they produced. Suddenly, the barista became the sommelier, the owner of a trained palette, who could, with a sip, differentiate notes and roasts, and pin down the corner of the world any coffee bean belonged to.

The transformation of coffee into an item of luxury also made the drink, and the places it inhabited, more expensive. Every new coffee shop introduced in a given year is associated with a 0.5 percent increase in housing prices in its zip code.

A more recent trend — the rise of digital nomadism, the practice of remote working with frequent traveling — is bringing this gentrification worldwide. Through companies like Outsite, digital nomads can buy memberships for living. Roughly $1,700 a month entitles a remote worker to a private room in Tulum, Mexico, or another city, ultimate freedom of movement, and a place in an on-site coffee shop.

Digital nomads need only a stable Internet connection to fuel their lifestyle. Constantly traveling, they’re likely to gravitate toward the comfort of familiar tastes, language, and aesthetics — particularly in this more stable, post-pandemic era. Four-dollar espresso shots become the cost of rent for a modular office space that can move anywhere a laptop fits. As digital nomadism attracts more and more converts, who proliferate through cities and raise their real estate prices, the unified design elements of the modern coffee shops they haunt serve as a strong bidirectional symbol of worldwide gentrification.

As college students, including myself, continue to frequent coffee shops on campus, across the Square, and beyond, it’s important to remember what influences design elements hold. With the welcoming, collective aesthetic of modern coffee shops often comes a justification for raised prices — and gentrification.

Charlotte A. Nickerson ’24 is a History concentrator in Dudley House. Her column, “AirSpace,” appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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