starbucks is gentrification: it wasn’t created for black folks, it was made to push us out

April 20, 2018
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By Asia Renée / WearYourVoice Mag, AFROPUNK contributor

I love Starbucks. I’ve easily spent $1,000 in the last 10 years on peppermint mocha lattes, cookies, muffins, and breakfast sandwiches. Its emblem—the green, two-tailed mermaid on a cup—is a status symbol. In non-white, low-income neighborhoods, the cup is a symbol that gentrification has arrived and that people of color are in danger.

Last Thursday, two Black men entered the Starbucks at 18th and Spruce in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood of Philadelphia for a coffee meeting as they waited for a friend to join them. Rittenhouse Square is one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country and it is also approximately 70% white and 6% Black. The two men were waiting for their friend, real estate investor, Andrew Yaffe (who is white), when they were asked to leave because they hadn’t purchased anything. The store manager called the police who arrived and handcuffed the men. Local resident, Melissa DePino, recorded the arrest and posted the incident to Twitter; Yaffe can be heard asking why they were being forcefully removed.

Good question. It is common knowledge that Starbucks is a venue for small, informal meetings. It is also common knowledge that coffee meetings don’t always include coffee. In fact, Starbucks partnered with Match.com for a Valentine’s Day campaign in 2015 called, “Meet at Starbucks”, encouraging people to make the first move in dating by meeting at a public and safe venue. If only Starbucks were safe for everyone.

The arrival of a Starbucks in non-white neighborhoods is often linked to gentrification and signals that businesses are now investing and attracting white residents. In a piece for The Guardian, writer Jana Kasperkevic investigates the relationship between higher real estate prices and the establishment of a neighborhood Starbucks, citing the authors of Zillow Talk: The New Rules of Real Estate, Spencer Rascoff and chief economist Stan Humphries, who write that Starbucks fuels gentrification and is responsible for higher housing prices.

Philadelphia is a large city of approximately 1.6 million people. It also has the highest poverty rate among the nation’s 10 most populous cities, as well as the highest percentage of residents living in deep poverty, according to the 2016 U.S. Census. In stark contrast, Philadelphia holds historically wealthy neighborhoods like Rittenhouse Square, as the rest of the city falls to gentrification, pushing low-income residents further away from Center City.

As a lifelong resident, I began noticing the patterns of gentrification about 20 years ago. Over the next decade, I would spend a lot of time in Nicetown/Tioga, a section of North Philadelphia. Temple University, also located in North Philadelphia, has steadily spread its reach and boundaries over the last 20 years. Even back then, I watched as condemned or abandoned houses became renovated and listed for thousands of dollars per month. These old, 3-story, 4+ bedroom Victorian homes are priced so that Temple students end up paying $600 for a room in a shared apartment. University City, home to Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania, has also drastically grown in the last two decades.

We now have wealthy, young white people, artists and/or families, living in what has historically been known as the “hood”. When we see the hipster coffee shops, we know what is coming next: Starbucks, Whole Foods, and heightened police activity to protect the new residents, their assets and their businesses. This is to the detriment of the neighborhood’s original locals. The schizophrenic woman who walks around a few select streets—bothering no one—at all, is now seen as a nuisance who needs to be removed, so they call the police. We know what happens when they call the cops: sex workers are arrested; people walking down the street, minding their own business are stopped and terrorized by police and sometimes killed for “fitting the description”.

Calling the cops on a Black person is the zenith of “I need to speak with your manager”. It says, “You won’t do what I’ve asked or told you to do, so now I’m going to put your life in danger by calling the police. That will show you what happens when you challenge authority.” Following this story, I have not seen a single report about the men being rowdy, harassing people or being general nuisances—they were simply waiting for a friend. This city has a belief that it is not racist—despite its current and historical racism—and that other people will intervene and fight for what is right. This is sometimes true, as the video from this incident shows other patrons asking questions about what is happening. But our systems, store managers, and policing are, in fact, racist.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross, who is Black, stated, “I can tell you that that police officer did not want to have to make an arrest in that incident… Many instances people usually leave before we get there. In some instances, they leave when we arrive, just our mere presence. Most people will move just simply because we tell them the proprietor wants you to leave. In this case that was not the issue. That’s for [the arrested men] to decide why they didn’t do that.”

Why should they leave? How degrading and dehumanizing to be asked to leave a meeting because management is uncomfortable with your presence. How embarrassing to have to text the person you’re meeting with and say, “We were kicked out for being Black.”

The police made a clear decision to arrest these men. I resent Ross’s comments backing the actions of these officers to take these men to the precinct for processing. I resent the fact that no less than six police officers came to arrest two Black men who were not displaying hostility or inciting violence. We continue to believe that police are a necessary force that intervenes when there is no other resolve, who are not responsible for how their calls end. We must not forget where our culture of policing began, recovering enslaved Black people who fled their captors. Their mere presence is terrifying to almost everyone I know, and I believe that this is exactly why people call them: to remove Black people for existing in a space they have every right to be in. It’s a Starbucks, not a private home.

So, what can we do? We can put efforts towards building a cultural practice of supporting Black-owned businesses.Amalgam is a coffee shop and comic book store owned and operated by Ariell Johnson; Franny Lou’s Porch is a centered around community activism and has delicious tea, coffee and snacks, and Uncle Bobbie’s coffee shop and bookstore, recently opened on Germantown Avenue, and was established by Marc Lamont Hill. While these are just a few shops here in Philly, there are countless ways to work towards growing our small businesses where we know the manager won’t call the cops on us for breathing in air, taking a seat, and God forbid, asking to use the restroom.

This post is in partnership with WearYourVoice Mag.

*Asia Renée is a native Philadelphian. This mom of two is a lactation counselor with deep interest in reproductive justice and dismantling white supremacy and patriarchy. She is a poet and co-founder of Brown Girls Out Loud, a website dedicated to the celebration and empowerment of Black and Brown women and girls.