Every Marx-addled writer's dream come true.
Starbucks lands in Greenpoint, loudly and without shame
The area of Greenpoint, Brooklyn stretching west from McGuiness Boulevard to the banks of the East River is an ever-expanding haven for small cafes and coffee shops. There’s Ashbox, Champion, Greenpoint Coffee House, O Solé Mio, Cafécito, Brooklyn Label, Eat Records, Grumpy…and that’s just a casual listing. Ever since the Greenpoint/ Williamsburg waterfront rezoning of 2005, which looks to potentially add dozens of high-rise condominiums and 10,000 new residents to this remarkably quaint corner of Kings County, locals knew change was on its way. Recently, the proverbial cup of Folger’s was served pitch black to Greenpoint-at-large when “Starbucks Coffee” slipped its way into an old movie theater on the corner of Manhattan and Greenpoint avenues and saw fit to surround its iconic sans serif font on the marquee with a set of unthinkably bright light bulbs.
“It’s very obnoxious and in-your-face and tacky,” says Hernando Varela, part-owner of Cafécito, a French-Colombian cafe a few blocks north on Manhattan Avenue. “But hey, I understand they just want to make money and put the word out themselves.”
Not everyone, though, is quite as critical. “I laughed,” Karen Hayes says of the first time she saw the marquee. Hayes has lived in Greenpoint for three years and distrusts the gag reflex many seem to have when it comes to Grande Frappuccinos and green aprons. “I think sometimes people are just being haters. Sort of anti-everything.”
Hayes’ husband, Joe Keating, recently opened Jack O’Neal’s, a neighborhood pub on Franklin Avenue just one block west from the new Starbucks. In honor of Greenpoint’s pre-gentrification days, Joe and his business partner previously considered another name for their bar: Stray Dogs & Hookers.
“It seems to be a typical flagship of gentrification where people see it and think, ‘This means we’re at this advanced stage,’” Keating says of Starbucks. “Part of me had that ‘Oh god’ view when I first saw it. But part of me also thought, ‘Oh god, at least my investment in property in this neighborhood has passed a certain threshold.’ There’s a Jekyll & Hyde about this for me.”
“I’m afraid Greenpoint is going to end up being a bigger planning disaster than any other part of Brooklyn,” warns Robert Guskind Brooklyn editor of the real estate/development blog Curbed.com. “Within five years, quality of life is going to be affected on a fundamental level. The change is inevitable.”
If the new Starbucks indeed becomes the symbol for change in Greenpoint, then the multi-ethnic, artist-friendly “village” life it presently enjoys is very much at risk. In their stores, at their events and in the statement provided by Starbucks Regional Spokesperson, Hope Tannenbaum, Starbucks touts its efforts to build strong communities via the “Starbucks Experience.” Throughout this Experience (please note the capital “E”), “Customers come for coffee, stay for the inviting warmth and return for the very human connection.” But Starbucks must attempt to reconcile this laughably inflated sense of corporate self with the plain reality that fake community sounds nice, sells more coffee and allows their worldwide expansion rate of six stores per day. When a big retail corporation talks about building communities, they’re truly after something a bit less sunny—namely cultivating markets of loyal consumers. Any neighborhood invaded by Starbucks gradually morphs from a shared community of participatory individuals into a top-down Starbucks Community (let’s allow them the capital “C,” for fun) set up for that most cynical of American functions: to sell more, faster…and more! Creative potential is lost and corporate sameness is perpetuated.
People/consumers are left somewhere in the middle to grapple with what’s real—and what’s just another sales pitch.
When I visited Greenpoint’s friendliest new neighbor, I noticed a small dry-erase board with the words, “Today, your barista is… Sara.” Her smiling picture occupied the same space. Next to that it read, “Today, I Recommend… A Venti Orange and Crème Extra Whipped Crème and Orange Zest Frappucino.”
I looked over at Sara, who was not nearly so cheery in person as her picture led me to believe, and I suspected she neither enjoyed drinking nor serving 11-word long coffee drinks.
Minutes later: “I did not recommend that! Who wrote that?” Sara, now standing in front of the dry-erase board, was feverishly rubbing off the “recommendation” with her sleeve, until the “Today I Recommend…” board was totally blank.
“Today,” she said, satisfied with her erasing, “I recommend you go someplace else.”
Five minutes later Sara’s recommendation was rewritten, word-for-word, this time with a little added flair. A “very human connection” indeed.