Starbucks’ Secret Ingredient: Gentrification

By Free Radical

A protestor at the 18th and Spruce Starbucks.

A protestor at the 18th and Spruce Starbucks.

The arrests last week of two men at a Philadelphia area Starbucks for doing little more than being Black has captured the nation’s attention, garnering millions of views on social media. The two men were refused use of the coffee shop’s bathroom and were asked to leave when employees realized they had not planned on immediately purchasing anything. For some unknown reason, (perhaps it’s known, yet irrational nonetheless) staff members called the police who arrested and detained the men for hours before releasing them.

The outrage that was sparked from this clear example of racial profiling has caused a public relations nightmare for the Seattle based company. Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson flew to the East Coast to personally apologize to the two men and has called for 8,000 of the coffee shops to close on May 29 so employees can undergo racial bias training. Though Johnson took full onus for the incident, the manager who called the police no longer works for the company. The CEO also took to social media to promise further policy changes.

Yet I am certain that Johnson does not have the wherewithal to make the necessary changes to prevent another unfortunate episode such as this from happening (don’t believe me, a similar occurrence that took place at a Torrance, California Starbucks in January surfaced earlier this week). Johnson is in the ironic position of actively participating in a problem that is simultaneously bigger than him.

Starbucks, with few exceptions is a White space. And police have historically protected White spaces and other sites of privilege, making seemingly innocuous interracial interactions potentially explosive and life-threatening.

I always get the sensation when I’m in Starbucks, like this scene was not meant for me. The vibe, the tone, the energy caters to White people. Admittedly, these “feelings” can be reduced to my personal idiosyncrasies. Yet, there are mounds of empirical data that supports my intuition.

The Starbucks where the arrests were made is located on 18th and Spruce Streets in Philadelphia. In 2013, the median household income of this Central City West area was $63,709 according to a Pew Charitable Trusts study. The average household income for the entire city is almost half this amount at $36,836. In 2014, the average price of homes sold in the area where the Starbucks is located was a whopping $770.000.

Yet among this wealth, there are stark inequalities. In 2015, Philadelphia had the highest rate of deep poverty among the largest ten cities in the United Sates. The City of Brotherly Love has deep pockets of wealth and large islands of poverty, sometimes bordering each other. Gentrification is largely to blame.

Before becoming a bastion of wealth, the Central City West neighborhood where last Thrusday’s incident occurred was nearly all Black just fifteen years ago. Yet poorer Black residents were pushed out by more affluent Whites who were able to pay the higher rents and mortgages for the opportunity to relocate closer to downtown.

What often accompanies these new migrants are Starbucks and other businesses (also see Whole Foods, Trader Joes, etc.) that on the surface have built ostensibly progressive brands, yet engineer Black residential displacement and reify maldistributions of wealth. A study of residential areas by Zillow showed that homes located near a Starbucks rose by 96% from 1997 to 2014 as opposed to just 65% for homes further away.

Gentrification not only brings a sea of White faces and high priced businesses, but also an increased police presence to protect these entities. Black people, which may have once dominated the area, now become outsiders, as was the case last Thursday. The actions of the Starbucks employees on 18th and Spruce St. was not an anomaly, it was a function of the hypersegregated, classist, environment of urban America.

So though well meaning, the work of CEO Kevin Johnson will almost inevitably be ineffectual. It is too easy, too convenient, simplistic, and quick. The real work is helping to reshape the American urban landscape. Hopefully we will soon see the day when coffee shops are no longer seen as more important than the lives people who were displaced to put them there.

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