In DC in the 2000s, I spent the formative years of my life, as the city transformed around me, inside Starbucks. I can measure out that time with coffee cups. My first drink, a hot apple cider I ordered, at age 11, with my mom. The caramel macchiato that soon afterwards became my drink of choice. The Frappuccinos I ordered down the street from the Upper Northwest Catholic school — Pat Buchanan’s alma mater — where I sulked through a year of eighth grade. The first real cups of drip coffee, earthy and dark, I drank from the Starbucks closest to my public arts high school in Georgetown, which were — not inconsequentially — the cheapest item on the menu. The strange concoctions I’d whip up, after I started working as a barista at one and then another Starbucks, when the store was slow: an upside-down lid filled with whipped cream, topped with chocolate nibs and eaten with a spoon. The shuddering quantities of espresso I consumed on days I had both school and work, or worked two jobs in a row.
The first Starbucks to open in my deeply segregated hometown was also the first Starbucks on the East Coast, going up in one of the richest and whitest neighborhoods in the city — just across the street from Chelsea Clinton’s high school. Nationwide, it changed the way Americans thought of, paid for, and drank coffee: ushering in Italian espresso, premium prices, and an invitation — for some — to linger. The year it opened, in 1993, the city was 65% black. Today, the percentage is just under 48. There are at least 50 Starbucks.
Unlike in New York, where gentrification can don the fig leaf of bohemia, the march of money and white people into DC’s black neighborhoods is unmistakably corporate. The appearance, like pockmarks, of chains is the clearest sign that the strain has taken hold, that the living organism playing host — a community — is not long for this world. A Starbucks in DC in the 1990s was a planted flag, marking where white people were, or where they were going to go next.
Divorce unseated my white family from the racial enclave I was born into, and my mother and brothers and I spent much of my youth moving across black DC. We had all of the cultural privilege that came from our place within America’s race-based caste system, but none of its buying power. Poor white people aren’t news, but we were unusual in a city where there essentially were none. (A 1997 report by the Urban Institute estimated that a poor black family was 25 times more likely than ours to live in our neighborhood.) I worked with only one other white person in my entire career at Starbucks, from 2004 through 2008, and she was at my first location, in the considerably more upscale Dupont Circle neighborhood. Yet it was a context that felt utterly normal to me. We were the only white people in our apartment building, too.
A Starbucks in DC in the 1990s was a planted flag, marking where white people were, or where they were going to go next.
When I was in its thrall, Starbucks looked bourgeois, smelled aspirational, tasted like sophistication. Every year the underclassmen at my high school roasted the senior class and, when it was my turn, a junior captured me with just a Starbucks cup and a violent, caffeinated jitter. My deep attachment to the brand was akin to my abiding love of museum gift shops, Sharper Image massage chairs, the NPR catalogs that arrived in the mail: symbols of moderate luxury (of the 401(k) variety, rather than the private jet kind) that are also often coded white. The Starbucks brand, too, is prototypically white. Consider the sheer volume of dairy it purveys, the colonial overtones of its world-as-Whitman’s-Sampler menu, the fact that it invented the Pumpkin Spice Latte. But the individual locations in my life were not just that. They were complicated by their staff, their customers, their context.
When two black men were arrested — for no good reason — in a Philadelphia Starbucks earlier this month, I remembered the part of the Starbucks employee handbook that described “the third place.” A location in between, and ranking shortly after, work and home, Starbucks conceptualizes its stores as a “place for conversation and a sense of community.” Their physical design actively encourages patrons to stay: deep armchairs, open outlets, enormous seating areas. In New York City, Starbucks stores have long functioned as unofficial but widely acknowledged public restrooms. It makes good business sense. The longer people stay, the more they are likely to buy. Yet it isn’t the only institution to use this language. Libraries also promote themselves as a “third place,” design similar people-friendly interiors, and are — crucially — free. Starbucks will always owe its investors more than the people who use its cafes as community spaces, and the company’s decision to close stores nationwide for racial-bias training seems first and foremost a marketing strategy, whether or not it is also an act of good faith. The problem the training seeks to solve — systemic white supremacy — is also, indisputably, far larger than a single chain of coffee shops. In the United States, there is no “third place” for black Americans, no public forum where they are truly free from the possibility of scrutiny, bodily harm, or court intervention.
What is it about Starbucks that made this incident, as commonplace as it is unjust, such a flashpoint? The company is perceived as a bastion of a certain kind of liberal whiteness, and an arrest like this confirms all of that ideology’s worst hypocrisies. But that’s not it, exactly. Not all of it. For instance, a Starbucks is not a McDonald’s, but it’s not a Stumptown either. Instead it’s something in between: a transitory space where fast food is given the sheen of luxury goods. Its physical locations, tangibly more pleasant than those provided by its price-point competitors, are marketed as sites of upward mobility. Baristas earn health insurance, customers work on laptops, meetings are (meant to be) held on-site. To buy something — which nearly everyone can do, at prices nearly everyone can afford, in language that (while needlessly complicated) is by now widely known — is in part to buy into that romance. What is whiter or richer than Starbucks? Well, a lot of places. But at Starbucks, a facsimile of whiteness — and its attendant class privileges — is for sale. And for bargain-basement prices.
The apartment my family lived in last and longest — before I graduated college and moved away, and before my family could no longer afford to remain in the city — sat on the edge of a hill overlooking U Street. A thoroughfare known in the early 20th century as Black Broadway and today as DC’s nightlife strip, it was also the epicenter of the riots set off by Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder 50 years ago this spring. The bustling, diverse business district turned into a ghost town, a commercial vacuum kept empty by the conspicuous absence of investment and the unchecked waves of drugs and violence that earned DC the nickname “Murder Capital.” You could count the building projects between 1968 and 1998 on one hand: each lauded as a messianic forebear to real change, the end of the city’s malign neglect.
The neighborhood did change, but not for the benefit of my neighbors. Trends bigger than the city were afoot — crime rates plummeting nationwide, millennials flocking to cities in record numbers, the election of Barack Obama — that suddenly made DC an attractive place to live. But much happened locally to remake neighborhoods like mine: a new downtown arena, a new Metro line. Tentatively, businesses began to open. 2004 saw the first luxury housing development on U Street since the riots. The same year, across the street, a Starbucks appeared.
At Starbucks, a facsimile of whiteness — and its attendant class privileges — is for sale. And for bargain-basement prices.
Magic Johnson teamed up with Starbucks in 1998 with a 50/50 partnership called Urban Coffee Opportunities. (Johnson apparently won over the corporation’s CEO, Howard Schultz, after taking him to a screening of Waiting to Exhale.) Eventually the partnership would open over 100 locations in at least 10 cities around the country, and especially in historically black neighborhoods: New York’s Harlem, Chicago’s Bronzeville, Los Angeles’ Crenshaw — and DC’s U Street. The stated goal of the partnership was “to create economic opportunity and a stronger sense of community in the neighborhoods it served.” In 2000, at the opening of the first Urban Coffee Opportunities location in the DC area, Johnson told the Washington Post that he chose coffee shops — and Starbucks in particular — as an investment vehicle because of the space they afforded their customers. “We don't have a lot of social places in our community.”
His face was the first thing you saw when you walked in. A whopping five blocks (downhill there, uphill home) from my family’s apartment, the 13th and U Starbucks could not have displayed its connection to Magic Johnson more prominently. He held a steaming cup just below his toothy smile; the photo took up an entire wall. It was only after doing research for this piece that I discovered that some of the contours of the store — the ever-present stock of pound cake, the Aretha Franklin album on permanent rotation — were due to Johnson’s interventions. I started working at the 13th and U Starbucks shortly after it opened and would return, off and on, when I was home on break from college. I closed the store most weeknights and triumphantly filled at least one takeaway bag full of food marked for discard, and which I’d bring back to my family, before locking up. Customers, trying to solve the puzzle of my presence behind the counter, often asked if I was Hispanic.
Change wasn’t so slow that we couldn’t see it happen. White people popped up like pustules. Old buildings vanished overnight. New developments took their names from the city’s storied history, while old parks got renamed to obscure a past deemed less palatable. But for at least a little while, the 13th and U Starbucks was the kind of place Magic Johnson said he wanted. Homework was finished, gossip traded, numbers exchanged. Every day we kept the bathroom unlocked and the chairs out. We filled cups of water for the man, John, who slept on the street nearby and who’d bring us, raven-like, flowers and doodads he collected, telling stories of his childhood on a farm in Virginia. We served espresso — strong and hot — to the East African drivers who stopped for a quick pick-me-up. We traded Frappuccinos for chili cheese fries with the girls who worked at Ben’s across the street. We played music on our tinny, tiny flip phones and taught ourselves the steps to Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” when the store was quiet. We picked up orders (extra mumbo sauce) for one another from the carry-out while on break. We gave one another rides home. We made free drinks for our friends who came to visit. We made even more for ourselves. We scrimped and saved and spent. We signed up for health insurance. We filled the calendar with shifts.
But just because you love something doesn’t make it good.
Magic Johnson’s project was doomed from the start. No matter how much of DC’s kaleidoscopic blackness his 13th and U Street coffee shop contained and refracted, Starbucks remained a flag, a signal flare, a sign of an oncoming epidemic. And white people just kept coming, both inside and out of Starbucks. Johnson’s face on the wall, like the name of the neighborhood’s native son — Ellington — on the luxury condos across the street, was decorative, rather than declarative. Between 2000 and 2010 alone, 38,000 black residents left the city and 55,000 white ones arrived. Along U Street, housing prices — and the general cost of living — exploded, and DC’s rising real estate prices show no sign of letting up. In 2017, less than a block away from the 13th and U Starbucks, a new luxury building announced it was leasing its penthouse apartment for over $11,000 per month.
I don’t drink coffee like I used to, as a substitute for nearly everything: food, sleep, the trappings of adulthood, a sense of cool. By the time I graduated from college, I had drunk so much that my insides percolated with acid, heat. Now, every morning, I make tea instead. When I do find myself buying coffee, it’s almost never from a Starbucks, but twee, ultra-premium cafes or gas stations. I still feel the nostalgic pull of the brand: the extremely basic décor, the not-bad coffee, the faintest whiff (illusory, mass-produced) of taste, culture, exclusivity, class. But just because you love something doesn’t make it good.
Magic Johnson sold his stake in Urban Coffee Opportunities back to Starbucks in 2010. Maybe he realized the futility of his project, the inherent, unbrookable whiteness of the brand. Maybe he just wanted the cash. When he did, his picture was taken down from the 13th and U Starbucks — the most unusual casualty of the neighborhood’s changing demographics. On my most recent visit, the neighborhood had been so radically transformed — the very streetscape demolished and rebuilt — that orientation was difficult. The 13th and U Starbucks had, in the intervening years, become an ironic fixture: the newcomer catalyst turned neighborhood stalwart. Yet I was still surprised that the street outside was whiter than the store inside. The neighborhood’s new residents were apparently heading elsewhere. After all, there were more expensive, more artisanal, more white options just down the street. ●
Molly McArdle writes about culture and place. She is based in New York City.