Can a Starbucks Become "A Beloved Community Hub"?

CC BY 2.0. Hillcrest Starbucks/ Lloyd Alter

Years ago, we used to fight to keep out these corporate invaders. Now we fight to save them?

Fifteen or so years ago, the City of Toronto controversially proposed giving streetcars their own right-of-way on St. Clair Avenue. The street at the time was a bit rough, but the area was gentrifying. I remember one public meeting where a resident asked, "Can we write a letter to Starbucks and invite them to open a store here, to help clean it up?" Groans could be heard around the room, complaining even then that we didn't want corporate coffee.

A few years later, the Starbucks did come to the area, opening in a lovely old TD bank branch. Thanks to the cleaned-up street and the continuing gentrification of the housing around, the area is now filled with upscale butchers and bakers and probably candlestick makers. Not a few coffee shops, either. Meanwhile, the Starbucks has announced that it is closing at the end of August.

This is causing an uproar in the neighbourhood; there is even a petition, Save Our Starbucks in Hillcrest Village!

...this is much more than a commuter store. It’s a place where local residents from diverse backgrounds, of different ages, abilities, occupations, identities -- people who would not typically share a common social space -- get to meet and feel connected as a community...

There's no other place like this in our neighbourhood.

Really? It's a nice Starbucks. I know a few freelancers and urbanists who do a lot of writing there. Edward Keenan, writing in the Star, notes that urbanists and activists used to try to keep Starbucks out of our neighbourhoods, and discusses the current campaign to save this one:

In the world of grassroots café-inspired activism, this represents something of a generational tide-turning. Some of us will be old enough to remember when residents of the Annex [next neighbourhood south] ran a high-profile campaign to keep Starbucks out of their neighbourhood...Some of us will remember when the Seattle-based coffee chain was a resented sign of gentrification.

I would point out that there are lots of alternatives to Starbucks in the neighbourhood now, including a wonderful French bakery with fabulous croissants and a lot of seating that opened up right next door. But Ian Cosh, who is leading the fight to save the Starbucks, calls them "niche."

They draw a certain kind of customer — each of them — and project a certain kind of vibe. It’s the very corporate, mid-market neutrality of this Starbucks’s identity that draws in an unlikely cross-section of the local population and has allowed them to become friendly in a low-pressure, comfortable environment. “When I’m there, I feel no pressure to be a certain kind of person,” Cosh says, contrasting it with a cooler place nearby. “I breathe better.”

Oy. Perhaps I am a snob, but there is room to breathe better in Les Moulins La Fayette next store and the baked goods are infinitely superior. I love talking bikes over espresso at Dismount, the combo bike shop and coffee bar down the street. Or stop at Lion, the combo chocolate and coffee shop that just opened. There are so many options now that have better coffee and better baked goods. Perhaps this is why Starbucks is closing. Things change, and so does the neighbourhood. Perhaps it has actually outgrown Starbucks.

A&W; a few blocks from Starbucks

A&W; a few blocks from Starbucks/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

My biggest worry about Starbucks leaving is that someone else will move in and do an A&W; on it; the burger joint is expanding like mad, and recently took what I think is the nicest bank branch in town and covered it with the worst signage imaginable. But that is superficial stuff that can be removed.

The fact is, change is inevitable in a successful, growing city. Fighting to save a Starbucks just seems... weird. Last word to Norman Mailer:

There was that law of life, so cruel and so just, that one must grow or else pay more for remaining the same.