Over the years, we’ve dropped notes about New York City’s coffee culture: from its origins as a desolate wasteland through its more recent redemption. Like the awkward and homely tomboy who first gussies herself up for the debutant ball, in the past year New York City has been running a major publicity campaign to promote their coffee “arrival”. (“We matter! Really!”) One of the latest examples is Edible Manhattan’s recent article, “Coffee Groundswell”, penned by Liz Clayton: Bean Scene | May-June 2009.
The article is a pretty good recap of the story we all already know: New York prides itself as the center of everything cultural; for decades the provincial corners of the country sipped fine espresso while New Yorkers were forced to chug swill; and after the turn of the millennium things started to turn around. We can overlook Ms. Clayton’s telling use of the word “coffeerati” and a little too much focus on the gadgetry of the Clover brewer as a proxy for good coffee. But we couldn’t overlook the main focus of the piece, which is clearly reflected in its subtitle: “Gotham joe finally catches up”.
Why? Because it hasn’t caught up. For the most part, New York is still the wagging tail of coffee dogs from the more provincial parts of America: Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, Durham, etc.
We can sympathize with the regional shame that must exist when a post-Communist reconstruction Prague served quality “Seattle style” coffee from independent cafés years before New York City seemed to even consider it. But the anxious desire to wash away that shame could conceivably create a skewed state of self-perception. Ms. Clayton’s piece very much rings a “we have arrived!” bell to the rest of the country, putting us all on notice that we have no reason to snicker and sneer over that backwoods on the Hudson.
“The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated. “
But to have truly arrived, you need to have a coffee culture of your own — and quality coffee solidly remains an import, not an export, market in New York. So instead of New York’s true arrival on the coffee scene, what we have more is a city that’s akin to a sunken ship being exhumed from its watery grave through the mutual aid of foreign prospectors.
The New York coffee “Gold Rush” is dominated by an invasion of professionals from the aforementioned provincial cities and towns, looking to fill NY’s great coffee void while seizing potentially great business opportunities. New York has become to coffee what China became to Western product marketers when economic trade barriers first opened up: an opportunity to access millions of potential new customers, long shielded from the outside, and the corresponding promise of potential riches.
Sure, with the likes of Gimmie! and Ninth Street Espresso, New York can claim a few years of native influence. It’s also good to see New York roasters doing more to boost their local relevance. But to make a crude comparison using Seattle’s two most notable 1990s cultural exports, quality coffee and grunge, Seattle can boast Nirvana, the Melvins, and Pearl Jam while New York has the Stone Temple Pilots (OK, they were from San Diego) — but yet little else to show for themselves.
And it’s not just that people expect New York City to lead cultural trends, rather than to dawdle in following them. For a city of its size and population, the market penetration of quality coffee is still lousy. (Or, as we put it in a recent post, the ratio of quality coffee shops to New York residents rivals that of Toby Keith fans in North Korea.) New York residents deserve to have good coffee in the same per-capita abundance currently available in, say, Los Angeles — which itself was a coffee wasteland until a few years ago.
I may be able to now find quality coffee in New York, but I wouldn’t put Gotham on my list of coffee destinations anytime soon. Until at least that much happens, any “catching up” is still a work in progress.
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