A shiver of excitement as the low rectangular building came into sight, sticking out of a cracked parking-lot like a large paperweight in the heavy March Atlanta air. A perfect respite from the decaying buildings, shuttered BBQ shacks and old-world vintage of this South-East Atlanta neighborhood.
The squat concrete building wonderfully nondescript, except for a sandwich board near the sidewalk with the word ‘coffee’. Typographic, set in Futura.
I had traveled far this morning: traversing bridges, crossing neighborhoods, braved traffic, found my way through the downtown core. I had dodged street-cars and marveled at students, all on a dark green borrowed franken-bicycle: steel road frame, wide turned-out drop-bars, thick, knobby gravel tires. This bike a bike that could handle a city of mismatched curbs, cracked pavement, pot-holes and dirt roads.
I had seen much this morning too. Old Pontiacs, rally cars, huge SUVs with gleaming rims. Scores of students on their way somewhere. Walgreens. A jumbled cornucopia of humans and cars and high-rises and shuttered old buildings and interminable concrete. Fire-blackened brick here and there reminding that this place had once burned.
But this nondescript building in the suburbs was my destination. I had come to participate in a ritual, as I had in so many places before: a ritual both gastronomic and social, both public and deeply personal. Motivated by desire for caffeination, but also for exploration and discovery. If this all sounds like a tall order for a simple cup of coffee, it might be.
I step inside. As outside, nondescript: unfinished concrete interior, corrugated roof and cement brick siding, all painted over with a few coats of white paint. If you pulled everything out and stripped the paint, this could be just another abandoned building.
In these painted walls: the story of gentrification, played out in a million trendy coffee shops in a million rebuilt cities. Disaster-stricken neighborhoods with cheap rent attract artists, creatives, entrepreneurs. Neighborhoods become “hip,” developers come running. Rents rise, and new waves of residents surround themselves with progressively higher hedges and whiter picket fences, each wave ushering with it a higher land tax than the one before it. Eventually, the Dickensian origins will fade completely, all but forgotten except by the few old-guard who stuck around, struggling to afford their own homes.
This is the story of Edgewood in Atlanta but it is also the story Newburgh, New York. A few short years ago it was the story of Capital Hill, Seattle, Delano, Wichita, and Oak Park, Sacramento. Inevitably, in all these neighborhoods and more, like beautiful and sad portents, we find coffee.
But not just any coffee. “Specialty” coffee. “Third Wave” coffee. Beans taken from far away, carefully roasted to bring out flavors familiar and exotic. Coffee measured in grams and prepared on machines or by hand. Pastries and breads and little culinary creations. A parade of craft, with high-speed internet. These places like little oases to the creative class and the independent workforce. Fashionably clad hipsters wander in and out — some live nearby. In fact, they are the latest wave of settlers in this unfolding story of inter-urban colonialism. Artists and writers and graphic designers and web developers and all manner of middle-class, self-employed citizenry; a trickle of independent young people drawn in by cheap rent and whispers of “up and coming.”
After the great spindle of time has revolved once more, the original settlers of this neighborhood might be gone, but the coffee shop and its patrons will probably stay.
Who is to blame? These odd islands of caffeine, gastronomy and burgeoning culture are simply the first visible marks of an otherwise invisible transformation. The cyclical generations of home-owners and land-buyers just want a place to live, this place as good as any other; they themselves may have been priced out of their own neighborhoods. Land developers, oft-demonized, are simply doing their jobs, searching for opportunities. Everyone is to blame, but no-one is to blame at all.
Specialty coffee shops fascinate. Their forms are innumerable: humble, boastful, simple, arrogant, intimate, cavernous, urbane, unaffected, considered, careless, archaic, modern. Yet, always an experience of a sort. Each confers something. And every once in a long while that something is worth a six-mile bike ride on a dark green borrowed bike.
At once the same as every other coffee shop of its kind, yet a certain quality in the details makes it different.
I walk up to a wide counter connected to a narrow bar where two baristas work diligently. Behind me, light pours into the large room and bounces off patina’d concrete floors and warm wood accents.
The best urban spaces always feel as if they are somehow born of their environment. Combinations of cultural and geographic and pragmatic catalysts create entirely new results. Somehow, these spaces feel a part of — yet distinctly apart-from — the environments they inhabit.
This room, in its painted-over derelict frame, feels like this. It is unquestionably born of Atlanta: Recovered vintage fixtures with sparse, modern touches. Large windows with original fittings. Healthy tropical plants, flourishing in humid warmth. Everything is a little worn, but not in a shabbily. The effect is such that it somehow feels authentic, accidentally perfect, even though you know it is constructed.
In one corner, a small selection of tasteful stationery products and fashionably understand graphic tees hang on a small rack. In another, a yellow chrome motorcycle. An old Ducati. Perfectly hip, but not in a try-hard way. Mid-century wood paneling, Turkish rugs and tapestries, hanging lamps. All come together in a strange mishmash and the result is something greater than its sum.
But the coffee — of course! The coffee. It is very good. Probably as good as any lightly-roasted coffee should be that doesn’t come from a shop serving exclusively purists and oddballs like me. They have three wonderful-looking coffees, in three different towering white coffee grinders. I am delighted.
I order a drip (a Columbian), and a shot of espresso, on ice (their house blend). Life is too short not to sample as much as possible, although there is a finite limit to the amount of caffeine I can consume without vibrating into the stratosphere.
They are excellent. The Columbian: all of the brown sugar, graham cracker, dark cherry and vanilla one might desire. The espresso, medium-bodied, citrus, caramel, and a cacao-like fruitiness that gently kisses the pallet. I’m sure it tastes wonderful with milk, sugar and other such accouterments.
It occurs to me that this coffee is a coffee that perhaps has achieved a perfect middling; it is not strong and tart and juicy as the coffees that enamor the progressive edgesters. It is milder, more familiar. Yet not at all boring — tip-toeing the line between conventional and exotic. I especially admire roasts like this: coffee that appeals to (or is at least palatable to) all manner of coffee drinkers. Indeed — the most paramount task of any coffee shop is to serve coffee its patrons enjoy. This may be simple if the group is homogenous, but remarkably challenging if it is not, and it often is not. Taste for the brightness, acidity, and myriad flavors of true light-roast is in short supply in North America, and the challenge of selling coffees that delight all palettes equally is significant.
The barista tells me how they had spent almost a year of painstaking development on this blend, sending bags of beans back and forth to their roaster, experimenting with origins, roast levels, profiles, and blending ratios. Iterating and refining. This is their Magnum Opus, although they are already working on a new one. I suppose the work of true art never stops.
I walk around, sit for a while. Sip. Take notes. Allow my gaze to roam over the pretty things around me. I enjoy the flavors on my tongue and the warm buzz of caffeine in my belly. I watch the entrepreneurs, students, and freelancers, visiting or networking or hunched over laptops or scribbling in notebooks. This is a special place, not because it is tasteful — tasteful can be bought for the price of a good interior designer — and not because it is unique (it is not), but because it is good, it is thoughtful, and it is remarkably normal. One can only spend so much time in vaulted halls. There is something both relaxing and therapeutic about creativity and culture without pretension, about plain old good quality.
And nothing is more satisfying than all these things, over good coffee.