Coffeehouses and the Art of Social Engagement: An Analysis of Portland Coffeehouses

By Broadway, Michael; Legg, Robert et al. | The Geographical Review, July 2018 | Go to article overview

Coffeehouses and the Art of Social Engagement: An Analysis of Portland Coffeehouses


Broadway, Michael, Legg, Robert, Broadway, John, The Geographical Review


Coffeehouses and cafes, since their emergence in Western society in the mid-seventeenth century, have performed a variety of political, cultural and social functions. Politically, Jiirgen Habermas traces the origin of the public sphere, where people openly discussed the affairs of the day, to London's seventeenth century coffeehouses (1991). In France, cafes became sites of political mobilization as well as leisure, with cafe conversations helping shape "modern republicanism, socialism, bohemianism, anarchism and syndicalism" (Haine 1996, 2). Less dramatically, Ray Oldenburg emphasizes coffeehouses' function as a convivial location between home and work--a so-called third place that promotes friendship and community by providing a space for people to connect (1997). When Oldenburg wrote the first edition of The Great Good Place almost thirty years ago, he was concerned by the apparent disappearance of third places. A 2005 nationwide survey of Americans found support for his concerns. When asked where they would go in their community to interact with others, 29 percent of respondents could not name a place, while the most frequently cited place, at just 13 percent, was a coffee shop (Jeffres and others 2009, 337).

Despite the historic significance of coffeehouses in promoting social engagement, most contemporary research dealing with coffeehouses in the United States has focused on the emergence of the specialty coffee market in the 1980s (Roseberry 1996). Researchers have examined Starbucks' store design (Aiello and Dickinson 2014), the language it uses in its stores (Ruzich 2008), the factors behind its success (Seaford and others 2012), as well as its cultural significance as a new form of consumption, in which "mundane mass produced products" are attached with new meaning and higher status (Smith 1996, 506). Only a few researchers have examined how a coffeehouse can foster an environment for social engagement. Lisa Waxman, in a study of three coffeehouses in the southeast United States, concluded that the top five physical characteristics for fostering a convivial environment were cleanliness, appealing aroma, adequate lighting, comfortable furniture, and a view outside (2006). Explaining patrons' attachment to a particular coffeehouse proved difficult, as reasons tended to be unique for each individual, their life experiences, and current life situation. Rachael Woldoff and others compared three independently owned and three chain-based coffeehouses in different Boston area neighborhoods to see whether ownership affected how they created a space for "geniality and communication" (2013). They found that regardless of ownership, the widespread adoption of laptops, mobile phones, and tablets meant that coffeehouses have become multifunctional spaces where people work as well as socialize. Chain-coffeehouses provided better office amenities than their independent counterparts, with more power outlets, large working surfaces, and free unlimited Internet access, while independent coffeehouses were more likely to make customers feel "at home with the presence of locally made furniture, art and even photography" (Woldoff and others 2013, 217).

This study builds upon this earlier research, using Oldenburg's and Habermas's writings as a framework to examine the role of coffeehouses in promoting social engagement in the city of Portland, Oregon. Portland was selected for analysis because of its vibrant coffee scene; in 2016, the city edged out Seattle as having the best local coffee scene in America (Wallethub 2016). First, a theoretical framework is provided for studying place, and then Oldenburg's third-place concept is outlined, followed by Habermas's review of how coffeehouses were critical to promoting social engagement and establishing the public sphere. Then a brief historical overview of the development of U.S. coffeehouses is provided, along with an outline of Portland's contemporary coffee scene. The second part of the paper examines the degree to which a random sample of Portland's coffeehouses provides a supportive environment for social engagement and then measures the extent of social engagement in four coffeehouses. …

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