Cafes and Public Spaces

It is almost as if every great civilization in the world had taken a brief time-out from trying to kill one another to brainstorm what a perfect public space should look like. {Michael Idov}

A friend, Andrew Albers, passed along this Wall Street Journal story this morning. It hit a few chords for me.

I should offer this caveat: I take major issue with Idov’s jab at caramel frappuccinos (my favorite is actually java chip light), and slight issue with his side-swiping of laptoppers (I get his point, but there are virtues in working in public space, I think – though I wouldn’t want my coffee-haunts to become consumed with the solitary and the utilitarian).

Getting beyond those squabbles, I’m enchanted by Idov’s hopeful recasting of coffeehouses back to their original place as open, civic spaces where ideas and friendships and the latest news (along with a revolution or two) were on the daily menu. I mean, I’d love for one of my regular shops (here or here) to be a place like the one Idov mentioned, “where a sword fight once erupted over the correct pronunciation of a Greek word.” In fact, I think next week I may just sneak in a blade or musket and see if I can’t get one of the other regulars riled up (and I have just the word – only an hour or so ago Miska corrected my pronunciation of repartee. It’s French, not Greek, but it will do).

I love to write in cafes. My first book Restless Faith was written almost entirely in the Pendleton Cafe and Coffee Company. Chunks of my last two books, numerous articles and more than a few sermons have found their voice between sips of an Americano (hot shots, little room for cream). Some writers head to the secluded cabin to write. Usually, I head to the coffee shop on Main. The coffee shop is where I have meetings, where I meet new people, where I run into friends and where I learn new bits about what is happening in our town.

Still, I read Idov’s description – and I think he is on to something. I think our coffee house cultures often lack the same level of engagement as the older spaces, the expectation that you will meet and know others, the idea of the cafe as a civic space of ideas and shared communal practices. He says, “We’ve also used [the cafe] to balkanize ourselves…cafés here tend to draw specific crowds: a hipster café, a mom café, a student café…we use our coffeehouses to separate ourselves into tribes.” Whenever that is the case, it’s a shame.

Someday, I would love to help form (or participate in) a public space of the older sort, a place where I would read the paper, talk about the issues, write, expect to see old friends, welcome in new friends, share a sense of civic identity – and maybe even start a revolution or two. I have a measure of this now, but I want more.

I also wonder if it might be possible for the church to foster this sort of place (a guy can dream, can’t he?). We should be the first ones to carve out this kind of public space, but unfortunately, if anyone has balkanized itself…but I digress…

What might space like this look like for you? Do you have it now?

6 responses to Cafes and Public Spaces

  1. I agree, I would love for the church to have this kind of space and atmosphere. Mine would look like something close to Coal Creek Coffee in Laramie Wyoming. There is just something about the atmosphere of that place. I would say that I do kind of have this in our youth group. It is very open and welcoming and teens and college kids always have cool fresh ideas.

    Great Blog!

  2. You probably know this, Winn, but there's a church here in DC whose first location in the city was a coffeeshop, which they renovated and rezoned themselves: ebenezerscoffeehouse.com/. The church meets on Sundays in the basement. I'm sure this has been done in many places. I think it's a fantastic way to start a church.

  3. Ah, Coal Creek. Been there, delightful.

    Justin, I've heard of it – but didn't know the name. I think it is a rare thing for a church to open such a venture and have it maintain a true, open public and civic environment and not become ghettoized or agenda driven – or just offer bad replicas of something better. I will definitely have to visit Evenezers, maybe when I visit you guys!

    The best example I've seen is Rohs Street Cafe in Cincinnati. It was voted the "best place in Cincinnait" for progressive conversation by the underground newspaper. I like that…

  4. Hey Winn. I was pleased to find your very thoughtful blog, and hopefully you have an email trigger to alert you to this belated comment. I share a lot of these thoughts about public space, particularly spaces that allow a freedom of expression that does not necessarily fit within the business model of the commericial spaces that have filled this role.

    Are you familiar with Oldenburg's concept of a "third place". If a first place is home, and second is work, a third place is that location where you feel comfortable in socializing and in recreation. Usually you go there on your own schedule, rather than for special events only. Often a bar or cafe, but I think a church can play this role too sometimes.

    Anyway, I happened to write <a href="http://www.discoveringurbanism.blogspot.com/2009/12/public-space-doesnt-matter-until-it.html>a post</a> on the need for public spaces here about the same time as this one, if your interested. It approaches the topic from a different angle, but I think with a similar point.

  5. oops. Faulty html. But the links still there.

  6. Hi, Daniel. Thank for the comment. Yes, I'm familiar with Oldenburg and third spaces. I have one or two here. Cubano is probably my primary one. You?

    I'm really intrigued by the possibility of the church not only creating space apart but also space among. I've seen a few good examples of this in Cincinnati and DC (and more in Europe) – but much more to be done. I'll pop over to your blog.

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