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The Awl Goes Deep With 2014’s First Must-Rea...

The Awl Goes Deep With 2014’s First Must-Read Coffee Think Piece

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Perhaps the biggest trend happening in coffee right now has nothing to do with making coffee at all. We’re in the middle of an  explosion of mainstream media interest in the rising tide of higher-end, quality-focused cafes serving coffee to gentrifying neighborhoods all over the country. From best-of lists to fervored financial analysis to new menu trend-pieces, there are all sorts of good (and good-ish) coffee stories being greenlit in 2014. But most surprising of all, 2014 appears to be the year of the coffee think piece.

All this excitement (and associated filing and invoicing) is helping to establish safe spaces in media for nuanced, in-depth coffee writing–a field that’s still new, and in achingly short supply. We gave last year’s Sprudgie Award for Best Coffee Writing to Bitch Magazine, for Dr. Lisa Knisely’s late 2013 article on sexism in coffee. A few days ago a similarly landmark piece was written by Molly Osberg, an editor at Cluster Mag, titled “Inside The Barista Class” and published over at The Awl.

Osberg gives an inside look at the emotional, psychological, and financial texture of working as one of the gentrification machine’s front-line cogs: the “neighborhood” barista. Osberg tells the story of her journey from suburban Starbucks employee to veteran barista in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, in the process incisively describing experiences familiar to many long-term service workers, especially those 20-30 somethings working within and alongside the “creative class” in cities all over America.

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The range and depth of Osberg’s insights belie a deep consideration of the multilayered problems of class, neighborhood and work in the 21st century. Here’s an excerpt:

My kind of service work is not the kind of service work that puts you in the back room washing dishes for 12-hour shifts for dollars because you are considered completely expendable. But my kind of service work is part of the same logic that indiscriminately razes neighborhoods. It outsources the emotional and practical needs of the oft-fetishized, urban-renewing “creative” workforce to a downwardly mobile middle class, reducing workers’ personality traits and educations to a series of plot points intended to telegraph a zombified bohemianism for the benefit of the rich.

Osberg outlines the role of education and privileged coding throughout her piece, in the process giving voice to the frustrations and dreams that come from watching neighborhoods change.

In Brooklyn, as you order your home-grown-arugula and lemon pizza, your server can entertain you with their opinions on Jonathan Franzen, their fluency in Swedish design concepts. Tipping them is kind of like supporting the arts. Somewhere, I imagine, there really is a place where the server and the served interact on equal footing, reciprocally enjoying a shared culture. Perhaps it’s simply an issue of remuneration. Maybe that place is in Portland, where rents are cheaper and the rich aren’t as, well, filthily so.

As someone who has worked as a barista in both Portland, OR and NYC, that last line in particularly hit home for me. Working service in Portland does have a different emotional load, a feeling of somewhat more mutual respect and engagement, and I think the economic considerations she points to are right on. Income inequality, especially as expressed in rents, is a huge factor, as is Portland’s heavy prevalence of the sort of informal economy that Osberg identifies as “the solidarity economy:”

…checks for Negronis, artisanal spicy pickles, hand-roasted coffee beans, and sometimes entire locally sourced meals disappeared with a wink and a nudge…At the very least, it allowed us to participate in a culture we couldn’t really afford. At its vilest it felt like a neighborhood of people working for slightly more than minimum wage in exchange for a chance to play-act at brunching in a nice neighborhood.”

Osberg’s view can seem very pessimistic, but she does a great job of helping people who may not have worked in service the way she has to understand the emotional labor and the anonymizing, disheartening grind of living the on-the-ground service experience, watching neighborhoods change as you yourself struggle to find a career path out of the mess.

These jobs are seen as lesser because we made them this way. We built our brave new urban economy on an ever-specializing transient workforce, an army of lifestyle brand ambassadors without the business cards or the 401(k). Best of luck being a good enough bartender to get some health insurance out of the deal, or even enough hours on the clock to make rent. Who knows what happens after 40, if you haven’t managed to open your own little street-level franchise amidst the undiscovered ruins of yet another post-industrial district.

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We consider this feature to be an absolute must-read over on The Awl. Even if you’re not particularly interested in the discussion of gentrification and class mobility, Osberg’s story still serves as an excellent emotional catalog of barista-dom. It is an emotionally honest, razor-sharp reminiscence on the vicissitudes of working in food service, one of America’s only growing job sectors. If you want more information on the day to day realities of barista work, you can also read our three-part series on the physical and emotional health effects of barista work, or our cataloging of the realities of barista pay in various cities across the US and the world.

I’ll close my own greenlit think piece (about a think piece) by reminding you to please tip your barista well. It may only be a band-aid on the complex problems of class, income inequality and gentrification, but that band-aid is paying someone’s rent.

Alex Bernson is the assistant editor at Sprudge.com. Read more Bernson here.

All photos via Sprudge Archives. 

 


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