The other day NOLA.com reported that a Starbucks will open in 2019 at the corner of North Rampart and Elysian Fields, in the heart of Faubourg Marigny. Denunciations ensued immediately on Nextdoor Marigny, a social network designed to facilitate discussion of neighborhood issues. Though the vast majority of responses were negative, there were a handful of Starbucks defenders.
So what’s the big deal about Starbucks in New Orleans? Why do so many residents of the city’s most historic neighborhoods view it as an affront to their identity?
This is a question I addressed five years ago, when the mega-franchise opened its doors on the corner of Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue. Since then, Starbucks and its customers have been winning the war against New Orleanians who support our own rich and historic coffee culture. As I said then, one of the reasons Starbucks is such a flashpoint is that coffee, and coffeehouses, are an integral part of local cultural identity.
New Orleans residents who wish to emphasize aspects of our culture that set us apart from the broader national culture can be called New Orleans exceptionalists. New Orleans Americanists, on the other hand, define a successful New Orleans as a place where the “best” of America (major national franchises, Fortune 500 Companies, more rich people) is on display.
The Americanists are winning. Shortly after my anti-Starbucks tirade in 2013, Loyola University, home of the Center for the Study of New Orleans, replaced its local CC’s franchise with a Starbucks. The university administration at the time alleged that a poll of students had been conducted and that 77 percent of respondents wanted a Starbucks. But a large number of students also complained that they’d never heard of such a survey and that the administration was not transparent about the decision.
Today, Loyola students complain that the Starbucks on campus is full of Tulane students, which makes me wonder whether it was Loyola or Tulane students who were so gung-ho about replacing a local franchise with a national one (since the two campuses have combined food service under Sodexo).
A few blocks away, another local independent coffeehouse, Village Coffee, was replaced by a Starbucks last year. I used to be able to get non-Starbucks coffee on campus by going to the university center convenience store, which still stocked CC’s, but Starbucks closed off that option this year, by replacing the carafes of CC’s with a Starbucks dispenser. Now I have to walk over to Tulane to get local P.J.’s coffee.
It’s ironic that Tulane, which has a larger proportion of out-of-state students, would preserve the local option, while Loyola, with more in-state students, would want the national standard, but it also makes sense. Many Americans are drawn to New Orleans because it provides an alternative to homogenized American mass culture without requiring that you leave America altogether, just as many New Orleanians would like to experience mainstream American brands without having to leave New Orleans.
A Marigny Starbucks is a whole different can of worms. It’s inconvenient for me, when I’m at work, to walk over to Tulane to get my coffee, but the Marigny Starbucks will pose no such inconvenience. I would have to walk by four or five independent coffeehouses to get to the new Starbucks, though it’s only a few blocks from my house. That’s good, but also a cause for affront. The range of comments on Nextdoor Marigny, though not a scientific sampling of opinion, gives a good sense of how the neighbors feel.
After the NOLA.com link, the very first response on the Nextdoor Marigny thread reads simply, “Well, there goes the neighborhood.” That sentiment is echoed by the bulk of other responses, but some are more nuanced. A minority of respondents voice typically Americanist views, welcoming a national franchise as a sign that the neighborhood has finally earned recognition and approval from the great capitalists of America. One such comment: “Starbucks will generate far more money than some little place with a tenth of the business. Starbucks is number one for a reason. People line up to spend their money world wide. No different here.”
In other words, doesn’t New Orleans also deserve what’s considered the best in the rest of America? Why do some New Orleanians insist on projecting a different cultural identity than what the rest of America proudly embraces?
Another common Americanist rhetorical strategy is minimizing and dismissing the myth of New Orleanian uniqueness, as in this typical comment: “If anyone thinks all of the local present day coffee houses represent New Orleans culture they have not been around long. How many are drinking coffee and chicory these days.”
Limiting New Orleans coffee culture to chicory is like saying New Orleans cuisine consists only of fried seafood. It ignores the long history of coffee in New Orleans and freezes a 1958 tourist brochure into a static image of the epitome of New Orleans identity. A lot happened before 1958, even in the century before chicory was introduced in the mid-1800s, and a lot has happened since, including a proliferation of independent coffeehouses since at least the 1970s. One obvious reason for the major role coffee has played in New Orleans culture is that so much of it is unloaded on our docks and roasted here—even for major national coffee brands (Folgers, Dunkin’—but not Starbucks).
It’s a typically Americanist misrepresentation to view New Orleans exceptionalism as an effort simply to freeze New Orleans at some earlier point of its history. New Orleans exceptionalist ideology has never, in any of its phases over the centuries, been synonymous with cultural preservation.
New Orleans exceptionalism is a utopian ideology, imagining New Orleans as an alternative to what is perceived as mainstream normative national culture. Today that means everything represented by Starbucks: homogenized, standardized, and expensive, with slick packaging and a whiff of exclusivity.
When New Orleans exceptionalists praise New Orleans’ alleged “authenticity,” what they’re really expressing is a wish to escape the increasing sameness, standardization, and lack of imagination that characterizes monopoly-capitalist retail enterprises. It’s an attempt to escape what Marxists call “reification.” A transliteration of the original German term—Verdinglichung—is instructive: thing-ification.
The idea is that mass consumerism converts human beings into inexpressive and undifferentiated robots whose needs are conditioned by advertising and whose identities are entirely defined by the products they buy. Reification substitutes standardized simulations for living, human practices, subject to individual variations. CC’s and P.J.’s are not the best examples of an alternative, since they, too, are franchises. Indeed, to date Faubourg Marigny’s host of coffeehouses includes only one of the local franchises, a P.J.’s counter inside a supermarket.
As Theodor Adorno wrote of the reifying effects of emergent mass culture in the 1940s, “Not Italy is offered, but evidence that it exists.” In other words, you can’t go to Italy, but you can go to the Olive Garden (which has Italian names on the menu—as does Starbucks—and a logo with grapes on it). You can’t go to an independent urban coffeehouse, but you can have the simulation, which is Starbucks.
One of the most eloquent New Orleanian attacks against the mass reification attempted by American consumer culture comes from Ignatius J. Reilly, iconic protagonist of John Kennedy Toole’s novel, “A Confederacy of Dunces.” When his mother tries to get him to voluntarily commit himself to the mental ward at Charity Hospital, he rails against her: “Every asylum in this nation is filled with poor souls who simply cannot stand lanolin, cellophane, plastic, television, and subdivisions.”
The utopian wish of New Orleans exceptionalists is to have a space that is recognizably distinct from that world of second-rate, synthetic simulations—perhaps best embodied by New Urbanist subdivisions in Florida, where every “Main Street USA” storefront is a national franchise.
Exceptionalists are the people who want New Orleans to be a distinct place called New Orleans, a place that can’t be simulated and that shouldn’t be diluted by the encroaching sameness that infects 95 percent of the rest of the United States. Americanists resent this wish because they feel that national franchises—especially the pricey ones—confer on New Orleans a middle-class American status they feel they have been wrongly denied. Americanists don’t want to live on a cultural island apart from consumerist America, but exceptionalists do.
The best expression of the New Orleans exceptionalist rejection of Starbucks’ new Marigny location came in this comment on Nextdoor Marigny: “Now all the PROUD ‘business’ people can have super happy guests in their wonderful ‘income producing properties’ drinking crappy, over-roasted coffee. So much WINNING.”
This comment points out both the Americanist priority of business profits at the expense of all other considerations, as well as the “reifying” role Starbucks has played by training a generation of coffee-challenged Americans to think that their “crappy, over-roasted coffee” somehow qualifies as “good.” What Starbucks consumers really respond to, more than that distinctively thin, burnt taste, is the way the careful packaging conveys an elite—but standardized—consumer experience, one that confers value on their own identities.
New Orleans exceptionalist anxieties are often expressed as worries about the allegedly unique “vibe” of New Orleans, and of the neighborhood. One commenter on Nextdoor Marigny reassures us that a new Starbucks will not endanger the Marigny “vibe,” adding, “New Orleans is known worldwide as one of the most unique cities in the world. It is not an oasis and should not be treated that way. It is of utmost importance to preserve the past, but also be willing to allow in what helps this city to move in a positive direction and thrive.“
Though the commenter clearly values “unique” (exceptional) aspects of the city, she also endorses the Americanist assumption that Starbucks is a “positive direction” that will allow the neighborhood to “thrive” more than does the currently rich abundance of independent coffeehouses. Why? The only possible reason is the sense that Starbucks confers the recognition and legitimacy of a national chain, that we can’t “thrive” without a giant multi-national corporation telling us we’re OK.
Another argument in favor of Starbucks paints New Orleans exceptionalist Starbucks-haters (like me) as elitist. Thoughtful observers have often wondered why an exceptional New Orleans cultural identity is worth prioritizing at all, given more material challenges that the city continues to face. One Nextdoor Marigny commenter writes, “Yea! Yea! Yea! Steady employment, good wages, health insurance & educational benefits. What exactly is the problem?”
This argument is difficult to counter. It’s true that Starbucks is a relatively responsible employer, and that they are able, unlike many smaller businesses, to offer generous benefit packages. Starbucks has earned the ire of Trump conservatives for its alleged “War on Christmas” and other skirmishes in the realm of cultural politics. That’s certainly a point in their favor.
With Trump taking a chain-saw to the social and civic fabric of our country, preservation of a distinctive cultural identity in one particular neighborhood seems like a low priority indeed. Perhaps the New Orleans exceptionalist impulse to drop out and hide from American society is especially counter-productive right now, when the country needs all hands on deck to resist the disgusting new America Trump and his supporters are trying to foist on the majority of us.
That may be, but there’s still no reason for friends to let friends go to Starbucks in Orleans Parish. Let the tourists go, if they’re too afraid to part with their cellophane subdivision coffee even on vacation. A Marigny Starbucks isn’t the end of the world; it’s just the end of an era, at least 50 years old, when this neighborhood attracted people who longed for an alternative to the standardized, reified aesthetic that paints the rest of the country in the same bland palette.
Starbucks is a symptom, not a cause. It signals the passing of a great American bohemian neighborhood, distinguished by the care it took to link myths of place to its vision of a more fulfilling alternative lifestyle. Not many will mourn the demise of a bohemian enclave, especially not those who blame true bohemians—people of limited means—for attracting the “creative class” yuppies, who then make the average Starbucks customer comfortable enough to also settle in—thus destroying the bohemian “vibe” that started the process in the first place.
Gentrification’s economic impacts are more disruptive than its aesthetic consequences, but our neighborhood will now be less distinctive in appearance as well as less affordable—a lose lose.
C.W. Cannon teaches “New Orleans as Myth and Performance,” and other courses, at Loyola University. His latest novel is “Sleepytime Down South.”
The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.