Friday, January 13, 2006

Culture, Part One - Planet Starbucks

Possibly my favorite moment from the movie Fight Club is when Ed Norton’s nameless character makes a reference to the growth of companies such as Starbucks and their seeming ability to swallow up the last shred of identity and culture. My brother made mention of this in his blog, citing examples of how the coffee chain from Seattle has essentially infected the city like cancer. Nick also comments on the shrinking number of mom-n-pop eateries in the Chicago Loop and laments Marshall Field’s turning into Macy’s. These are all well and good examples of how franchised we are becoming, but the problem is really indicative of my larger concern: where the fuck is our culture?

To be sure, there are plenty of independent stores in other parts of Chicago. Not really in the Loop, but the Loop is not the be-all, end-all of Chi-town. Chicago has always been a series of little neighborhoods that somehow comprise a city. Just look at the age-old rivalry between the Cubs and the White Sox for evidence of this. Comparing Lakeview to Bridgeport, one can see obvious differences. (Incidentally, I was raised in the southwest suburban area, so I should by all intents and purposes be a Sox fan. I am not, but that’s because I find baseball dull. My family, however—all still southsiders—have always been Cubs fans. Ideally, this might serve as an example of how the city can be unified and such concerns can be assailed, but I don’t see that happening soon.)

New Yorkers seem to think anything outside of the 5 burrows is prairie. The L.A. crowd weighs in similarly. I suppose the reason why cities in Iowa or Idaho never seem to fall prey to foreign attack is not so much that they are embedded deep in the county and far from the coasts as much as no one outside the States seems to know of their existence (it stands to reason—how many cities in the Middle East can you name?). I always thought that coastal snobbery was a result of their belief that these cities were the beckons of culture in our otherwise culturally vacant country. Disagree or not (I do), it would be interesting to see how the franchised cancer has spread in Manhattan or on Hollywood Blvd.

If this concerns me it is something I am not doing much about. I have patronized Starbucks and probably will again. I try not to, especially when I have at least 6 cafés near my northside apartment that offer coffee just as good and without the shitty Bob Dylan and Acoustic Alanis Morissette CDs. Still, Starbucks might be the only café in town that offers its employees benefits. So it’s a mixed bag, this franchise concern, and arguments can and will be made for both sides. Nevertheless, I in my pessimistic way don’t see the McCompanies going away. Wicker Park fought to keep Starbucks out even going so far as to put gum in the locks of the coffee chain. Well, that was then… Starbucks stands proudly like a fighter after a K.O. right on the tri-corner of North, Damen and Milwaukee. Andersonville, my favorite Chicago neighborhood, also claims a loss in this fight. Local café owners fought to keep the impossible to beat competition away or at least somewhat removed. Again, evidence of this loss is visible on Clark and Summerdale. At least one of the two independent cafés within a two block area is now history. I always spoke of the shrinking number of indies in a city of growing coporations. Leona’s, which I do like, opened up on Taylor Street, right near two handfuls of wonderful Italian restaurants. I am awaiting the first Chipotle burrito stand to open in Pilsen.

So if I am not too eager to fight against this (and I try to, but I think a large amount of us succumb to the lure of consistency and convenience from time to time) then why the hell does it bother me at all? And if it does, why do something about it? Shouldn’t our beliefs be steadfast? If something concerns us, shouldn’t we take action, rise up, realign ourselves and opt to refuse to purchase such franchised products? I suppose so but again the lazy pessimist rears his ugly head on those days when I am heading to work with 5 minutes to make it my desk and I need an espresso. And wouldn’t you know it, there’s a Starbucks in my building.