Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Monday, April 03, 2006

The future of coffee culture: Geneva or Athens?

Saturday's Dominion Post had a thought-provoking article (page E10) by Eugene Doyle, entitled "Where are all the big ideas?" In it, he worries that while Wellington might be cultivating the outward signs of sophistication, it is losing its intellectual and political passion. He sees idealism and activism being steadily replaced by an obsession with "the clever and aesthetically pleasing". He sees Wellington's future as a choice between two cities:
"There is a bourgeois smugness that is creeping into Wellington that reminds me very much of another affluent, cultured, hill-bound city on the water's edge: Geneva."


"Athens, another harbour city, influenced the world for centuries after it became militarily, economically and politically irrelevant. We shouldn't doubt either our intelligence or our ability to influence change. We should ... become what we have always been: a city of fierce citizens who seek to have an influence on the great issues of our time."
While it's easy to be cynical about a baby-boomer adman chiding us for not being more subversive (c.f. Peter Biggs, Kevin Roberts), Doyle does have a point, especially when he compares us to the (admittedly high) standards of London during the Enlightenment:
"Back in the 17th century, you could go into a coffee house in London and find Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley dissecting a dolphin on a table. You could do the same today in Wellington and find people dissecting the latest episode of CSI or The Biggest Loser."
Perhaps today's moral qualms and hygiene regulations, rather than intellectual desuetude, are behind the demise of tabletop cetacean experimentation (except perhaps in certain sushi bars). But the question remains: what happened to the place of the café in Wellington's intellectual discourse? Doyle's analogy between our changing taste in coffee and our lack of public intellectual rigour ("a city that figuratively and literally is putting too much milk and sugar in its coffee - we are diluting its strong, dark, subversive taste") is perhaps only half-serious, but it deserves investigation.

Have Wellington cafés become intellectually decaffeinated? If so, why? Here are some possible reasons for this apparent trend:

Dilution. Before the 80s, very few people hung out in coffee houses, and those that did were more likely to be radicals and intellectuals. Before Midnight Espresso opened in 1989, City Limits (now Finc) was the only café open after 5pm. Now that the streets are full of cafés, it's hardly likely that every single person cradling a latte is discussing politics or philosophy. The coffee shop intellectuals are still there, but they're harder to see.

Wider cultural change. Doyle rightly bemoans the fact that café conversations these days are likely to be about reality TV rather than abstract ideas. Maybe now that cafes are a more representative sample of (middle class) culture than they used to be, it's not surprising that café chatter is more representative of the Zeitgeist. If reality TV and selfish post-Rogernomics consumerism have dumbed down the culture as a whole, then it's not something specific to Wellington or to cafés, but a problem that the wider intellectual community has to grapple with.

Gentrification. Maybe radicals and artists can't afford to sit around drinking $3.50 lattes all day, so the fierce intellectual discussions now go on at gallery openings, dodgy pubs, anarchist community centres and private parties, if they haven't been driven out of the city altogether. Perhaps internet cafés are the last bastion of radical thought: The Cake Shop and Oblong come to mind.

Moving online. Perhaps blogs are the new coffee shops. Okay, it's hard to look at the comments on most political blogs and argue that these are paragons of civilised philosophical thought. But sites like Public Address provide a somewhat higher level of debate, and while I've posted my share of articles about the shallow consumerist side of Wellington, I like to think that WellUrban has also contributed a modicum of passion and intelligence to the discussion of big ideas such as sustainability, urban form and ethnic identity.

Nostalgia. Was café culture ever quite as dominantly radical as Doyle remembers? It's easy to look back upon our youth and recall the deep impassioned idealism of our discussions, but really: how much time was spent talking about apartheid and Vietnam, and how much about hairstyles and pop stars?

So, I'm not entirely convinced that Doyle is right, but since I still believe that cafés are a vital part of a city's cultural and intellectual infrastructure, I want to think about how they can stay that way. I'm guessing that my readers spend more time than most in Wellington cafés and bars, so here are a few questions I'd like to ask you all:
  • What do you talk about over coffee? I'd like to think that all my conversations were about climate change, epistomology, Baudelaire and conceptual art, and many of them are, but I know that just as many of them are about nothing more profound than the quality of Martinis at the latest bar, who was the best Dr Who or which shop has the best cheese selection. So, do you have serious conversations at cafés, or is it all trivia and gossip?
  • Can we have both? Is it possible to be have a city that's stylish and playful as well as political and intellectual?
  • Which are the intellectual cafés? Where are there still scripts being written, revolutions fomented or scientific breakthroughs debated over a short black and a muffin?
  • What can we do to maintain the place of cafés (and other public venues) in our intellectual as well as social lives? Arrange public events, such as poetry nights, scientific talks and political debates? Get together regularly with your friends with a specific topic in mind? Can institutions like universities, the Architectural Centre and the Royal Society do more to promote intelligent discussion as a part of urban life?
  • Can cafés themselves do something to attract and provoke thoughtful conversation? If so, what would work? Filling the magazine rack with Nature and the TLS rather than Pavement and House and Garden? Playing Bach or Lilburn in the background rather than Ambient Chillout #87? Calling itself the Grecian, Le Procope or Village Vanguard to summon the ghosts of the Royal Society, philosophes and Beatniks? Running exhibitions of provocative and intelligent artwork rather than bland eye candy?
  • Do we even need to bother? Should a café be a place to relax rather than to be stimulated?


At 11:05 pm, April 03, 2006, Blogger Jules said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 11:06 pm, April 03, 2006, Blogger Jules said...

Sorry, cut and pasted the wrong thing...

As both a worker and patron of cafe life in Wellington I have to disagree with Mr. Doyle. First of all, one must ask whether the so called "Golden Age" was really so golden. Secondly, you also must acknowledge the social specialization of cafes: different cafes reflect their different clientele and as we are spoilt for choice, each one has tended to cater for a specific crowd. For example, Galleria (on Victoria's Kelburn Campus) is the hang out for academics and arts students, Midnight draws a younger and hipper (almost 'emo') crowd, Fidel’s attracts those in their mid to late twenties who are just about to procreate and are attempting to gather their last vestiges of 'cool' where Nikau tends to attract both young families and those involved in the world of ‘high art’. Of all of Wellington’s café’s, Olive is one of the few that could be regarded as a particularly good ‘all rounder’. There are different levels of discourse on all manner of subjects (both educated and uneducated) in all of these café’s but yes, a lot of it is who goes out with whom and so on. Gossip is not something new…

At 9:11 am, April 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder whether the women handing out suppressed evidence of the Louise Nicholas rape case count as "passionate" and "subversive" enough for Doyle? I know they're not doing it in cafes, but that was only part of Doyle's article, he was more complaining about political and intellectual complacency in Wellington as a whole.

And the trouble with having subversive discussions online is that they can be monitored by the police. For example, the blog that posted what the suppressed evidence was about could be open to charges, though I'm not sure whether suppression orders apply to overseas sites (like blogger.com). The evidence was certainly shocking enough to make me rethink my opinions on the case.

At 1:26 pm, April 04, 2006, Blogger Baz said...

That would be a fun experiment -- invite Eugene and chums over for coffee and a muffin while watching the autopsy of a large seagoing mammal.

Filling the magazine rack with Nature and the TLS rather than Pavement and House and Garden?
...would be a start. If a café's most challenging reading matter is Time< or The Dominion Post, intellectuals aren't going to drop in for a read (unless they're really slumming it).

At 1:28 pm, April 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Olive Cafe is so overrated - a particular bugbear of mine. The decor is plain and uninspiring - much like the coffee that they serve up.

The real reason for lack of intellectual activity in today's cafe is the volume of the music. This creates a yelling type conversation half of which is unheard, and the other half is not worth hearing. This type of conversing does not suit philosophical reflection to say the least.
You also need privacy corners, varied lighting, and comfortable seating (for the long haul).
Oh, and perhaps most importantly - staff that don't cast disapproving looks at those who linger for hours having spent very little money.

Best coffee - Deluxe
Best atmosphere (for philosophical reflection)- Katipo

At 1:56 pm, April 10, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To be honest, I was barley ten by the close of the eighties. However, I too question the idea of a 'Wellington golden age' of pavement throwing, red/pink card waving revolutionaries. Somehow I think that great 'editor', nostalgia has a lot to answer for when memories and the intensity of feelings of a bygone age are recalled….no doubt many of those same individuals [if they existed] are enjoying membership of the Khandallah Tennis club fine enough, thank you very much!

Perhaps there is mileage to be made from the argument of 'dilution' -There being many cafes now for a small [unfortunately] supply of people that actually like to talk and one would hope to spark action. That being said, there is always a place for gossip, innuendo etc, "But why are we here but to make sport for our neighbours and laugh at them in our turn." We've all read NW and Who, haven't we?, of course only in Dentists waiting rooms….

As for specific examples, location eh?….you're bound to find some creative professionals, creatively creating at Nikau - not to mention the considerable draw-card of Brioche or their delectable 'morning buns'. You'll find, no doubt, emo kids in Midnight and their not so cool peers at espressoholic -you might pick up some good tit-bits on the local music scene at midnight and who-pashed-who-behind-the-bike-shed at espressoholic. No doubt you would even find a good stock tip or who has an obliging secretary at Astoria, perhaps even Pravda…..while I would have to agree, as well as bleary eyed architecture students discussing the best way to assemble corrugated iron, timber slats and glass [without compromising the indoor/outdoor flow], you would indeed find mid-late 20 something's on the verge of procreation….

The concern for me id that these discussions take place, as often and by as many people as possible-location is not so relevant [my comments about the morning buns aside!...] I think the whole blog this has got to be a good thing, your right I think Tom, internet cafes, blogs, chartrooms etc this is the continuation of whatever philosophical/activism tradition our forefathers left us. Of course we could just forget that and go shopping.


Post a Comment

<< Home