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A discussion about the excess of cafes

By Cameron Reed

Tuesday January 13, 2009

So I came across this blog/article on NYT published yesterday called ‘What Will Save Our Suburbs?’. An adequate job is done answering this question but what I was left thinking about was something mentioned in her conclusion:

I still dream that some major overhaul can occur: that a self-sufficient mixed-use neighborhood can emerge. That three-car-garaged McMansions can be subdivided into rental units with streetfront cafés, shops and other local businesses.

It was the thought of “streetfront cafés” being a necessary inclusion to the author’s (sub)urban utopia that struck me as strange. Lately, I’d been thinking about Vancouver’s obsession with coffee shops and cafés after seeing some prime storefront transformed into yet another coffee shop (Waves, I’m looking at you. Everywhere. Literally).

Besides the two Starbucks facing each other kiddie corner on Robson and Thurlow, no where in Vancouver best represents this cafe fixation than Mount Pleasant. Surrounding Main and Broadway there are just under a dozen in a block and a half radius. Not to mention, in just two years five or six more cafes have emerged.

I’m not the only one to notice this. The first thing Stephen J. Dubner, author of Freakonomics, pointed out in an NYT blog about Vancouver was that “[t]here seem to be more coffee shops per square block, including Starbucks, Blenz, and others, than in any other city I’ve ever been”.

The Vancouver Sun had reasonable analysis of this phenomenon:

Perhaps more than any place on earth, Vancouver has a deep love affair with its coffee shops. People here talk about their local hangouts with the fondness reserved for a favourite uncle, a secret treehouse in the woods or a worn old couch that can’t be thrown out.

Maybe it’s the rainy weather that prompts us to seek the company of others and a cup of hot brew. Maybe it’s our cramped-condo living conditions. Maybe it’s because we’ve drifted away from traditional gathering places like churches and service clubs that we enter these new temples in search of sustenance for body and soul. We now worship at the grotto of the coffee urn.

I would also add that the absence of anything resembling a traditional bar is a strong reason for this “drift” to cafes. And it’s true, people do get pretty passionate about their favourite cafes and who makes the best coffee in the city. I wouldn’t say that these are specific traits to Vancouverites, but they seem intensified here.

This importance of “streetfront cafés” to the vitality of a neighborhood isn’t a new idea either, it’s a common feature to most urban planning. Meeting places like cafes are as important to communities as a grocery store or green space. They all fulfill different but necessary roles in the way we interact with our neighborhood. I just wonder whether we’ve gone a little overboard in this city. What I mean to say is, ease off on the draconian liquor laws and let us open more fucking bars.