diamond geezer

 Monday, March 26, 2007

Has beans

Starbucks WhitechapelAfter Stratford, the invasion continues. Another Starbucks has appeared, in another previously macchiato-free East End location, this time on the Whitechapel Road between Altab Ali Park and the East London Mosque. This is no throbbing metropolitan hotspot, this is an unimportant site beside a fume-choked bus stop on the run-down side of town. There may be a single McDonalds half a mile up the road close to Whitechapel station, but otherwise this thoroughfare has somehow managed to remain refreshingly clear of bland multinational chain stores. It's a street people visit to buy a sari or some fried chicken or a packet of cigarettes or even a foundry-struck bell, all served up by friendly independent retailers. And it's also no stranger to coffee. There were already plenty of cafes in the surrounding area where passers-by could stop off for a nice mug of caffeine, a slice of cake and a sit down. But now there's another, one that doesn't quite fit, intent on bringing caramel frappuccinos to the E1 masses.

The locals are aggrieved. So on Saturday afternoon a bunch of urban bandits called the Space Hijackers held an alternative tea party on the pavement outside the encroaching Starbucks. They brought fair trade tea and home made biscuits and handed them out to passers-by, for free. By all accounts the weather was freezing and the pavement bleak and windswept, but people stopped, and listened, and enjoyed some very nice carrot cake. There are pictures of the protest here, along with further details of the rationale behind the demonstration. Plus, more importantly, the organisers have provided a map of the West Whitechapel area showing the location of all the existing local cafes whose businesses may be threatened by this corporate invader. I doubt that enough people will see it to make a difference, but let's hope it lessens the risk that workers in several perfectly decent local establishments lose their jobs while unseen shareholders get rich.

Of course, the East End is no stranger to change. Over the centuries each successive migrant population has erased what was here before and replaced it with something more relevant to their culture. Until fairly recently, for example, the spot on which this Starbucks stands was known as Black Lion Yard - an area packed with 18 Jewish-owned jewellery shops, known as the "Hatton Garden of the East End". This was then wiped away to make way for a drab boxy office block, all 80s glass and shiny brown surfaces, with only its new name as a nod to the site's glittering past. Now 'Black Lion House' is used as a tax office and for business training purposes, that sort of thing, with a row of freshly refurbished retail outlets underneath. The owners clearly didn't have any qualms in allowing Starbucks to move in, and a sign at the opposite end of the building reveals that Tesco will be next. A Tesco Express is due to open here in three weeks time, bringing even greater multinational homogeneity to a spot where previously there was none. Unlike every previous commercial invasion of the East End, this one's being co-ordinated from the outside.

Personally speaking, I've never quite understood the need so many people seem to have for a regular intake of corporate coffee. I see them heading for their office desks at 9am, steaming cup in hand, and wonder why they can't wake up unaided. I see them sat in coffee shops, staring out of the window, and wonder if they're just brain-dead addicts. I see them wasting their Saturday mornings, sipping slowly and nibbling on muffins, and wonder how on earth this can be a good use of one's life. What's wrong with a mug of instant? What's wrong with making your own filter brew at home? What's wrong with a teabag dunked in boiling water instead? Honestly, if the rest of you were like me, Starbucks would be dead in the water already. Do please try harder to resist.

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