Coffee shops: the hangout of choice for 18th century hipsters

Creating a buzz. Image: davidabrahamovitch/Flickr.

In any trendy coffee shop on the urban high street, you’re likely to see intimate groups of well-dressed (or fashionably scruffy) sophisticates. Perched on narrow wooden benches, they’ll be locked in conversation or poring over their MacBooks. As you breathe in the scent of single origin coffee beans, you may well detect a whiff of unapologetic pretension.

But don’t scoff at the hipsters; they’re maintaining a well-established English tradition. Exposed light bulbs aside, this scene could have come straight out of the 18th century.

In her light-hearted re-telling of English history, Life Among the English (1942), Rose Macaulay gently lampoons the 18th-century coffee house, writing that “Young law students would arrive at their coffee house, newspapers in hand, and saunter away their time, admiring one another’s get-ups”. Unlike most of the text’s comedy – which is derived from the ludicrously unfamiliar practices of the past – the account of the coffee house gets a laugh because it is still so recognisable.


Representations of the coffee house throughout the ages are remarkably consistent, and even today, coffee is connected with fashionable sophistication. As a cultural icon, the coffee house stands alone in a broadly-imagined hinterland, somewhere between the stuffy cloisters and libraries of the university academy and the hipster corners of London’s Shoreditch, Manchester’s Northern Quarter and certain stretches of Sheffield’s Division Street.

The contemporary coffee shop yearns nostalgically – almost subconsciously – for the coffee culture of a bygone era. It aspires to a representation of the coffee house galvanised during the 18th century; a romantic perception nurtured by the writing of figures like Joseph Addison and Richard Steele.

It is in literary works such as these that the most enduring descriptions of 18th-century coffee house culture survive. At the dawn of the 1700s, London was becoming Britain’s first 24-hour consumer society. This was a period that welcomed coffee, tea, porcelain, sugar, chocolate, dictionaries, novels and newspapers. It became the fashion to drop into club-like coffee houses, where people could discuss politics, literature, culture and their own lives. Thanks to technological advances and lapses in licensing rules, news and gossip now permeated the printed world.

It was into this society that Joseph Addison and Richard Steele released a periodical titled The Spectator in 1711 (no relation to the magazine of the same name). This paper’s manifesto was to fill these coffee houses with knowledge, culture, ideas and – above all – conversation. The paper’s fictional editor modestly claimed: “I shall be ambitious to have it said of me, that I have brought Philosophy out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and in coffee-houses.”

A proud tradition of posing. Image: Saddhiyama/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY.

But this image of the coffee house as a public sphere of enlightened debate and discussion is – as Macaulay points out – undermined by the fact that these coffee houses were commercial enterprises that preyed upon the pretentious. They extored money from lazy posers in exchange for a den where they could imagine themselves to be great thinkers, philosophers and politicians.

A culture of commerce

In the 18th century, the coffee house was satirised for this very reason. Memorably, when the heroine of Alexander Pope’s mock-epic The Rape of the Lock (1712) arrives in a London coffee house, her commodity of choice is introduced as: “Coffee (which makes the politician wise/And see thro’ all things with half shut eyes).”

By the early 20th century, the coffee house of The Spectator was seen as a kind of half-waking dream, which alluded the clinical scrutiny of the biographer or historian. As Virgina Woolf describes in her 1928 novel Orlando:

To give a truthful account of London society at that or indeed any other time, is beyond the powers of the biographer or the historian. Only those who have little need of truth, and no respect for it – the poets and the novelists – can be trusted to do it, for this is one of those cases where truth does not exist. Nothing exists. The whole thing is a miasma – a mirage.

Nevertheless, the dream was a popular and lucrative one. The coffee house that Addison and Steele inhabited might not have been quite the enlightened hub of culture that they reported. But in penning this imagined coffee house, they created a legacy that still survives today.

What these coffee shops also did – and what they continue to do – is provide a space. The coffee house remains a place for people to meet and converse, and that alone is worth celebrating. Even Woolf’s Orlando – unsettled by the disconnect between her idea of the coffee house and the commercial reality – acknowledged that the contradictions of coffee house culture do not diminish its splendour: “At one and the same time, therefore, society is the most powerful concoction in the world and society has no existence whatsoever”. The Conversation

Adam J Smith is honorary research fellow at University of Sheffield.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.