Cappuccino Urbanism

This is not particularly relevant to my topic of research, but an offhanded use of the term Cappuccino Urbanism spawned some more thinking about growth of the city and the ways in which a neighborhood's identity is constructed.

In the fourth quarter of 2006 Starbucks opened an average of six new stores per day. In 2007 they opened an average of eight stores per day for a total of 728 new locations with just about a third of them being international. Thanks to a strategy of "cluster bombing," a technique of opening multiple stores in close proximity to a competitor they want to take out of business and subsequently accepting the cannibalization of their unnecessary ranks, it's hard to determine how many of these new stores are permanent additions to the roster. Starbucks' expansion is strategically foamy: it grows in multiples and benefits from spatial proximity by reducing costs. If there's an urbanism of foam, it's cappuccino urbanism.

As Saskia Sassen recently discussed at MIT, elements of the built environment are beginning to form a sort of spatial infrastructure whereby, once a vertical market has grown a sufficient foothold in a particular place, it sponsors the further encrustation of that locality with specific spatial and service amenities. Varick street in Manhattan is a perfect example of this with its concentration of architecture offices, print shops, and satisfyingly-trendy cafes and restaurants nearby. Perhaps one or two offices were attracted by the cheap rents and proximity to SOHO but now a critical mass has been reached. That Columbia University chose Varick street as the site of its Studio-X off-campus research laboratory is an indicator of the infrastructural quality of this part of the city. It's just easier- both physically and psychically- to set up shop. (A careful historical study of this area would make a great project for someone who is bored.)

As Sassen implies, this infrastructural architecture loses the identity of architecture and begins to melt into the city itself. It becomes a non-place, characterless coordinates (even if decorated). Starbucks' "cluster bombing" approach to expansion is thus the privatized, projective construction of infrastructure for that most trendy class of individuals, the knowledge worker. Redundancy is built in and standards are maintained as nodes in the system take on interchangeability. Compared to that other bastion of corporate expansion, McDonald's, the foamy model of Starbucks is infrastructural because it is primarily urban rather than suburban and thus explicitly recognizes the importance of proximity, of density. After all, disconnected infrastructure, that without regular use, is merely a relic- it gains its placeness back as it becomes discretized into the city.

That was fun, but now I better get back to reading the Federalist Papers.

Seen here is a map of all Starbucks locations in Manhattan as of 2005 compiled by media artist Cory Arcangel.