I visited a new Washington shop this week, a Temple of Cool so sleek and futuristic it took a few minutes to figure out what — exactly — they do in the shiny, white minimalist space.
Did I accidentally end up at the Genius Bar? Am I at a law firm? Oh, wait. That’s right.
Really, expensive, delicious, ah-mazing coffee: $4 for a highball glass of iced joe gone in four sips.
It’s one of those craft-caffeine palaces that are proliferating throughout Washington. This one is called Blue Bottle Coffee, now in Georgetown but soon opening outposts in other parts of the District.
This is what the nation’s capital is becoming, isn’t it?
Because, to be honest, I can’t afford to drink coffee at a place like this every day. And neither can many city residents who have been here much longer than I have.
Just last week, we heard a report that said Washington is one of the nation’s worst places to try to survive on a six-figure salary. Yup. Make $100,000 and you won’t be living large in the land of million-dollar condos and $14 cocktails.
Places like Blue Bottle — which blossomed in another super-rich city, San Francisco — are the canaries signaling an increasingly gilded age.
And gentrification circa 2017 in Washington has a distinct bite to it.
Because it’s not just that fancy people have moved in with their fancy things.
Caviar and champagne aren’t displacing the catfish and beer of working-class, old-school Washington. No, the way it happens today is: The existing culture is co-opted and transformed — prettified, up-classed and one-percented — in a sort of feel-good gentrification that makes it inaccessible to the very people who have lived here their whole lives.
It’s a $9 half-smoke with hummus.
A $25 burger with foie gras.
A $4 shot of coffee.
See, we’re not getting rid of your food, we’re just reinventing it.
Washington has become a place where doughnuts, beer, burgers, chicken, coffee — staples of regular people — have been seized, crafted and fancified.
That’s what’s different, interesting and maybe troubling about this wave of gentrification. Don’t look for the Gucci store to see if your neighborhood’s hot. Look for the $25 plate of artisanal grits.
I am totally guilty of coveting twee food.
Ten years ago, I waited 45 minutes at the Blue Bottle coffee cart at a farmers market in San Francisco. My friend who lived there told me about this ah-mazing coffee that I had to try, so I went.
And I butterfingered the latte right after buying it. Splash. The crowd groaned. For a moment, I considered licking the pavement. But the few drops remaining in the cup were enough to tell me it was ah-mazing.
So there I was this week, 10 years and two kids later at the Blue Bottle Coffee that isn’t just a cart, it’s a dog-whistle for the city’s uber-affluent. You can even get a tiny button with nothing but the iconic blue bottle on it. Like the congressional lapel pin. You’re in the club.
Blue Bottle originated in a guy’s garage in Oakland. People waited in line down the street to get some. After selling coffee from carts in San Francisco, the company got its first bricks-and-mortar place in the city. A great, American story of entrepreneurship. Totally.
But Blue Bottle’s trajectory also reflected San Francisco’s transformation from an expensive place to live to a totally unaffordable place to live.
And then the coffee company began opening in cities just as exclusive — Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo.
Now D.C. has earned that Platinum City status. We get one, too. Wait, make that three, with two opening soon in the super-trendy Union Market (once known as the decidedly untrendy Florida Market) and the Wharf (the rebranded Maine Avenue Fish Market).
It’s the same formula that brought us Shake Shack and Momofuku, imports from cities that have super-glammed themselves into a stratosphere that few can afford.
The changes in the District aren’t simply about the paling of Chocolate City. The city’s racial makeup has undergone a dramatic change, with African Americans no longer the majority of the population for the first time in decades.
Today’s shift is also about economics. The working class and the middle class — the Dunkin’ Donuts coffee drinkers, the $5 sandwich eaters — are being pushed out by the people who can afford the Temple of Cool.
I’ll be the first one to admit, I was pretty giddy when I heard this fancy coffee place was coming to our city. But when I got there and looked around, it made me uncomfortable — and nostalgic for the way Washington used to be.
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