Image by  Boston Public Library

                                                                                                                                                 Image by Boston Public Library

Tucson, AZ is a pretty down to earth place. A little bit gritty, even.  Living in the desert requires a kind of pragmatic focus on needs and survival even in the contemporary world of modern conveniences (such as, you know, air conditioning). This attitude of practicality is one that many Tucsonans take up as a kind of regional ethos, even long after we leave the place. Unlike our neighbors to the north in the state capitol of Phoenix, a place many Tucsonans are quick to separate themselves from, Tucson has long been a liminal space, its residents having to practically work out contrasting and conflicting meanings of home, place, and community over centuries of intense exploration, trade, and colonization. Sometimes, this process has been marked by tragic and unthinkable violence. Yet, while much of the rest of Arizona is very conservative and reactionary, the “Old Pueblo” and its surrounding area is comparatively politically progressive and proud of that fact. Figuring out how to live together, with all our differences, is part of what being a Tucsonan has always been about.

Like many, many cities, both small and large, in the U.S., Tucson has been negotiating the line between “urban renewal” or “beautification” and gentrification for at least the last decade.  In particular, the downtown area has undergone a lot of transformations since I left it 9 years ago. Many of these changes involve new businesses moving into the downtown area that cater to the desires of a wealthier swath of the population.

As a foodie, I feel conflicted about these changes. I am resolutely enthusiastic about the unique regional food scene in Tucson, a subset of the larger cuisine known as “Sonoran” after the Mexican state to the south of Arizona.  (People from the rest of the country simply do not understand what I mean when I say “Mexican food”; Sonoran-style cuisine is NOT, NOT, NOT the same as New Mexican, Tex-Mex, Baja Californian, or fucking burritos, dudes!!!) Restaurants like Cafe Poca Cosa and El Charro are longstanding mainstays of Tucson‘s culinary scene and should be recognized and celebrated as such.  At the same time, newer restaurants that are more in line with dining trends across the U.S. that fall under the category “New American” offer a new vibrancy to the dining scene and the potential to bring needed attention to the region’s under-recognized cuisine.  However, as national foodie trends creep into Tucson, the specter of gentrification rears its head. 

The relationship between food culture and gentrification is perhaps nowhere more pronounced than in the conversation about coffee shops as harbingers of gentrification. As Reuben Fischer-Baum points out over at Gawker, many people think of independent coffee shops as essential to creating walkable, urban communities. Yet, as he points out, “coffee shop-less neighborhoods in [many] cities are predominantly non-white. If you spot a mixed neighborhood with a heavy concentration of these shops—Bushwick and Crown Heights in Brooklyn, for example—chances are it's rapidly gentrifying.”

He continues:

Coffee shops certainly can be ‘positive markers of a living community,’ but...they're really a positive marker of one fairly specific type of a living community. Informal gathering places that can make neighborhoods thrive—what urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls ‘third places’—can come in all shapes and sizes, and this diversity of communities is what makes great cities great. To one resident, a new independent coffee joint might be a welcome neighborhood amenity. To another resident—a resident who may already have a community-building space in a church, or a park, or a bar, or even a chain coffee shop—it's the gentrification equivalent of a red sniper dot.

So, it was with curiosity and trepidation that I decided to check out Cartel Coffee Lab during my trip home to Tucson last month. It was really only after I moved away from Tucson to live in places like Paris, Atlanta, and Portland, Ore. that I recognized the place as culturally distinctive and I was afraid that the introduction of specialty coffee shops, such as Cartel, pointed to the end the cultural uniqueness of Tucson.  But, also, I am now an unambiguous coffee snob, spoiled as I have become living in urban hipster neighborhoods in larger cities.  I really, really want my macchiato to be, you know, perfect.

                                                                          My first macchiato at Cartel Coffee Lab's downtown Tucson location

                                                                          My first macchiato at Cartel Coffee Lab's downtown Tucson location


Walking into the second Cartel location in rapidly gentrifying downtown Tucson, I was instantly struck by how much it looked like other every other specialty coffee shop in every other city in the U.S. The hanging wall of bike rims (but, is it art?) was really a little much for me. I ordered a macchiato and sat down. Soon, an old acquaintance of mine from graduate school arrived. She asked, “Have you heard about this place?” and then regaled me with an anecdote about a friend who had been “yelled at” by one of the baristas for leaving his drink on the bar too long while he was on the phone. Listening to the story, I felt divided. On the one hand, as a coffee snob and a self-avowed ally of baristas everywhere, I know that you can’t leave your cappuccino on the bar long before it is essentially ruined and the care and labor of a good barista is totally sacrificed. Rude.

On the other hand, in her story I heard resistance! Resistance to coffee snobbery; Resistance to Tucson turning into just another white-washed version of every other hipster urban center; Resistance to fucking bike rim “art.”

Traveling to the other Cartel location in Tucson, I quickly saw more ways that Tucsonans were resisting the specialty coffee formula. Both locations have large food menus and the spaces are clearly designed for people to camp out for hours to work and socialize, in contrast to the sparse and minimalist aesthetic of many coffee shops, a design intended to get people to drop their cash, drink their ‘spro, and move the fuck along. It was apparent to me that a lot of the people in Cartel weren’t paying primarily for the coffee. In order to economically survive in Tucson, Cartel has to offer its customers more than just good coffee.

And maybe that’s a good thing, even if it means that some of the quality of the coffee is sacrificed along the way?

When the barista plopped down an over-extracted macchiato in front of me, letting it spill into the saucer with a nonchalant “oops” and then sat down next to me to eat a plate of bacon at the bar, I felt annoyed with myself for being annoyed with her.  Who had I become since I left home? It was with relief later that day that I sat with my friend drinking cheap beer as he berated people, like me, who paid $5 for a fucking cup of coffee. Yeah, I thought, fuck those people. Fuck me.

Considerations of gentrification sometimes try to quantify the potential benefits of “urban renewal.” This frequently leads people to conclude that gentrification is a good thing, really. It decreases crime. It raises property values. It creates "community." But, what this ignores is more intangible markers of what makes a place, a neighborhood, distinct and unassimilated into an increasingly uniform mass of middle upper-class, white American, consumerist culture, the apotheosis of which is foodie trends, like specialty coffee.  

To be fair, Cartel and other coffee shops like it around the country are caught in larger socioeconomic trends for which they cannot be held responsible. Specialty coffee shops work really well as a kind of shorthand for these trends that cut to the heart of class, race, and gender politics in the U.S.  Still, it’s worth asking: when the gastropubs and upscale independent coffee shops move in, not only who moves out, but what cultural values disappear? Is Tucson, and places like it, losing something quintessential to the “American experience” that we’d do well not to forsake as we march down the road of pork belly, homemade pickles, bacon donuts, roasted kale, and the perfect macchiato?

                                                                                                                           Photo © Lisa C. Knisely

                                                                                                                           Photo © Lisa C. Knisely

-Lisa C. Knisely, Editor-in-Chief