Next time you enter into a coffee shop, just stand up and dive into political discourse by speaking out loud to all the welcoming patrons. This is apparently doing it old school, as London historian Dr. Matthew Green describes in his article in The Telegraph. Dr. Green presents a wonderful story into London past, describing the origins of the London coffeehouse (1652!) and how the coffeehouse atmosphere would help transform public socialization.

The highlight of the coffeehouse, its “lifeblood” according to Dr. Green, was conversation. Interaction with strangers was what made the coffeehouse flourish because the agent of coffee provided the mental and physical boost to ramble on for hours. An atmosphere ensued that helped add to the greater socialization of all involved. Democracy in action was found inside coffeehouses, resulting in the sharing of great ideas between people in the topical realms like the metaphysical, philosophical and of course political.

Today it is hard to imagine the city without a coffee shop, but to what degree does it still provide this level of active socialization? People could just learn from here on how to make coffee and go on with their lives, not needing to go to a coffee shop. Of course we can now point towards the internet as the source of our information gathering (especially since you are reading this article on the internet right now). Yet right now there are some readers in a coffeehouse reading this. The point here is not simply that coffeehouses are great places for public interaction, this is understood. But to what degree of interaction is it currently? Where do we practice such open speech and engagement of strangers in person and in public these days?

Coffeehouses are still romanticized places inside the urban fabric providing a space that meets our need for conversational loitering. It looks like we have nothing on the coffeehouses of the past though.

  • Rebekah

    I feel like coffee houses (and restaurants and bars, for that matter) are catalysts for cultural change and growth in cities – I mean, look at what Cafe con Leche has done for Southwest Detroit, what Thistle, Bronx and MCBW have done for Midtown and 1515 has done for downtown. They’ve provided outlets for personal expression, discussion – places for percolating ideas. Good stuff.