Coffee is a hot commodity – literally. Some people say that where you get your morning coffee, or afternoon pick-me-up cup, can say a lot about you. Local versus chain, pour-over versus cold-brew are heavily disputed topics. But where you get your coffee could say even more about your neighborhood than your roast preferences.
Chicago is a hotbed for coffee shops. Neighborhoods are filled to the brim with cafes that boast alternative atmospheres while there is a Starbucks on every corner and a Dunkin Donuts greeting you at the entrance of every train stop.
While it may be clear that Chicagoans like their coffee, one way or another, nobody would expect it to be at the center of Chicago’s gentrification issue.
One locally based coffee company, Bow Truss Coffee Roasters, has unfortunately and by accident, situated themselves as the symbol of gentrification to come for many neighborhoods.
Bow Truss is just one of Phil Tadros’ entrepreneurial brainchildren. He is also the founder of Dollop, another successful local Chicago coffee chain, as well as Doejo, a digital agency, and Aquanaut Beer Brewing Company, atop a handful of others.
Bow Truss, which began in 2012, is one of the fastest growing coffee shop chains. They now have seven existing locations in Chicago, as well as one in California, and are preparing to open up 12 more shops around the city.
One of the biggest social and political monsters that loom over any neighborhood is the threat of gentrification. For residents of a neighborhood, whether in Chicago or New York, gentrification can eventually mean displacement from their homes.
By definition, gentrification is a trend in urban neighborhoods, which results in increased property values, displacing lower-income families and small businesses.
“The word gentrification was actually made up by a woman named Ruth Glass, to describe what was happening in a post-World War London,” Euan Hague, an urban planning and geography professor at DePaul University said. “In its very specific definition, there is nothing to be said about race or ethnicity. However, race and socioeconomic status is really intricately intertwined, so the racial aspect is what makes gentrification really visible.”
Professor Hague, who has been studying the neighborhood of Pilsen since 2004, goes on to note that for years, wealthier Hispanic Americans have been moving into the neighborhood, which began the gentrification movement in the area.
“One thing we see in a United States context is people of the same race who are wealthier moving into a neighborhood. You notice the change when you see a racial change occurring in tandem,” Professor Hague said.
Over the past ten years, while wealthier residents have been moving in, the face of Pilsen has changed tremendously. Lining the streets are vintage clothing stores, record stores, a smoking lounge, cupcake stores and patisseries, as well as modern cooperative artisanal arts stores.
“Pilsen skipped the corporate Starbucks phase of gentrification. They went from Dunkin Donuts to cold-pressed coffee,” Professor Hague said.
So, what about the coffee?
Gentrification is a highly political process that has shaped a lot of Chicago’s hottest neighborhoods – Wicker Park is a gleaming example. It is also worth noting that Lincoln Park when through the same changes, with DePaul University at the center of the movement.
For Pilsen, Bow Truss, which opened in early 2015, seemed to be gentrification coming to a head as it faced a lot of backlash from neighborhood residents, including anti-gentrification tagging on the storefront windows.
One sign even read, “Classism and racism smell like your coffee!”
However, the gentrification that occurred in Pilsen isn’t Bow Truss’s doing, in fact, they may have just been the unlucky face bearing the blame.
“The thing to remember is that this is not a natural process, it doesn’t just happen. There’s political and real estate interest. As far as Bow Truss goes, they were the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Professor Hague said.
The map above illustrates where existing Bow Truss locations reside with red stars, where planned Bow Truss locations will be developed with blue flags, and the median home prices for surrounding neighborhoods. Change in median home price from 2015 to 2016 is illustrated through increase in median home price in a green dot and decrease in median home price in a yellow dot. All data from a Redfin report published in early 2016.
For a lot of residents in Pilsen, the occurrences at Bow Truss signified a loss of control of their neighborhood and the culmination of their frustrations.
“I think there’s frustration. I don’t think it was targeting the particular place, it could have been any of the places,” Byron Sigcho, director of Pilsen Alliance, a grassroots organization fighting gentrification, said. “Should the neighborhood be taking in places like Bow Truss? No, but it brings up a conversation that we as a city need to be having.”
What is really at the heart of the issue for Pilsen residents is the loss of their neighborhood and their desire for a solution. “This isn’t an issue exclusive to Pilsen, it’s a citywide issue that requires a citywide effort to find a solution,” Sigcho said.
Bow Truss and the unfortunate symbolism
As an expanding artisanal coffee chain, the draw to neighborhoods that are up-and-coming tandems the neighborhoods that are becoming increasingly gentrified. Unfortunately for Bow Truss, it seems that public opinion doesn’t favor them.
“Once you see a Bow Truss moving in, you pretty much know the neighborhood is facing gentrification,” Jacqueline Harbeck, sophomore studying anthropology at DePaul University, said.
Neighborhoods that Bow Truss has planned expansion to, like Logan Square, Humboldt Park, and Uptown are neighborhoods that are facing similar housing and gentrification issues.
For Bow Truss, this means they may have unintentionally made themselves the symbol of hardship, displacement, and gentrification to come.