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28 August 2014updated 30 Jun 2021 11:53am

Wouldn’t be seen dead there: what our choice of café says about us

In a densely populated city, the café or the neighbourhood bar is effectively an extension of home. The ones we choose are the most basic manifestation of our social self-conception.

By Oliver Farry

There is a down-at-heel café a few doors up from me in the working-class neighbourhood of Paris where I live that has, over the past eighteen months or so, done everything it could to attract a new, presumably younger, clientele. First there was a hand-written sign announcing the arrival of table-football, then another hand-written sign advertised five-euro mojitos, another written in the same hand sought a female bartender, probably to offset the small but overwhelmingly middle-aged and male customer base. During the World Cup, a Brazilian flag hung in the window. None of these efforts seemed to draw many people in – there was rarely ever more than half a dozen clustered around the over-lit zinc bar. Earlier this month, it closed its doors, one of thousands of cafés that shut in France each year. It is currently being renovated and will no doubt reopen as a more upscale establishment, something the previous owner tried to do but failed for want of funds.

My neighbourhood, like many others in Paris before it, is undergoing gentrification, though, it must be said that the older working-class and immigrant culture remains resilient. Neither is a gentrified gambit a guarantee of success – a little further up the street, a recently opened café-deli run by a middle-aged Italian couple also struggles to attract customers and what clientele it has is scarcely representative of the area’s social diversity. But this is familiar in the neighbourhood as a whole. Muslims and Jews of North African origin live side by side, along with sub-Saharan Africans, Portuguese, Bangladeshis, Turks, Chinese and middle-class French bobos; it’s largely harmonious, with little social tension and not much crime, despite the economic disparity. A handful of “crossover” places aside though, there is hardly any mixing in the bars and cafés – the shisha and tea houses are the preserve of the locals of North African origin, the Bangladeshis congregate in the call shops and convenience stores, Chinese and Orthodox Jewish residents rarely socialise en masse in bars, while the more affluent white residents drink in the craft-beer bars and more design-oriented cafés that have sprung up in recent years.

It’s a form of “sundown segregation” that is familiar from many other cities around the world. While there doesn’t appear to be an active effort made on the part of any establishment to exclude “others”, the fissuring along class, and often racial, lines is a stark one. The basic vector is, of course, economic – €5 for a half-pint of IPA is beyond the reach of many locals who live on minimum wage – but there are also cultural reasons: an observant Muslim would have more call to go smoke shisha and sup mint tea than drink alcohol in a bar. And also because social spaces such as bars and cafés are the most basic manifestation of one’s social self-conception.

In a city as densely populated as Paris, where many live alone in cramped quarters, the café, the bistro or the neighbourhood bar is effectively an extension of one’s home. Cafés and coffee houses have long been places where urban tribes have gathered, of all social backgrounds – the eighteenth-century coffee houses in London gave rise to what we now know as the stock exchange and the most illustrious of insurance companies, Lloyds, started off as a coffee shop. Cafés were often centres of social and political ferment – such as in the arcades of the Palais Royal prior to the French Revolution. Sometimes the political threat was not always apparent – Trotsky spent part of his years in exile in Vienna, hanging around Café Central, a fine establishment that still stands opposite the Austrian Foreign Ministry. When briefed about possible revolutionary activity in Vienna, a Hapsburg minister scoffed: “I suppose you mean to tell me that Bronstein [ie Trotsky’s real name] from the Central is plotting revolution”. Portugal’s dictator Salazar was a little more alert, doing away with the Portuguese tradition of the tertúlia – gatherings of intellectuals in cafés. It is even striking how a number of cafés in Lisbon and Porto built during his reign are structured almost as panopticons, with sunken dining floors and few pillars to conceal oneself behind.

But the tribes that gather in these places are more often not political ones. Bars and cafés are above all an instantaneous barometer of one’s own taste. As well as our favourite haunts, we all have places that we recoil from the very thought of entering (“wouldn’t be seen dead in there”). The motivations for this can be snobbery, both conventional and inverted, fear – there is no shortage of rough establishments whose reputation alone puts people off – or simple discomfort (to quote Yogi Berra “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded”). As you get older too, your tolerance for a certain type of environment waxes and wanes – you begin to feel too old, or too young, or even over-dressed. Sometimes your tolerance of a favourite place is even dependent on the time of day. Sometimes you don’t even dislike a place – it just doesn’t speak to you. I have always been completely indifferent to American-style cafés, the sort where you have to queue up for a tall drink served to you in a paper cup by a ‘trained’ barista, a scenario that to me is reminiscent of a bourgeois soup kitchen. Years of living on the continent have made their lack of table service and their quaintly Victorian alcohol-free menus irrevocably alien to me. There are many others, of course, that think differently and those places manage perfectly well without my custom.

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In Paris, as in many other cities, admission policies based on race, class and gender, are illegal and generally frowned upon, though proprietors still use other underhand methods to screen their clientele, such as styling themselves as “private clubs” or using illusory dress codes as a handy excuse to keep undesirables out. In general though, it seems that the mere aura a place projects is enough to keep people away. Some Paris cafés and restaurants are known to seat better-looking customers in more prominent positions, and keep the ugly ones out of sight, which ought to tell you all you need to know about those places.

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Young, affluent people of vaguely bohemian leanings have a greater social mobility than most, one that goes downwards as well as up, and it is this that drives gentrification. People more adventurous than their peers tend to seek out working-class neighbourhoods with lower rents and property prices. They are as comfortable drinking in dingy dive bars as in plush hotel lounges. They also get to enjoy the patina of social tolerance, even if the reality is that the venues they socialise in are as monocultural in their own way as the suburban ones their parents frequent. Lower earners or ethnic minorities may not be formally excluded but high prices do the job and, in some cases, the brash new venues don’t speak to them. These young, affluent people are also the ones who will, over time gain the upper hand in gentrified areas, pushing those once low rents up and slowly populating the streets with their own less dive-y bars, cafés and boutiques. Sometimes this will come at the expense of the bars that they used to themselves drink in – a common occurrence in European cities such as Seville, Berlin, Budapest, Paris and London has been the objections to nocturnal noise by young bobos who find their neighbourhoods to be a little too lively once they have kids. Something the more long-standing residents have long put up with without complaint. But peace and quiet, like craft-brewed IPAs and tall lattes, is a commodity that many just can’t afford.