Coffee shops as urban infrastructure

Date: June 30, 2020

By: Franz Buhr

‘Who does not know what it means when a café selling espresso made with single-origin, shade-grown, fair-trade coffee beans opens down the block?’ asked Sharon Zukin and her colleagues (Zukin et al. 2016, 13) in a recent collective publication about urban change. They were talking about the effects of gentrification on local shopping streets, and about how small immigrants’ shops are replaced by trendy restaurants and hipster cafés. But what if those specialty coffee shops are owned by migrants themselves?

Let us take a look at the specialty coffee scene in Lisbon, Portugal. A thin description of specialty coffee shops would be: cafés selling single-origin coffee, locally roasted and ground, prepared by trained baristas. But these coffee shops have come to be associated with a lot more than that. They are more or less identifiable by their décor, by the background music, the plants all around, by the looks of the clientèle and, of course, by the higher prices practiced. In a country of coffee drinkers like Portugal, where anyone can easily buy an espresso for 60 cents, specialty coffee shops usually charge two times that amount.

It happens that, in Lisbon, around 1/3 of specialty coffee shops are migrant-owned. Migrants from Australia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Russia, and so on. It matters to know that the whole specialty coffee concept is new to Lisbon. Before 2014, there was only one of these places in the Portuguese capital. Now, there are around 30. It also matters to know that these cafés are not located in Lisbon’s ‘immigrant districts’; they are mostly present in touristic areas, but in a few residential neighbourhoods too.

It is no coincidence that the mushrooming of trendy coffee shops in Lisbon happened side by side with the touristification of the city. There are now uncountable websites telling where coffee aficionados should go when visiting Lisbon. In my interviews with coffee shop owners, I was told that most clients are foreigners, either tourists or foreign residents. Perhaps, those coffee shops emerged as Lisbon changed its positioning in the global circuit of ‘attractive cities’, as it has now become a favourite destination of digital nomads, Erasmus students, second-home owners, international investors, retirees and other privileged migrants.

In terms of migrant entrepreneurship, resorting to the notion of infrastructure (Hall, King and Finley 2016) has contributed to shifting our attention from container-like definitions of ‘immigrants’ territories’ (such as ‘immigrant districts’, Chinatowns, and the like) to the capillarisation of migrants’ activities throughout urban space. Lisbon’s specialty coffee shops seem to take part into a wider network of contemporary urban infrastructure, sustaining various kinds of mobile lifestyles, including their owners’. ‘Infrastructure’ here does not mean that migrants’ businesses are evenly distributed in the urban fabric, but rather that their commercial strategies may be embedded in other circuits, circulations and logics, operating beyond the ethnic market niche. This raises the question of privilege and migration, and directs our attention to the class underpinings of (new) entrepreneurial migrants, both in terms of economic and cultural capital.

Sharon Zukin, Philip Kasinitz and Xiangming Chen (eds.) (2016) Global cities, local streets: Everyday diversity from New York to Shanghai. London: Routledge
Suzanne Hall, Julia King and Robin Finlay (2016) Migrant infrastructure: transaction economies in Birmingham and Leicester, UK. Urban Studies, 54 (6), 1311–1327


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