The Coffeehouse: A Communication Hotspot in Transition

My attention was first pointed at the coffeehouse as a changing hub of communication a while ago, while I was doing some fieldwork of observing the street intersection of Grand Avenue and Clifton Place in Clinton Hill, from the window of the Urban Vintage café. Urban Vintage opened about six months ago and is rather spacious, however packed with chairs and tables occupied by locals. Since the opening, the crowd of regular visitors has grown into a group of local laptop users, predominantly. The wi-fi is “borrowed” from the Grand Dakar restaurant across the street, and in peak time, around three or four o’clock, extra sockets are provided for the busy visitors in the café. Only few groups of people meet to talk, quietly. The owners let me know one day that they are considering to get their own Internet, although they might choose not to. My observation of the Urban Vintage café, from its start-up and transformation into ‘a place where people work’, has let me to wonder what is really at stake in this transformation of the café as a cultural institution. What are we winning and/or loosing with the current reinvented role of the café as a wireless “social” hotspot, and how does the current state of café culture differ from, or align with, café culture throughout history, as this has shaped with the introduction of new media in the past? Overall, what I aim to examine is how the urban cultural role of the American café as a communications hotspot is changing in New York with changing habits in public media consumption.

The coffeehouse’s cultural role as a hotspot for communication has developed throughout history, from a hotspot of speech between the learned, as an information destination of ‘runners’ moving from café to café to spread the latest news, of consumption of newsprint and magazines, and latest as a wireless hotspot for laptop owners (Idov 2009).

The history of the coffeehouse in New York goes back to 1696 when the first “Penny University”, the King’s Arms Cafe (King’s Arms), appeared as a copy of the British model, as a forum for discussion of politics and current affairs for the entry price of a penny (Baskerville 2009). The significance of this original role of the coffeehouse, as a gathering place for discussion, shows its potential about a hundred years later, when The Tontine Coffee House opened in New York in 1792 and became the original location for the New York Stock Exchange, for ten years (Paajanen 2009). This urban cultural role as a forum for debate and information exchange, which characterized the American coffeehouse in the 18th Century, has since then changed throughout history. The ‘standard American model’ of the coffeehouse has changed in architecture, aesthetics and decoration, as has the form of communication consumption and (social) interaction that the café environment invites for. For the past fifteen years, the change is influenced by the installation of wireless hotspots that enable coffeehouse guests to use the café not only as an office outside of home, but as a connected gateway for the individual to a different social dimension in the world wide web. In our technological age, café culture represents one of the few remaining opportunities for public sociability, however with free wi-fi, this sense of sociability is changing its social significance. Although the development of new media seems to have ‘caused’ the change, the change of physical decoration that enabled for laptop use in cafes must be considered as a significant factor as well. This is why the institution of the Starbucks Coffee, who has produced the American café model as ‘an extension of people’s living room’, with comfortable couches and individual tables, must be considered for a significant role player in the development of the American coffeehouse. Since its appearance in Seattle in 1971, the Starbucks Coffee has grown into becoming the standard American answer to café culture.

As I have begun my initial research, I have come across a temporary counter reaction in New York to the development of the café as it has shaped into a ‘wireless office’: Newly opened cafes are decorated like the original coffeehouses with bar chairs instead of sofa lounges and small tables, to prevent laptop users to settle down. In the summer of 2009, the Bluebird Coffee Shop in the East Village replaced half of its tables and most of its chairs with two counters and a few stools, and Café Grumpy recently abandoned laptops in their East Village branch and have chosen to design their newest branch in Park Slop as non-laptop friendly, without any lounge furniture and personal coffee tables (Strand 2010). This current countertrend might be a sign of a cultural reclaim of the café as a social space, which brings this project to temporary significance.

For my research design process, I will study the historic development of coffeehouses in New York City from looking into archives of business/coffee licenses. This is for the purpose of studying the ‘coffeehouse culture’, that, beside from historic descriptions of famous coffeehouses, can be studied from the architecture and decoration of the coffeehouses. I will visit still-existing coffeehouses in New York City and analyze the interior design, keeping in mind that this might have changed since the time of origin of the particular coffeehouse. I will also study the historic development in communication practices and media, to compare this timeline with the development of the coffeehouse-timeline, and look for coherencies between media use and coffeehouse interior design. I will thus have to conduct empirical fieldwork on spatial decoration and communications practices of coffeehouses, to examine how ‘types’ of cafés relate to ways of producing social space (Lefebvre 1991). This will be done in a categorization of the type of interior decoration of a number of cafes (from different time periods) into types of spaces of social practices. With my particular emphasis on the past 15 years where free wi-fi hotspots has been build into the architecture and concept of the coffeehouse, I will map the arrival of wi-fi cafés around New York City. This is to add the growth of wireless hotspots to my findings on the development of the café as a communication hotspot. Finally, I will study the ideals behind recently opened non-wireless cafés from interviews with the owners, to reflect on the current direction of the café as a cultural institution.


Peter Baskerville; “The Historic Coffee House: A history of the most significant and famous coffee houses”, [internet], (Guild (KPG), Knol Publishing, August 31), 2009

Manuel Castells:  “An Introduction to the Information Age”, in: City analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action, (London: Routledge) 2007

Elizabeth Ellsworth: “Places of Learning: Media, Architecture, Pedagogy”, (New York: Routledge), 2005

Michael Idov: “Bringing the Buzz Back to the Café” (The Wall Street Journal, December 1), 2009

Henri Lefebvre, “The Production of Space”, (Carlton: Donald Nicholson Smith), (1974) 1991

Sandy Miller, Juliana Spear: “Café Life New York: An Insider’s Guide to the City’s Neighborhood Cafes”, (Northampton: Interlink Books), 2008

David Morley: “Belongings: Place, Space and Identity in a Mediated World”, (European Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol. 4 No. 4), 2001

Constantin Petcou: “Media-polis/media-city”, in: Neil Leach, The Hieroglyphics of Space: Reading and Experiencing the Modern Metropolis, (London and New York: Routledge), 2002

Kim Sawchuk, Barbara A. Crow, Michael Longford: “The wireless spectrum: the politics, practices, and poetics of mobile media” (Toronto: University of Toronto Press), 2010

Bryant Simon: “Everything but the coffee: learning about America from Starbucks”, (Berkeley: University of California Press), 2009

Oliver Strand: “The New Coffee Bars: Unplug, Drink, Go”, (The New York Times, August 24), 2010

Sean Paajanen: “The Evolution of the Coffee House. The origins and history of the humble coffee shop”, [Internet], 2010


Hotspots New York, community listings of Wifi cafes in Manhattan