Ten days ago, two black men were arrested for sitting in a Philadelphia Starbucks.
I work half a mile away from the Starbucks in question. I’ve passed by it several times. I know that area of Philly well. But was clear to me that I wasn’t welcome in Rittenhouse Square long before April 12th.
Black people are well aware of the signs of gentrification. When white young adults starting moving into historically black neighborhoods, we know the end is near. By the time Starbucks and Whole Foods open, gentrification has gone into full effect and with it comes higher rent prices and a new police presence that puts us on edge.
While I do not claim to be a resident of Philadelphia (even though I’ve lived here for five years now), I am well aware of the fact that the city I’ve grown to love is one of the most segregated in the country. I see the progression from black neighborhoods to white as I ride on the bus to work. The refurbished row houses, and expensive stores and gyms, inching closer and closer to black communities. The transition from condemned and abandoned houses to the frames of new apartments and condos as we get closer to Center City.
I’ve listened to middle-aged and older black women complain about how they are being harassed to sell their homes. I’ve heard the anger expressed about how taxis and even some Uber drivers refuse to travel to black neighborhoods. I understand why many black native Philadelphians only go into Center City for “official business”- otherwise, they stay away.
While Philadelphia is one of the most diverse cities in the country, downtown Philly is lily white. I myself am surprised when I see another black face in line at the Wawa on 20th and Market.
But no place in Philly- as far as I am aware- is as white as Rittenhouse Square. The neighborhood is literally described as Philly’s most “expensive and exclusive neighborhood”. I’ve gone out to eat there with coworkers and never been so aware of my blackness.
Turns out Rittenhouse Square has “the highest racial disparities in pedestrian stops in the entire city”. Police in this area repeatedly stop black people with no cause. In an area where the population is only 3% black, we make up 67% of the people stopped by police.
This is the cultural context of what happened at the Starbucks on 18th and Spruce.
Don’t tell me this wasn’t about race.
Starbucks has long been seen as a coffee house for the upper middle class. The signals that black people are not welcome here are directly linked to Starbucks being a symbol of gentrification. Are we not allowed to enjoy a caramel macchiato too?
Starbucks claims that individual stores are designed to reflect the communities they are in. But are they designed in a way that is just as welcoming to black customers as white customers?
Gentrification reinforces the lines of class and color. It leads to automatic suspicion of me simply because of my color. This bias is why the lives of those men were put in danger when the store manger chose to call the police…even though they’d only been in the store for a few minutes.
I personally think Starbucks has handled this situation very well and I appreciate the bold move they’ve made to train their employees on racial bias. However, I also think this a good opportunity to teach their customers as well. It is important for people to be educated on why calling the police on a black person is in essence a threat on their life and why the whitening of public spaces is not a welcomed sight for people of color.
As a design professional, I think it’s important to acknowledge the role architects, designers, and planners play here. Many times, buildings are developed with no thought about the social and economic implications of these new spaces and that is not okay. Design professionals should be keenly aware of who they are and are not inviting to the spaces they create. We should be mindful and not unintentionally suggest that certain people are not welcome.
The fact that two black men were arrested for “trespassing” in a traditionally white space should not be brushed aside. Six officers showing up to “take care of” two nonviolent men of color should not be overlooked. The black commissioner’s staunch defense of his police officers and subsequent apology show that there is still a lot of work to be done. But this has also brought black voices to a historically white neighborhood. Perhaps the browning of Starbucks will be slightly less threatening now.