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January 21st, 2004 Nick Budnick | News Stories
 

Coffee Culture Clash

A Southeast Portland institution takes on its ultimate enemy.

     
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Dan Davis quit a higher-paying welding job to help start up the Red and Black Cafe.
IMAGE: STEPHEN VOSS
Walk into the Red and Black Cafe on any given night and you're liable to find a Dennis Kucinich campaign strategy meeting, an open-mic poetry slam, or a group of anti-corporate protesters speaking in hushed tones over pints of organic beer.

Since its 2001 inception, the Southeast Division Street restaurant, which succeeded the Flying Saucer coffee shop, has become a nerve center of Portland's lefty counterculture.

There are books and magazines and anti-corporate propaganda, but also a prominently displayed bumper sticker proclaiming "death to coffee shop intellectuals."

The worker-owned collective's employees are paid an hourly wage and agree by consensus on everything from the genres of music played to the menu offered (which features locally grown vegetables and "free range and chemical free turkey").

"It's so wonderful to not have a boss," says Dan Davis, the sole remaining founding member of the Red and Black Collective. "We like to say we exploit ourselves."

But last week, this gathering point for political action became an actor itself, as its employee-owners realized that, in the ultimate clash of coffee cultures, its spiritual nemesis is moving in--right across the street.

Peter Perrin, owner of the old Ladd Meat building a block down the street at 21st and Division, has leased the building--now being gutted and renovated--to Starbucks, which plans to open a 1,500-square-foot coffee shop there in April.

As the news broke last week, it was reminiscent of 2001, when Southeast Portland activists beat back an attempt to open a McDonald's on Hawthorne Boulevard.

Once again, critics of chain retailers are mobilizing for a battle that could affect not only this funky strip of Southeast Division Street, but the esoteric lure of nearby Clinton Street as well.

Charles Kingsley is a veteran of the McDonald's fight and seems to be on his way to leading the fight against Starbucks as well. Kingsley, the co-chair of the Richmond Neighborhood Association, has helped secure more than $2.5 million in grants to promote what's been called the "Division Vision," a city-sanctioned, mass-transit-friendly, small-business-oriented philosophy. He says a Starbucks shop will hurt local businesses and send the community's money elsewhere.

He says he's also miffed because Perrin--who did not return calls--recently denied that Starbucks was being considered for the space, even though city building permits show it's been in the works since October.

"I'd love to think the property owner could wake up and realize that he made some promises that he's gone back on--and it could hurt the local community," Kingsley says.

Starbucks district manager Michelle Cain, who oversees 10 stores in Southeast Portland and Clackamas, says she hopes opposition will dissipate as people become familiar with Starbucks and its policies. She says her stores donate pastries and coffee to local schools and nonprofits, in addition to providing quality jobs with benefits. "We're going to go in and be the best community neighbor we can," she says.

The chain may have rough going. Since a city-sponsored design workshop three years ago, Mark Lakeman, a well-known Portland architect, has helped the "Seven Corners" intersections of 20th and 22nd avenues on Division focus on locally owned, community-oriented businesses. Lakeman says chains siphon money out of neighborhoods, raise rents and drive local businesses under.

Craig Sweitzer of Urban Works, the real-estate brokerage that mediated the Starbucks arrival, says he is not surprised at the opposition but doesn't understand it. "We're not putting in an adult fantasy video here or a gun shop," he says. "We're putting in a coffee shop."

Jean Baker, president of the Division/Clinton Business Association, isn't taking sides but says her group just completed a survey of businesses in the area. "The majority of respondents want small and local," she says. "Starbucks isn't either."

While the looming battle represents a clash of philosophies, it could have real consequences at the Red and Black.

The cafe's member-owners have ridden out the early hard times and paid off most of their $35,000 startup debt, and they've been discussing the idea of taking over management of their building and opening up a larger acoustic concert venue and artist/artisan workshop.

But now, they worry the arrival of Starbucks will undercut their plans. "I think Starbucks will hurt us," says Davis. "I don't know if they'll hurt us out of business, but I don't think it will be a good thing."


A meeting about Starbucks' arrival is planned at the Cascadia Rising Infoshop at Southeast 16th Avenue and Clinton Street at 6:30 pm Tuesday, Jan. 27. More information can be found at portland.indymedia.org , an activist website whose members meet at the Red and Black.
 
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