The Local Café: Where Everyone Can Belong

by Lisa Anselmo

I’m sitting in my local café at lunchtime, which I use as my office. The WiFi is excellent, the manager and wait staff are welcoming and accommodating. There are no rules, no restrictions here, no signs warning “Laptops Forbidden.” I’m able to adapt the café to suit my life as I need, and it’s as though that’s expected. No one is imposing an agenda on me; they want me to feel at home, to call this place my own. This is the beauty of the cafés and bistros of Paris: they are an extension of our homes, and an indispensable part of our lives.

The lunch crowd has arrived. Next to me is a young couple and their baby; across, sit three woman, one in a hijab; beside them, two men huddle over a laptop discussing what looks like architectural drawings. Just outside on the terrace, a small group of construction workers of various origin are no doubt taking a break from renovating a nearby apartment, their work togs covered in plaster dust and paint. 

The clientele at this café represents the makeup of the neighborhood: Jewish, Muslim, hipsters, Millennials, old-timers, and newcomers—all of us living in the same buildings together, our lives mingling on a daily basis.

Cafés are essential for local communities—inclusive public houses where everyone has a seat at the table. But Paris has lost 300 cafés since 2014.*

Cafés are a vital part of our diverse communities. ©Lisa Anselmo

This is what makes the local café so special—and so essential. It’s where the entire community gathers—regardless of income, origin, religion, education, political affiliation, or skin color. “The crucible of friendship,” says restaurateur Alain Fontaine of cafés and bistros. “The melting pot where everyone meets.” Fontaine is leading an initiative to attain UNESCO status for Paris’s beloved bistros. Cafés could use this boost as well.

Cafés are the ultimate democratizer, inclusive public houses where anyone can find their place at the table. It’s something we take for granted because they’ve always been here, serving our communities. But it’s changing. Cafés are closing, both in Paris, and in France at large.

Cafe closures have been making headlines for years. The French government is finally recognizing the problem.

LOSING THE HEART OF LOCAL LIFE

Cafés in small towns across France have been the most hard-hit, mainly due to dwindling populations, not in small part precipitated by a massive reduction in national rail routes, cutting off these towns from the main artery, so they wither and die. The local businesses close—and worse, the café, often the only one in the village, leaving the residents with no common meeting place. In a country with a culture of socializing around food and drink, this loss is devastating to a community. The French government has recently understood the impact of this on the heart of the people, and is investing 150 million euros to launch an ambitious initiative that gives grants to anyone willing to open or preserve a café in a small town. It’s a start.

But in Paris, where money talks and international trends have a strong impact, cafés here are not getting the same kind of aid. The corporate chain is king, as is the foreign investor. Tech start-ups are the only small business ventures anyone wants to talk about these days. Longstanding locally owned businesses have little recourse if they’re struggling, and few resources, often shouldering the lion’s share of taxes, stymied by one-sided labor laws, and struggling to pay ever-rising rents. Cafés, too, are feeling this pressure, and in recent years, there has been a spate of closures, particularly in gentrifying or touristy areas. Paris has lost 300 cafés in just the last four years. And, like in small towns, the local Parisian café is also the center of neighborhood life, and the closure of a popular café has the same devastating impact on the residents, particularly if it’s replaced with an upscale restaurant or trendy specialty shop geared more to tourists than locals.

A Brooklyn-style coffee house just opened in our neighborhood. While French-owned, everything is in English (or a sort of English). Not sure about the coffee. ©Lisa Anselmo

Cafés are also facing competition, at least in the minds of some, with the rise of the Brooklyn-style coffee house: small establishments known for artisanal beans brewed by English-speaking baristas. Often, these are owned by Aussies or Americans who’ve imported this coffee culture to Paris—at first as a response to their own dislike of Parisian café coffee, which many find bitter and wanting. But the trend has caught on in a city where all things Brooklyn are highly prized. And, if you’re a coffee-lover, these are a welcomed addition to the Paris food scene. They’re often cozy and friendly, and along with impeccable coffee, serve tasty treats like brownies, and avocado toast. If that’s your thing.

But we shouldn’t mistake these places for the new Paris café. For starters, they’re technically not cafés—they don’t keep café hours, for example—and the vibe is completely different from a classic café. The coffee house is not a place where you can stay for hours gabbing, drinking, and eating until midnight. They often have only three or four tables (some don’t allow laptops for this reason), and are more tranquil and solitary. People tend to go alone or with one other person, have their coffee and a brief pause or business chat, then move on. It’s about the coffee, not the experience.

And there’s something else decidedly different about these places: the demographic. White, young, educated, middle- to upper-class. Period. The most diverse thing about these coffee houses is that they serve vegan milk options.

SERVING (& PRESERVING) DIVERSE COMMUNITIES

Why should we care? Because these kind of upscale businesses are a sign of the changes in our communities, thanks to gentrification and rising rents. Whole neighborhoods are going upmarket, transforming in a few short years; restaurants and shops serve a new moneyed clientele. The Saint-Ambroise district in the 11th arrondissement is a perfect example of this. Suddenly, the working class residents who have lived in these neighborhoods for decades can no longer afford to eat or shop in their own backyard, marginalized in the very quartier they call home.

I admit, as someone who blogs about Paris to an audience of a certain demographic, I have a nagging guilt about my own possible contribution to this change, real or imagined. Eight years ago, when I arrived in my sleepy neighborhood, a district somewhere between Charonne and Nation in the 11th, I was the only English-speaker around, and I liked it because I wanted to immerse myself in Paris life. I chose the area for it’s authentic local feel, something my New York neighborhood had long since lost. My Paris neighborhood was, and still is, home to a mix of young professionals, students, and families; the businesses are affordable and utilitarian. The cafés, if not always pretty, are welcoming and cheap. I’ve often called this area the last patch of real Paris.

Now I see signs of gentrification. The first giveaway: I hear and see English everywhere—even the servers at the cafés speak English now, menus are offered in English, perhaps catering to tourists encroaching on the district thanks to AirBnb. Prices are starting to rise. My nearby Leader Price grocery store, once frequented by the neighborhood’s working-class and elderly residents on pensions, has become an expensive organic shop with sparse, highly curated shelves. The old grocery store was packed with customers, and we all knew each other; the organic shop sits empty for now, confounding the locals who, when they do enter, wander the aisles slightly dazed then walk out with empty carts, shaking their heads. They’ve been abandoned.

Upscale overnight. A very pricey organic shop replaces an affordable grocery store that had served the working-class neighborhood for years. ©Lisa Anselmo

THE FATE OF OUR CAFES IS OUR FATE

The next time you see a café close, take note. Because it marks more than a change in our way of commerce; it’s a change in how we relate to each other—or more accurately, how we are beginning to not relate. Gentrification is just that: creating a place for the gentry. A certain class of people. If we build coffee houses that exclude some of us, what does this say about who we are now? It concerns me, and it should you. There is a trend toward isolation that is sweeping the world, and this is affecting how we interact, vote and govern, and how we see the world. The local café is the opposite of isolation and segregation. In a fast-gentrifying city like Paris, our cafés remain a place of liberté, égalité, fraternité. A Utopia for a diverse and vital community.

It’s why, sitting in my café now, I cherish this place. Here, there is something for everyone, because everyone matters, equally. I can’t say that Paris is the most inclusive city I’ve ever lived in, or that I’ve never witnessed racism here, but for this hour or two in this wonderful place of food and drink, we are all one, united by the desire to share and connect with the world around us. We are the Paris café, and it is us.

Coffee houses are fine for some, but cafés are essential for all. This, more than any other reason, is why I fight for the survival of the Paris café. I want to be where everyone has a seat at the table. Where we all can belong.

Thanks for the memories. Chez Gladines was very popular, and served decent food to a mix of locals. “Coming Soon” as the sign touts—in English—is a Brooklyn-style craft beer bar. ©Lisa Anselmo

*Source: French National Statistics Office, 2014 – 2018

LISA ANSELMO is a writer, branding expert, speaker, and coach, and has worked at such iconic American magazines as Allure, InStyle, and People. She is the author of My (Part-Time) Paris Life: How Running Away Brought Me Home, (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press), and has been featured in New York magazine, Travel and Leisure, Bustle, House Hunters International, Expatriates Magazine among others.
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