Monday, October 3, 2011

The Local Coffee Shop

a suburban greenmom in a university town pauses for her morning caffiene...

It's 8:00 on a Monday morning, and I'm sitting in the local coffee shop near my university.

There are actually several--but most of them have names like Panera or Starbucks or otherwise chainy things you can find anywhere. (I have a soft spot for Panera, by the way--they serve food and coffee on Real Plates and Cups.) This is the Unicorn Cafe, a little place which sells local when it can and composts, where you can get a "for here" coffee mug (in actual ceramic, and I believe it's refillable) or a "to go" cardboard (not styrofoam) cup. At the add-cream-and-sugar station, they have a whole bunch of long-handled "real" spoons and a container to put the used ones in, so you don't have to use those stupid little plastic straw thingies that don't work anyway. They invite you to recycle the little cardboard sleeves on your coffee mug. I haven't seen anything specifically indicating it, but I'm fairly sure if I remembered my carry-out mug they'd fill it up for me instead of using the disposable one at all. They get their coffee from a local micro-roastery (In Chicago? Who knew?) that sources fair trade beans.

It's (IMO) inhumanly early to be up and functioning, but the really nice young woman behind the counter (I reject the term "barista." Not sure why.) is chatty and pleasant, and she knows a number of customers by name, and they know her. There are businessy-looking people reading papers or clicking along on their netbooks, adults having a cup of coffee before work, grad-student types coming in and out. The place feels like a flock of birds picked it up off a street corner in Portland (Maine or Oregon, take your pick) and dropped it down here in Evanston.

Oh, and the coffee is good. Really good.

I know university towns tend to operate by slightly different rules than other places, but it's not a bad set of rules. The streets around the school proper are sprinkled with a combination of chain ordinary-places (chain sandwich shop, chain pharmacy, chain bagel place, and Whole Foods a couple of blocks away), alongside places like the Unicorn, little restaurants and shops and places for people who want something more personal and probably sustainable than your basic strip-mall fare. The whole town seems made for walkers--good and frequent crosswalks, two different train lines that come right through town.

Contrast this with the suburban "town" I had reason to visit yesterday: strip mall, strip mall, long block, strip mall, three gas stations on the corner, strip mall...and then a stop light and suddenly everything is residential for miles. There's no possible way in a place like that to do anything but drive a car for the smallest need, and once you hit access to whatever-it-is, there's nothing but retail and industry for just as many miles.

So...what do we do? Ordinary people with a mortgage, trying to get by with as little adverse impact on the planet as possible? Picking up and moving isn't always an option you know? Or is it the only choice? I know I keep coming back to this theme again and again, but I've still not come to any solid conclusion: What can I do? Do I, as an individual, have any power to shape my own community into something healthier and better not just for the planet but for the people who live on it (as though there's a difference between the two, which there really isn't)?

For starters, I can patronize places like this (and invite anyone who visits Evanston to check it out, it's awesome, and I suspect I'll be back for lunch since I forgot to bring my own today)...but can I be part of changing my own semi-sprawling suburban community? And is there any hope for the ones like I visited yesterday, where the very layout and architecture work completely against any sense of sustainability?
--Jenn the Greenmom


Clarissa said...

I so agree with what you are saying! The way so many towns are planned is just atrocious. Everything is so spread out that many people are simply forced to drive everywhere. There are no sidewalks anywhere.

In terms of coffee-places, we have a really good coffee-place in our town. It doesn't serve anything in styrofoam which is a huge plus. People tell me I'm making this up but I can swear I always feel nauseous whenever I eat or drink anything from styrofoam.

My impossible dream is that somebody would build a fruit and vegetable shop stocked by local farmers' produce in my residential area. That would be such a dream come true.

Elizabeth said...

@Clarissa, I think styrene is on the list of cancer causing agents. I was always sure styrofoam had formaldahyde in it. That may or may not be true, depending on what you read, but I have avoided styrofoam for at least 30 years.

We used to travel a lot more when the children were little and driving into new towns the first sight was always the outlying chain stores and strip malls. Not such a great welcoming view, and pretty depressing.

Bethany said...

It's all just money-driven, really. And it's such a shame! The nearest town where I can go to do anything is about 20 minutes away and the other day I wanted to take my daughter out for a coffee and a scone... but there was literally no place besides Starbucks to get a decent latte and sit down. This in a town the has a Walmart, Target, Fred Meyer, all the major grocery stores, etc. It's kinda shameful, because where we used to live in Spokane there were all sorts of little shops like that.

And I would DEFINITELY recommend using a reusable cup. Most places even give a discount for it... though admittedly I am biased since I own a reusable travel mug/to-go tumbler company... :)

Betsy (Eco-Novice) said...

I went to college in a university town and loved it. Borrowed a car from a friend once every few months to shop at Target or see a movie, but otherwise walked everywhere. I would love to live in a college town again.

I visited a friend nearby the other day who lives in the center of our (suburban) city. Although she can walk many places, the surrounding streets are all busy 4-lane roads and I feel like I'm inhaling exhaust when I go for a walk in her environs, and also have to keep a super tight leash on my kids as it's not very pedestrian friendly -- I'm not interested in living somewhere walkable like THAT.

Betsy (Eco-Novice) said...

Great questions, at the end by the way. I think a big part of that would be tackling crummy zoning laws -- no small task, but a potentially very big impact.

AmyH said...

Oh Evanston! We used to live on the north side of Chicago and we would go to Evanston almost every weekend to see a movie and walk around. Our neighborhood was such a wonderful, walkable place with a nice mix of residential and commerical, and we got by with only one car that we only used every so often. Then we moved to the south, to a completely car-oriented world where we have to have two cars in constant use, and it makes me so sad. We are trying to figure out a way to get back to a walkable city, hopefully sooner than later.


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