Coffee shops are second only to yoga studios when it comes to gentrification joke punchlines. Walk around any major city for long enough, and you’re bound to find a converted warehouse or garage that will now sell you a pour-over with ethically sourced beans.
Most of these new businesses sidestep uncomfortable questions about how their presence upends the real estate market in neighborhoods that working-class families and minorities have traditionally called home. But one Denver coffee shop decided to just kind of lean into it, drawing the predictable ire of the local community in the process.
Last week, Ink Coffee, located in Denver’s historically black Five Points neighborhood, bragged on a sandwich board on Larimer Street that they’ve been “happily gentrifying the neighborhood since 2014.” Its reverse side apparently read “nothing says gentrification like being able to order a cortado.” Based on the image in a tweet that first shared Ink’s smug sentiment with the internet, it looks like this wasn’t just scrawled in chalk. Clearly someone took the time to print the thing and didn’t stop to realize how it might be perceived.
An initial apology by Ink crassly blaming the bad signage on too much caffeine only made matters worse. Though a “real” apology quickly followed, it wasn’t enough to quell the rapidly-mobilizing movement to boycott and protest the coffee shop. The NAACP called for the sign’s removal, but it was stolen before anything official be done. Within a day of the initial controversy, Ink had one of its windows smashed and “WHITE COFFEE” spray painted on its brick facade.
The outrage over gleeful gentrification is easy to understand in light of Five Points’ history. A predominantly African-American community due to redlining and segregation before Colorado’s Fair Housing Act passed in 1959, the area was considered the “Harlem of the West” in its heyday. Though it enjoys status as the state’s only officially designated historic cultural district, recent real estate developments have raised question about the future of the area's landmarks and made living in the area unaffordable for many of the people of color who once called it home.
Those who weighed in on the controversy expressed frustration that Ink brazenly ignored the impact of gentrification on real members of its community. “Their sign was almost like a poke in the eye for the people who have worked to make the community what it is, and a lot of those people have been pushed out," said Ru Johnson, a local event organizer whose Tweet set off the maelstrom of controversy.
Though a subsequent statement from Ink founder Keith Herbert said the company “ha[s] always been invested in supporting our local community,” and “will redouble our efforts to continue doing so,” it wasn’t enough to stop more than 200 protestors from demonstrating outside the Larimer St. location on Saturday. Given Denver’s surging real estate market, it’s become something of a flashpoint for a city whose gentrification issues are far more systemic and complicated than one coffee shop’s tone-deaf advertising efforts. While it will take more time and effort to comprehensively address these challenges, there are plenty of other places to get a cortado in the meantime.