Friday, 14 July 2017

The pub, the cafe and the diner - the fraying of social capital

One of the features of society has been the shared social institution. Except this all sounds like some sort of terribly pompous concept in social anthropology. What we really mean is the sort of place that The Fureys sang about in the Red Rose Cafe:
Down at the Red Rose Cafe in the Harbour
There by the port just outside Amsterdam.
Everyone shares in the songs and the laughter.
Everyone there is so happy to be there.
Salesman, poet, dosser, docker, farmer and banker all enjoying the fact that they're sharing something - even something as mundane as a beer or a coffee. And, in a lot of places - perhaps even Amsterdam too - these 'shared social institutions' are dying out. Here's Aaron Renn on one of them - the American Diner:
But there are many other forces at work, including changes in the structure of our society. One thing the disappearance of diners illustrates is the loss of shared social infrastructure spanning across social classes.

Something I’ve always liked about diners is that they are the kinds of places that you could find people from all walk of life. There were cops and blue collar workers, college students, professionals grabbing breakfast, etc. It was the kind of institution that was broadly patronized across social groups.

These kinds of institutions are in decline. There has a been fragmentation of the shared American common culture that existed as recently as 1990 into a multiplicity of niche markets.
I touched on this when I wrote recently about the decline of rural Italy - every village with a tatty little bar at its heart serving up coffee, sweets and the occasional stiff drink. And plenty of people having been variously waxing poetic or raging with anger at the decline in the traditional English boozer. The thing here is not just that these places are going but that there are no new 'shared social institutions' replacing them, no new places that transcend barriers of class and age without it looking forced. Worse still we adopt a snobbishness about blue-collar institutions - either dismissing them as bad places, or else creating pretentious pastiches.

When McDonald's opens a new restaurant round the corner from St Peter's Square in Rome there's an outcry. I mean McDonalds - entirely the wrong aesthetic for such an iconic place. Yet the reality - as the video here reminds us - is that McDonalds is comfortable, welcoming and understood. The same goes for other places - the Pub Curmudgeon writes about those old estate pubs that only sell keg beer and what food they have comes in bags saying 'ready salted', 'salt and vinegar', and 'cheese and onion'. Not the sort of place you and I would ever go to, far too rough and common.

I've a feeling that, in places with fewer places to eat and drink, the sort of social mixing Aaron Renn sees dying in Manhattan still persists. But it's also true that richer folk have become more separated from their lower class cousins - not just the grandees who always lived a sort of sheltered life but all of what we'd call the better off:
There’s also been a gulf that has opened between the consumption and cultural practices of the upper middle class (the top 20% by education and income) and everyone else. They shop in different stores, eat in different restaurants, drink different beers...
I was in a restaurant in Shoreditch recently. Nothing too fancy just a bar-restaurant that has some live music. I joked to my wife that I was the only bloke in the place without a beard. I could also have said that I was the only bloke there over 50. Yet I'm pretty sure that, with a little effort, I could travel a short distance from that bar and find a pub where the reverse would be true - instead of well-off middle class thirtysomethings, I'd find poorer working class fifty- and sixtysomethings.

The problem for that traditional pub is that the agenda - social, political and cultural - is not being set by its customers. The agenda is set by that top 20% Renn refers too - a set of folk who are excited by trendy artisanship when it's done by their mates but not at all excited by the possibility of visiting the sort of place where those working-class folk are going (as an aside, the achievement of McDonalds has been to get beyond this class division despite the best efforts of food snobs to stop them). We tut a little at Wetherspoons, dismiss Pizza Express, and wouldn't be seen dead in one of those steakhouse type places run by regional breweries. But these places - chain restaurants and the like - work.

Does all this matter? And even if it does matter, do we care enough to do something about it? After all there's a little bit of romanticism in the idea of lords and peasants sitting down together sharing a foaming pint of ale. Those shared social institutions didn't remove class barriers but rather they permitted a little bit of understanding to trickle in either direction. And the traditional pub, those Italian cafes and many other such places were the haunts of men with the only women serving beer or filling up coffee cups. This probably isn't true of the American diner but even there we see a sort of rosy folk memory derived from old movies and TV shows more than from the reality (a lot of poor quality food served badly in a dirty environment).

What does matter, however, is that we think a little more about spaces and places where we're able to share something with whoever else is there. And that - like the pub, the diner and the cafe - those places contain the part of our culture that we all share. I've a feeling that those campaigns to save pubs are as much driven by that folk memory, the idea of the pub as the beating heart of a community, than by the reality of the pub being saved - a myriad of Vics, Rovers Returns and Woolpacks where the neighbourhood's shared events are mulled over, debated and laughed about.

There's a tendency to consider that bringing communities together requires some sort of publicly-owned place, yet the reality of cafes, diners and pubs is that they served this role (at least in part) while being straightforward for-profit businesses - and none the worse for all that. And a further tendency - I suspect Aaron Renn falls into this trap in his focus on Manhattan - for us to see the lack of social capital in densely populated cities as somehow the norm when, once we get out into suburbia, this starts to change to the point when we reach the exurbs of small towns and villages as see those very institutions we thought were dying actually thriving.

Yet again the thing that is driving the collapse of these social institutions, that is fracturing brittle social capital, isn't people no longer wanting these things but rather the brutal necessity of urban densification and the rejection of the suburb. Planners, designers, developers and cultural pundits see everything as a stark divide between urban and rural - it's either a city filled with breathless, high velocity living or else a bucolic rural idyll, gentle and somnolent. The death of the shared social institution is its death in the city where people quite literally don't have the time for such things and the nearest we get to such interaction is in the queue at Starbucks - assuming we're not the sort who goes to that really special coffee bar round the corner run by a bloke with a splendid beard.

If we're to have the strong society we always say we want, we need to pay heed to what these changes tell us - the decline of the pub, the cafes that close, the deserted Italian village, all send a message that the bindings of community, the relationships that make society real, are fraying. And on-line messaging, international travel and facetime don't begin to repair the tears in those bindings. We talk a great deal - or those of us in and around local government do - about how everything is local and how we need to build community. Yet the truth of our polity, culture and social approach is quite the reverse, geared to serving the economic needs of the great city rather than the lives of people in those communities.



Curmudgeon said...

Good post - and you are quite right to point out that a certain type of person bemoans the decline of such institutions in the abstract, but turns their noses up at them in actuality.

Allan P McLean said...

I remember a London pub where it did not matter who you were. You left your identity outside. Inside you were just one of us. Judges sat down with binmen and we didn't care.

Anonymous said...

If you really want to revive the familiar, all-inclusive, pub or restaurant then the only way to do that is to repeal the blanket smoking ban, allowing managers to decide whether to be smoke-free or not.

At a stroke, we would again find all types in society rubbing shoulders peacefully in the same place, at the same time and for the same reason. That's what we lost, but politicians of all stripes don't seem to care enough to do the obvious, for fear of losing their hip, PC, nanny credentials. And remember, as one of them, you're part of the problem, not part of the solution - time to stop pontificating and start acting.