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  • Ryan Mohen

Pouring Over Coffee Culture

Updated: Sep 4, 2021

Coffee on campus was not always Joe and go. By Ryan Mohen

Coffee is often a purchase made in motion, in most cases necessarily so. Endless nights and frantic mornings give way to brief gaps between classes, study sessions, and overly scheduled social plans, making spontaneous sharing of lunches and coffees next to impossible. Enter grab-and-go coffee, a model which continues to be replicated in establishments on campus and close to Columbia.

Caffeine dealers have the needs of their tired and stressed student customers down to a science. They know we prefer ordering Starbucks over the phone to waiting in line, that we won’t spend any more than five minutes getting coffee from Blue Java, that we obviously wish to avoid human interaction in our barbarous, pre-caffeinated states.

Technological advancement and speedy coffee bars aren’t the only thing depersonalizing students’ coffee experience. Following the form of Columbia’s modernized dining halls, coffee vendors operate with borderline-Orwellian efficiency, leaving much to be desired when it comes to atmosphere and comfort. Thanks to their monopoly on convenience, they operate in a perpetual state of full capacity, much like the sterile reading rooms of Butler. Those who are able to find the time to settle down can’t even find a seat.

Illustration by Rea Rustagi

On-campus purveyors of this reliable brain fuel increasingly trend towards the formulaic. The addition of another Joe Coffee in the space adjacent to the School of Journalism, previously occupied by UP Coffee, marks the franchise’s third installment in the Morningside campus. Now only three alternatives to Joe remain: The Blue Java coffee bars in Butler, Lerner, Uris and Mudd, and the much less frequented Brownie’s Café. This only considers those who drink coffee at “normal” hours. For those in desperate need of late-night energy, the only option is Butler Café. Though some credit is due, ButCaf possesses a distinct atmosphere unlike its peers. Anyone purchasing after-hours coffee knows that thick fog of stress which seeps through the library’s walls, as one day turns to the next and midnight deadlines drift past café patrons’ collective whimpers.

It’s hard to understand that coffee consumption in Columbia libraries wasn’t always like this. ButCaf is so integral to the Columbia experience that it seems to have been there as long as Butler Library itself. Actually, the café was added just before the turn of the millennium, along with massive renovations of the main reading rooms. A bulletin board for suggestions posted during construction captured just one of many discontent student voices: “Thank you for making the library so clean and bright. However, the atmosphere is now more like a hospital waiting room than a library and even if I did want to study in such a sterile environment, I would not be able to, because there are not enough seats.” The renovations injected the University’s characteristic coldness into the once-lively library, leaving the new café and lounge significantly less social than the standard many expect from any self-proclaimed café.

Coffee houses, in their original form, were 18th-century epicenters of conversation and performance. They were places where people could listen to musicians, watch performers, catch up on news, and generally consume culture and socialize. Even modern-day coffee shops offer spaces away from home to work or socialize. This social function of cafés was not lost among many past Columbians.

When Columbia left students craving that communal coffee house experience, or just communal spaces in general, students seized the opportunity to satisfy their own needs. The first and most lasting incarnation of this effort followed from the Beat Generation coffee houses that swept 1960’s Greenwich Village with regular performances from some of America’s most important folk musicians. In an effort to recreate that same culture uptown, Columbia students created the Postcrypt Coffeehouse in December of 1964. Postcrypt hoped to address calls for social gathering spaces, and it served that purpose almost too excellently by becoming the entertainment epicenter of the campus. A coffee house open Thursday through Saturday from 4:00 p.m. to midnight, Postcrypt began as an excellent place for students to gather and feel a welcoming sense of community. But as Postcrypt’s strength as a platform for musicians and poets became more evident and pronounced, its focus slowly drifted closer and closer to being a performing arts venue rather than a coffee shop. Postcrypt’s ultimate failure to fulfill the campus’ need of a coffee shop was tempered by its eventual evolution into a performing arts space, which preserved the ambiance and spirit of those original coffee houses.

Other short-lived student-run coffee shops offer even greater insight into exactly what Columbia students have clearly wanted for over five decades and now lack more than ever. Take the Hartley coffee shop, founded in 1978 by Hartley residents, or Barnard’s BHR coffeehouse, which began the same year. Both saw a need among students for a convenient and comforting space and tried to meet that need, offering late-night hours—BHR stayed open Sunday through Thursday from 9:30 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. No matter the short duration of these projects, one can’t help but spot a real prescription here for the campus-wide loneliness that current Columbia students read about, hear about, and talk about almost every day.

Most remarkable of all—in concept, execution, adoption, and even in its eye-catching title—was Dawn. Billed as “a place to go, a place to talk, a place to be,” Dawn was a late-night coffee house created in May 1970 by students who wished to address pervasive loneliness on campus. The John Jay basement space was chosen because it was large enough to accommodate 30 to 40 people but small enough to create a sense of intimacy and closeness. Dawn operated from 10:00 p.m. until dawn every single night, which usually meant volunteers who operated the coffeehouse stayed there until 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. seven days a week. Dawn had free coffee, snacks, board games, chess, relaxing dim lights, comfortable furniture, conversation, and pleasant folk music from the stereo or live musicians. At first glance, Dawn appeared to have created the perfect space open during the perfect hours for the most vulnerable and lonely people.

After the Lion’s Den bar fell out of favor following the 1968 campus protests, Dawn became Columbia’s go-to late-night social space, packed full of students by midnight each night. It became a buzzing breeding ground for great conversation, good company, and the occasional study session finally freed from the confines of a claustrophobic library or isolated dorm room. Curiously, the space’s original founders had envisioned the coffee house while brainstorming ways to address what they saw as rapidly increasing drug use on campus and settled on Dawn after receiving a suggestion to start a late-night coffee shop with first aid volunteers on staff. This guiding mission didn’t last long, as leadership was swapped one year later, but it seems as though the popularity of Dawn arose from a widespread resonance with that principle. Through the lens of a sensationalized drug problem, the founders of Dawn miscalculated their audience, but they reached a different population of equally lonely students in need of the coffee house comforts they had to offer.

College students are increasingly lonely, inactive, and unhappy. At the root of many of their mental health struggles are the ways in which campus life is structured. Many defining features of life at Columbia undoubtedly contribute to this loneliness. While reducing Columbia’s mental health deficiencies to lackluster coffee options would certainly amount to a misdiagnosis of sorts, it sure wouldn’t hurt to give us overly-ambitious world-savers a nice place to drink coffee with one another and feel a little less alone.


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