February 12, 2014

What hang-out spot will replace moribund coffee shops?

At any given time, there's usually one canonical form of hang-out spot, and it changes along with the zeitgeist. Near the end of mid-century cocooning, young people began taking over the drive-in restaurant. It got converted from a hive-like, daytime Nighthawks at the Diner, into a place for teenagers to go cruisin'.

Hanging out in public spaces would rise toward its peak during the late '80s, and much of this activity took place in malls (not "shopping" malls since most people didn't buy anything, and only went to hang out). Malls were everything the New Urbanists now wish for, all within a single building. No vehicle traffic, walkable paths, human-scale corridors rather than intimidating wide-open plazas, people-sized shops with storefronts placed right against the walkways, lush plant life, bodies of water, a wide variety of places to go (from professional services to craftsmen to merchants to the food court to a library or church branch), all age groups including the elderly, and so on.

The shift toward cocooning killed off malls during the '90s (along with video game arcades, and other similar places). But it's not as though nothing replaced them at all -- they just weren't as public, bustling, and mixing-it-up. They even enjoyed an initial rise in the late '80s and early '90s, right as malls were about to go into decline, so that their replacements were poised to hit the ground running.

And those would be bookstores -- the big bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders. That was the closest you could get to a mall atmosphere in the '90s and early 2000s. They were not as big, had less differentiation and variety (the magazine racks, the cafe, the music room, etc.), there was little to no landscaping, and the clientele were more middle-class and, well, bookish. But you could still wander around with a group of friends for awhile, and there was enough variety of people and places within the store to make it worthwhile.

Sometime in the early 2000s, though, the bookstores got taken over by the people-watchers, an extreme form of cocooners. These are not just people who watch other people, but who insist on it going no further than watching. They came there to plop down in the limited chairs or on the floor in order to observe real people in real life, though if those people actually tried to strike up a conversation with them, the people-watchers would feel awkward and get creeped out. "I mean... I just came here to watch..." -- not to interact, got it.

Bookstores soon turned into a hive of people-watchers who were physically close but mentally disconnected. It was off-putting to walk in and see area after area being squatted by anti-social people-watchers. We're outta here. After normal people began leaving, the bums and weirdos started moving in, and lord knows the awkward people-watchers weren't going to be able to keep them away.

Fortunately, there was a replacement already on the rise to take the place of the now-fragmented scene at the bookstore -- the coffee shop! Chain or indie did not matter, except for branding / signaling purposes. All of them were even smaller than bookstores, had less variety of things to do, more homogeneous customers, and still no plant life or water inside. But, it was still a public space with people who did not know each other, as much bustling activity as a small shop could hope to offer, and provided places to take a load off and shoot the bull with a group of friends.

Sometime in the early 2010s, though, the free-wheeling feel (such as it was) of the coffee shop had gone missing. It felt like a different atmosphere, in the same way that bookstores felt 10 years before -- those damn people-watchers. It's far worse this time around because now everybody and their mom brings a laptop / tablet / smartphone with them to the coffee shop while they people-watch.

They've made it more obvious still that their goal is not to interact with others -- they're not even looking up from their stupid screens most of the time -- but merely to occupy space next to other human space-occupiers, so that they don't feel totally alone and pathetic. If you thought Borders looked like a hive of squatters, just drop into a Starbucks these days. It is nothing more than a campus computer lab.

I quit going to coffee shops last fall, whereas that used to be a daily activity. Too lame now, not to mention that as normal people bail, it has opened up a niche for bums, weirdos, and faggots just like the bookstores did before.

Unlike the last round, though, there is no alternative format that has been slowly rising during the 2000s that can now be used as an escape pod for the coffee shop refugees. You can't get any smaller, limited, and homogeneous than the local coffee shop. Now there is no type of store where you can congregate away from the people-watchers -- cocooners have totally taken over public space.

Libraries looked like they might have been a way out for awhile. But those were more of an off-shoot of the bookstore-as-hangout trend. I remember the two main libraries at college being popular hangout spots, one being quite boisterous. But that was before laptops, tablets, and smartphones, which the library could not defend itself against. Now they too look like some insectoid computer lab. "Look at me, I'm not looking at you." Rampant status-striving with their glowing Apple logos, too.

Good for the New York Public Library for preserving several tables as "laptop-free zones," not that anyone is using them, the dorks. But they're the New York Public Library and can flex a little muscle against the laptop swarm of people-sitting-by-ers. The average public library and college library have completely given in, working to turn every alcove into a little laptop cave.

Nowhere to run to, man. This decade we're in for the lowest depths of the cocooning phase. No public hang-outs whatsoever. On the bright side, though, at least we can't sink much further, and the cycle will reverse course after bottoming out during the 2010s.

By all signs, some heavy shit is gonna go down in the 2020s, but anything to stir us awake from this social and cultural coma.


  1. Spot on. I wonder why no one else is talking about this. The closest I see are pieces like "Is social media taking over our lives?"

  2. Social media and the internet are probably one reason.

    Another big factor of the cocooning times is due to demographics. In 1990 the average age in America was 28. in 2000 the average age was 33 (37 for white Americans) and in 2010 the average age was 38 (44 for white Americans)

    If you discount all the immigrants who flooded America in the 90s, the aging of America is actually more drastic.

    In the 80s people in their twenties was the biggest demographic group, followed by people in their 30s. This was why crime was peaking, since people over 40 rarely commit crimes. For the same reason crime fell in the 90s, Americans started cocooning more because Americans were much older. So few children were born from 1965-1985, and the increase in immigration started in 1986 when they passed amnesty for illegals. Foreign born Americans are more into cocooning, more into their families than the American born. Today we have a older population and the younger population (under age 30) is 25% foreign born (or first generation Americans)

  3. I vote for the mall getting a comeback, in a big way. That's just my gut, but it feels right.

  4. The youthfulness of the population peaked in the early '80s, 1982 IIRC. That was a big part of the rising crime rates, and related phenomena, but not the whole story. And it should have cut the other way for the last decade of the rising-crime period, most of the '80s and the early '90s.

  5. the percentage of people 20 to 40 was still high in 1992, compared to following years. America will never have a 20 year period similar to 1968-1988 with so many young American born adults aged 18 to 40.

    The American culture which produced the 60s, 70s and 80s was lead by American born whites, with a significant black influence. In 1980 very few Americans were first generation Americans, even less were immigrants. While today the number of Foreign born Americans living here is 13%. Hard to believe it was 4.7% in 1970, 6% in 1980, 8% in 1990, 11% in 2000 and today it is 13%. But if you examine the under 40 demographics the number of foreign born today exceeds 18%. And most babies born since 2000 have immigrant parents from a non-european background.

    in 1970 60% of the foreign born were from Europe. In 1980 40% of the foreign born were European immigrants. In 2000 just 15% of the foreign born were from Europe, 50% from latin America, 24% from Asia. The immigrants over the last 30 years are no longer mostly European, thus have a very different cultural background compared to the immigrants before 1980.

    Once the foreign born population exceeds 10% , there is less social cohesion.
    The 60s, 70s and 80s culture was more outgoing, since Americans had more in common , grew up under a common culture and thus people were more trusting of strangers despite the higher crimes rates. Even Blacks and whites had more common culture in 1980 than today.


    Deaths exceeded births among non-Hispanic white Americans for the first time in at least a century, according to new census data, a benchmark that heralds profound demographic change. Due to these changes, whites will continue to cocoon, and the incoming Latins and Asians will continue their family focused lifestyles, and import their less trusting culture to America.

  6. "By all signs, some heavy shit is gonna go down in the 2020s, but anything to stir us awake from this social and cultural coma."

    I'm hoping that its already starting.

  7. Maybe it could start with a way for people to easily hook up or get dates with an equally attractive partner that actually works, unlike today's scam sites advertising hot singles in your area.

  8. I agree strongly with jova.

    Don't forget also that the technology of the 80's lead to a far more homogeneous culture as well.

    Everyone saw mostly the same TV and movies, heard the same music (within a few narrow bands) and was immersed in the same cultural zeitgeist.

    This helped create a fairly uniform culture with of course regional and smaller subgroup (say Valley Girl speak or Geek interests or Boomer or whatever ) additions . You could however within your in group assume everyone was a lot like you and "got" your cultural nuance

    These days the culture is highly balkanized and even among people of the same race and interests its quite possible to be interacting with someone of a functionally different culture atany time. You won't haves seen the same TV, movies, read the same books or been exposed to the same news. Its not as bad as with ethnic or linguistic differences but the lack of social comity is striking

  9. Curtis, I don't see the mall returning, Americans are less trusting, poorer and to a degree less free. And even allowing for energy costs the state will also take efforts to encourage people to not travel as a social control both for Malthusian Green reasons and for security ones. This means a longer "stay at home" period

    Also with Amazon and such, there is little reason to go there or more accurately, less reason for the actual "trade' that pays for malls.

    Also I agree with our host that trouble does look a brewing,depending on how the parcels out the broad wealth and trust that make malls work won't exist.

    I don't expect Mad Max here, not for some decades (mid century at the soonest) if ever but a singular bad mess from any number or causes is highly likely. This means the future US will be a second tier or possibly third tier economy with lower stability and public safety. The broader mall culture will exists only in small highly secure pockets if at all.

  10. It would not surprise me if the pool hall makes a real resurgence in the next several years.


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