Wake Up Call

Turkish Coffee and London Pubs: Should They Be Protected by the Government?

Locally owned American coffee houses are going to some extreme measures to counteract what are being called "laptop squatters," or people who camp out for long periods of time without spending more than a few dollars on coffee and food. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Luigi Di Ruocco, owner of a Mission District coffee shop, has decided to reserve a third of his seats for non-working guests who plan on staying for 30 minutes or less. He hopes the new plan will help keep him in competition against mega-companies like Starbucks.

But in other countries the fight for coffeehouse culture has taken a different path. In Austria, coffee houses have been designated and protected by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization since 2011. Now Turkey and Argentina are trying to follow suit and students in London want pubs on the list of protected cultural practices, too.

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Since the late 1600s, Viennese coffee houses have played a role in Viennese tradition and culture. They were places where people could leisurely read newspapers, work or exchange ideas. They served food and not uncommonly stayed open until midnight or later -- Austrian writer Stefan Zweig even described the Viennese coffee house as, "a sort of democratic club, open to everyone for the price of a cheap cup of coffee, where every guest can sit for hours with this little offering, to talk, write, play cards, receive post, and above all consume an unlimited number of newspapers and journals."

But in the 1950s a thing called kaffeehaussterben or "coffeehous death" began to occur. Changing habits and modern espresso bars forced some of the county's famous coffee houses to close.

In 2003 UNESCO created the "intangible cultural heritage" list, a way to protect and preserve "oral traditions,performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts." And in 2011 the Viennese coffee house was added to that list.

Now Turkey and Argentina are applying for the same designation, hoping that recognition from the United Nations will help preserve their cultural customs from things like "the threat of instant Turkish coffee." Being included on the list is also meant to bring more awareness and visibility for the endangered practices.

And coffee tradition isn't the only thing people are worried about losing. Students at Kingston University are also campaigning to have London's pubs protected. More than 300 students spent nine months compiling a document to submit the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, a first step on the road to achieving UNESCO designation.

Of course being called an "intangible cultural heritage" doesn't grantee any of these traditions won't still disappear. And UNESCO even states on their website that "Intangible cultural heritage should nevertheless not always be safeguarded, nor be revitalized at any cost. As any living body, it follows a life cycle and therefore some elements are to disappear, after having given birth to new forms of expressions." The designation doesn't entitle a country to any tangible benefits, except for help from a UN committee in developing strategic practices and measures for safeguarding and raising awareness. States meet with the committee on a every year to monitor implementation. The designation does allow governments to apply for funding to safeguard their practices, though special attention is given to less developed countries.

It is ironic, though, that while American coffee house owners look for ways to keep out the squatters, other countries seek ways to draw in the intellectual conversations and idea exchanging that used to make their businesses so crucial for the community. But then again that was before the Internet. Maybe we just have to accept that those types of physical forums won't exist in the digital future.

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