Boston's Downtown Crossing has changed. When we first saw it, almost a decade ago, it made no sense to us why this neighborhood in the heart of the city, just off Boston Common, and hemmed in by a financial district to the east and theaters to the south, looked like it had given up on itself. What we didn't know then was that change was underfoot, and Downtown Crossing today is (largely) gleaming with luxury rentals and hotels, expensive restaurants and post-theater speakeasys.
Now this is developer-driven growth, and there are Bostonians who complain that the area feels inauthentic.
They probably said the same thing when the first Thinking Cup opened off Boston Common, at the edge of Downtown Crossing. It looked like new luxury, just like the glistening new Ritz next door. The lights were kept lounge dim. The tables features yesteryear's newspapers, carefully selected and slipped under the glass, the sparkling speaker system streamed a well-curated downtempo playlist. The Thinking Cup felt deliberate, inorganic, something "not of" the community. Of course, all this was by design. The Thinking Cup knew what it was doing: it had set itself up for the Downtown Crossing of the future.
The Thinking Cup soon became a gathering spot, for both a new kind of community, and for communities seldom given space in Boston. For Emerson radio DJs who had nowhere else to go for Stumptown coffee. For Leather District techies who wanted to have business meetings in coffee shops. For west coast expats. For foreign grad students. For people who missed their time in Europe. For those who wanted an espresso at 9.50pm. For couples going out for coffee and a movie. For the overworked consultants who slept at the Ritz.
You could say the Thinking Cup waited like a patient surfer for the gentrification wave, and rode it to the shore. It's since done the same in the historic North End, upstaging old Italian cafes, and in the Back Bay, ending the rich shopping neighborhood's surprising run as a coffee desert.
We love the Thinking Cup. For the coffee, of course, which is consistently excellent. (Something that is rare in Boston, even in great coffee shops.) For the lounge vibe, which is a refreshing change from the neighborhood shop or hipster minimalism aesthetic of many other Boston coffee shops. But also for what it represents. There are two sides to the Boston gentrification debate. We understand the side that would tsk-tsk at what is happening to Downtown Crossing, or view the Thinking Cup as an unwelcome intrusion, a deluxe Starbucks. But the other side will point out that Boston's neighborhoods, tribal and often insular, hide how cosmopolitan the city really is. There are thousands of foreign students and professionals who pass through the city who complain about the lack of new housing, about the surprising lack of energy for a city this diverse, about the NIMBY-ism, and about the absence of spaces where new communities can form. The Thinking Cup gives people on this side of the debate hope: it's not a Southie or Fenway dive, it's not a crusty Beacon Hill institution, or a musty People's Republic of Cambridge gathering spot. It's sophisticated and vibrant and worldly, and yet very much a Boston coffee shop.
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