There are so many, so many cute memes and other coffee-based quips out there in the universe, but out of all of these options, one Denver coffeehouse chain decided that it would be cute to make a funny about gentrification over the Thanksgiving holidays.
“Happily Gentrifying the Neighborhood Since 2014,” one side of the sidewalk sandwich-board sign outside of ink! read.
“Nothing Says Gentrification Like Being Able to Order a Cortado,” the other side quipped.
I’ll give you just one guess as to what happened.
Yup. You guessed it. A few photos later and the social media backlash was swift and harsh.
According to The Guardian, by Wednesday afternoon, the ink! store in the Five Points neighborhood—you know, one of Denver’s oldest neighborhoods, and a historically black neighborhood that was once known as the “Harlem of the West”—was closed, citing the holidays.
“At first I thought, ‘No way that’s real,’” Ru Johnson, an event producer who works in hip-hop, told The Guardian. “And when I found out it was, I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ To make wanton jokes about gentrification is just totally uncalled for and disrespectful to the people who still live here.
“This city, and particularly this neighborhood, was made cool by the artists. Before that, this wasn’t a place that people could hang out, and certainly not a place where a coffee shop chain would move in,” Johnson added.
The Guardian notes that ink! has some 15 locations in Denver alone.
Ink! posted a statement to its Facebook page saying, “Hmmm. We clearly drank too much of our own product and lost sight of what makes our community great ... We sincerely apologize for our street sign. Our (bad) joke was never meant to offend our vibrant and diverse community. We should know better. We hope you will forgive us.”
However, people haven’t been so forgiving, especially since gentrification really isn’t something to joke about. By Wednesday night, the ink! Facebook page had disabled its review section, however, it was too late, with its rating plummeting to 1.6 stars after the one-star reviews came rolling in. The Yelp page for the Five Points location also showed a similar 1.5-star rating, while other locations showed three or four stars, The Guardian notes.
“For a company to think ‘Happily gentrifying the neighborhood since 2014’ is funny clearly means it has decided who is welcome in its establishment—white people,” Bree Davies, a community organizer who focuses on housing issues, told the news site. “This is a coffee shop that took a marketing opportunity to brag about displacement. The sign was not taken as a joke because it felt intentionally dismissive in an area of Denver where neighborhoods are being renamed and land is being sold out from under long-time residents.”
Someone also took it upon themselves to spray-paint “white coffee” on the wall of the Five Points location shortly after the incident. The Denver Post reports that in addition, a window at the location was broken.
By Thursday afternoon, the company’s founder and CEO, Keith Herbert, had released yet another statement apologizing.
“When our advertising firm presented this campaign to us, I interpreted it as taking pride in being part of a dynamic, evolving community that is inclusive of people of all races, ethnicities, religions and gender identities,” Herbert said in the statement, according to the Post. “I recognize now that we had a blind spot to other legitimate interpretations.”
Although Herbert didn’t identify the company that designed the marketing campaign, Twitter detectives were on it, identifying the company as Five Points’ very own Cultivator Advertising & Design. That agency acknowledged its part in the tasteless display on Thursday on Facebook.
“In hindsight, our campaign was callous, naive and uninformed to the true character of the neighborhood and to those who have long called it home,” the statement read. “We assure those within the local community and throughout Denver that the literal contents of the sign do not represent the values we hold as an agency or as individuals.”
But, again, a joke like that is not easily forgiven, and a “We Don’t Drink Ink” protest was planned for Saturday afternoon. That protest, organized by Tay Anderson, brought out about 200 people.
By Monday morning, ink! remained closed, despite a sign outside the establishment saying that it would be open. However, that did not stop a handful of protesters from gathering outside at 6 a.m.—ink!’s regular opening time—chanting, “Lights out, ink!” according to the Denver Post.
According to the report, the president of Denver’s NAACP, Sondra Young, voiced her agreement that ink! should close its Five Points location.
“We find no humor in racism. We find no humor in privilege. What looks like a great opportunity for some is really displacement for many,” Young told the Post. “Community doesn’t look like just the people that can afford $2,000-a-month rent. People that are low-income have something to add to the community, too.”