For nearly five centuries, coffeehouses or cafés have been important cultural spaces that represent globalization, rapid change, and the blending of diverse world cultures. Today’s Starbucks Coffee Company is the product of the centuries-long journey of coffee, which originated in Ethiopia and Yemen, and coffeehouses, which were originally entrepreneurial endeavors in Istanbul that were first established as settings to foster the consumption of coffee in the second half of the sixteenth century.
Every immigrant group entered the United States with their own coffee culture
Although Milan is the city that inspired American entrepreneur Howard Schultz to transform Starbucks into an Italian style coffeehouse, the social life of coffee began in the Ottoman Empire, and its adoption by several European cultures changed the way it is prepared and consumed. Also every immigrant group, particularly from Eastern and Southern Europe as well as the Near and Middle East, entered the United States with their own coffee culture.
The coffeehouse, which was one of the most important aspects of Ottoman social and cultural life, was also brought to the United States and was successfully transplanted by Turkish immigrants. Thus, the history of Ottoman coffeehouses in the United States provides a unique opportunity to trace and understand the history of Ottoman immigrant communities in the United States.
Today’s American coffee is like the United States itself
Today’s the American coffeehouse is like the United States itself: a blend of diverse ethnic and racial cultures which became one nation. It is a combination of espresso, cappuccino, lattes, plain old “cups of Joe,” and coffee varietals from around the globe. Equipped with newspapers and wireless connections, and peppered with common and intellectual conversation, the American coffeehouse echoes those that existed in Vienna and Ottoman Istanbul.
Eastern Massachusetts locals still remember Turkish coffeehouses clustered on Walnut Street, which used to be called “Ottoman Street” and located in Peabody, Massachusetts. The coffeehouse, which was adopted by Ottoman neighborhoods particularly in eastern Massachusetts, functioned in a variety of ways.
Walnut Street became "a mecca for coffeehouses" for both Greeks and Turks
Walnut Street not only provided housing for many of the Turkish and Greek immigrants in Peabody, but it was also the center of Ottoman community life. Furthermore, it was a gathering place for Turkish and Greek immigrants in Peabody, and was a regularly visited location, particularly on Sundays, by the other Ottoman ethnics living in Peabody and surrounding cities such as Boston, Lynn, Worcester, and Salem. Walnut Street became “a mecca for coffeehouses for both Greeks and Turks.”
The coffeehouse was not just a place to visit after long hours of labor. It became a vital institution in the Turkish immigrant’s life which would provide first hand information about the new life that was waiting for the immigrant as well as jobs and housing possibilities. In the context of the Ottoman Empire, the coffeehouse was an exclusively male space and entrepreneurial endeavor which was created specifically for the consumption of coffee. For Turkish immigrants as well as the other Near Eastern immigrant groups in the United States, it became a venue for leisure activities too.
Although the opening of the first Turkish coffeehouse in Detroit (1924), which used to have a significant Turkish population, was rather late compared to Peabody, it functioned essentially in the same way as the coffeehouses on Walnut Street.
Coffeehouses as informal employment agencies
As Barbara Bilgé notes, the Ottoman Muslims in Detroit “used their coffeehouse not only as clubhouses, but also as mailing addresses, [and] informal employment agencies where men working in different factories could inform their unemployed friends about job openings at their plants.”
Furthermore, the coffeehouses would also serve as a place to host receptions in honor of the deceased immediately after funerals. Like the Turkish tradition of giving a lunch or dinner right after a burial, these coffeehouse receptions would include Turkish dishes and coffee.
Frank Ahmed, whose father was from Harput in eastern Turkey and who was one of the early Turkish immigrants who remained in the United States for the rest of his life, recalls that the conversations at the receptions would involve the life of the deceased, which he believes was “a highly civilized way of remembering the dead.”
In the coffeehouses, news from home would be conveyed. Newly arrived immigrants were united with former villagers
Ahmed’s vivid depiction of the coffeehouses explains the vitality of these spaces and their indispensability to the daily lives of the Turkish immigrants in the United States: “In the coffeehouses, news from home would be conveyed. Newly arrived immigrants were united with former villagers; this was a clearing house for coveted news from home. How relatively comfortable and fortunate was the immigrant who arrived to find a complete Turkish environment that could include a relative, prepared to offer him a place to live and assurances of some work. I witnessed how these Anatolian Turks took care of each other.”
For decades, Turkish/Ottoman coffeehouses remained as the spaces where various Ottoman ethnic groups could come together, play backgammon, smoke nargile (pipe), and recreate a home away from home. In some of the coffeehouses, various immigrants from the Ottoman Empire used to sing and play instruments such as oud and violin. With the decline of the Turkish population, Turkish coffeehouses in the U.S. closed one by one. Elder residents of Peabody still remember the nargile-smoke filled Turkish coffeehouses on Ottoman Street and the sound of the backgammon checkers….