By Mary Beth Barber
It seems that I lost a good friend this week – unexpectedly, although I should have known since all the signs were there. But there was no memorial, no celebration of a past life in this old friend’s death so I could join others and get some closure.
The original Java City at 19th and Capitol closed on Tuesday. But they don’t give funerals for cafes.
I may be a bit older than most GOTG readers, and as a native Sacramentan have a different view of the ever changing downtown and midtown city. So, some background: in the 1980s and 90s, Java City was an iconic spot, a destination on Fridays and Saturday nights for a particular type of individual – the romantics, dreamers, anti-suburban crowd who needed to be with other like-minded folk.
Java City was not a college hangout, although there were plenty of intellectual conversations that took place at its tables. It was in many ways the anti-academic meeting place for the bohemian set who helped revise the midtown and downtown areas from a dreary and decaying downtown to what it is today, with its remodeled Victorians, hip restaurants and entertainment venues. It was a social hangout reminiscent of tapa joints in Spain or corner cafes in France, what Starbucks wants to be but can’t, burdened by its corporate nature.
Those who take The Grid for granted now, be informed: midtown used to be a wasteland in the 1970s and early ’80, a place that emptied out at 5:05 p.m., a victim of urban flight before urban revival became cool. (There will be plenty who will argue with me that midtown never died, but the economics of land value demonstrate there certainly was a problem, since you could have gotten a midtown Victorian in the 1970s for a song.) Java City was the first sign that Midtown was on its way back.
I first started going to Java City when I was in high school, joining friends from the Greenhaven/Pocket area desperate for a safe place to hang out. I didn’t even drink coffee then, but would spend an inexpensive Friday evening nursing an Italian soda or hot chocolate while talking about the meaning of life. The preponderance of motorcycles in front of Java City made the place feel a little dangerous, but how could our parents be upset at our choice of hangout? It’s a coffee place, for goodness sake!
When I returned from my Midwestern college life to start adulthood in Sacramento, Java City was still there, an anchor in Midtown. The company had grown big and started going corporate, but the bohemian nature of the original outlet kept most of its same feel. By then there were competitors in the neighborhood, but there were also more customers, since the Midtown Revival was underway and more people – especially young people – weren’t settling into apartments on the outskirts of Sac but diving into the middle of the city.
Java City Inc. had the chance to be a big player in the national café movement. It started about the same time as big names like Starbucks and Peets, was well loved by a loyal community like the others, and had plans to get big. I’m sure a book could be written titled “Why Didn’t Java City Become Starbucks” that would describe business mistakes, error of judgments, and change of plans. (The company Java City still thrives, but as a coffee supplier to others, without stores or outlets.) But even as corporate changed, the Midtown outlet stayed.
The Original Java City went through a few revisions through the late ’90s and ’00s, and slowly lost its edge that attracted the motorcyclists, young bohemian wannabes, and the sense of community it once had. The last time I stopped by to get a latte I could sense its impending doom. Everything I had loved about the joint from the past was gone, polished down to a bad imitation of the corporate café model it had seemed to shun for years. I wasn’t surprised to see that it had closed this week, but I was saddened.
NOTE:: The demise of Java City’s Capitol Avenue outlet mirrors the closing of an iconic café in my college town (see story in Michigan Today about Drake’s Sandwich Shop) and Ashley Robinson’s stories (here and here) on other local institutions. Do you have nostalgic stories of favorite joints that faded away?