Cafés are virtually accessible whatever one’s social background and personal history, but they are also intimate spaces and publics self-select based on venues’ history, culture or vibes. As such, cafés are an excellent vantage point to look out and in on urban sociality in Esch-sur-Alzette.
Our working definition of “café” is broad to include the great diversity of Esch’s cafés, both historic and recent, attracting mixed crowds or specific gender or age groups, tied or not to ethnic and linguistic demographics. The common denominator is that coffee (Kaffi in Luxembourgish) is served during the daytime. Other hot and cold beverages, alcoholic and non-alcoholic, as well as food and snacks, may be served as well. Some “cafés” in our study thus double as brasserie, bistro or bakery. This inclusivity is important because the practice of drinking coffee is deeply cultural and may therefore manifest in multiple guises and contexts.
Cafés, in industrial towns, have historically gone against the grain of productivity, the Zeitgeist of capitalist societies. They have provided a fragile refuge against, or at least an alternative to, the extractiveness of the industry. In cafés, ordinary people can practice the “arts of resistance”1, by unwinding their bodies, making meaningful connections, and cultivating aspirations. In Esch, workers’ unions and sports associations alike have often emerged in, and organized from, cafés. But cafés can also be extractive and punishing in their own ways, siphoning workers’ salaries, and providing a stage to jalousies occasionally leading to outbursts of violence.
What can a study in cafés tell us about the transformations, old and new, of sociality in a (post)industrial city? This study started with nostalgic narratives about a long-lost “golden age” of cafés that Escher residents date back to the industrial era. These narratives at first give the impression that cafés are being deserted and dying out. In fact, cafés very much remain the cornerstone of ordinary Escher sociality. But it is also true that venues, “vibes”, and owners have changed over time, reflecting important transformations in Esch’s economy, demography and urban culture.
Our project reverberates the voices of important protagonists of Esch’s café landscape and attempts to capture the social texture of spaces that are often deemed too banal to be research objects. This project drew from and fed into two existing projects — HistorEsch (Joëlla van Donkersgoed) and Dancing Esch (Laura Steil)— and proposes on the one hand to carry out a small- and human-scale historiography of café sociality in Esch, and on the other, to critically reflect on the methodological paradigms of public history and sensory anthropology. It benefited from archival research, oral history collection and public history outreach on social media already carried out in the context of HistorEsch and Dancing Esch.
We started our investigation by conducting a broad survey of the café landscape, marking the various characteristics and types of venues, and proceeded our research by “deep hanging out” in a selection of cafes reflecting the landscape’s variety. With this approach, we attempted to mirror the “structure of feeling”2 of café sociality. Our slow-paced engagement in cafés allowed us to “feel the vibe” and built relationships with café owners and patrons. We deliberately moved away from urges to be “efficient” and valued a type of engagement which took our time. Doing research with living human beings — and especially on the more recreational and leisurely dimensions of their lives — requires a being-in-the present that cannot easily accommodate “productivity”.
This methodological empathy with the research object not only led to more complex understandings of urban sociality, but also further entangled us, as researchers, into a rather intimate yet public scene in Esch. Our approach was anchored in an “ethics of reciprocity”3, not reliant on give-and-take transactional relationships with people and businesses but, rather, on webs of social indebtedness whose limits and durations were not predefined. This meant that we did not consider our research ethics as fixed or fixable once and for all, but as having to be constantly adapted to the evolving relationships to people and places over time.
At the end of the project, we will share the research results on a website developed on ArcGIS StoryMaps. This site will show excerpts of the interviews as well as present the soundscapes that we recorded at the various cafés. The café landscape will also we represented as a paper placemat, that will be distributed amongst the cafés in the city. This placemat will display a map with all the cafés within our survey on one side, and highlight, on the other side, several cafés through a reimagined historical advertisement.
- 1. James Scott, 1990, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, Yale University Press
- 2. Raymond Williams, 1958, Culture and Society 1780–1950, Penguin
- 3. Carolyn Ellis, 2016, “Telling Secrets, Revealing Lives: Relational Ethics in Research with Intimate Others”, Qualitative Inquiry