Elbi’s Disappearing Act
Less than a year has passed since Cady’s graduation yet when she visited last month, the campus has become a little more unfamiliar to her. A concrete skeleton stands on what used to be the home of We Deliver (or Silog Express), a meat shop, and hidden but loud photocopying shops. Its bottom is dressed in tarpaulin bearing a familiar cosmopolitan logo – Starbucks. Like other UPLB alumni, Cady feels the Elbi she has known is slowly being erased and replaced by a cosmopolitan fantasy. An army of tweets celebrated Starbucks’ arrival citing accessibility of good coffee and the transformation of Elbi to a modern university town. However, like the trojan horse that Troy wildly celebrated as a gift, the arrival of Starbucks is a premonition of much worse things to come.
The Starbucks Effect
Pierre Carapetian, a real estate broker in Canada, has observed that properties that surround a Starbucks store appreciate in value after the store opens. Quartz and The Gaurdian, two western news and opinion sites, have also cited the impact Starbucks and other coffee shops such as Dunkin Donuts have on property value.
Carpetian, Quartz, and The Guardian clarify that even prior to the construction and opening of a Starbucks store, properties that surround the lot are already high in value. Starbucks’ present aggravates the situation and encourages property values to skyrocket because of the personalities that flock the coffee shop.
While rising property values sounds good to property owners, it is the poor and low-middle class that suffer most of the brunt. As customers from upper and middle classes flock Starbucks, businesses would take the opportunity to acquire properties adjacent to the coffee shop to tap a new market. Businesses would offer owners of apartments, dormitories, or establishments that line Grove generous amounts of compensation for their desired properties. This would mean that owners would have to evict their tenants or residents to sell their property. It would also mean that owners will exploit this opportunity to increase rent to either attract a wealthier class to occupy their rooms or encourage big business to replace small sized businesses occupying their space. This is called Gentrification.
In the United States, the construction of Starbucks or a high-end apartment complex, meant that it was time for colored people to pack their bags and bid farewell to a town they called home for centuries if they can not afford the new set of rent prices. These gentrified areas were thriving pots of ethnic cultures but after Starbucks, they have become leisure spots for many of privileged American millennials.
While most of the occupants were able to relocate after the annex of Vega was torn down for Starbucks’ construction, some of the occupants who sold umbrellas and knick-knacks are now left on the pavements of Grove facing a possible threat of eviction from town authorities. Most were able to afford to relocate but those who can not shell out more are those who rely most on their livelihood to survive.
Jose Alejandro Inciong, a BS Biology graduate from UPLB, claims that there are rumors circulating in Los Banos that multinational corporations are on the hunt for property along Lopez and and National Highway for their local branches. He says that Starbucks is just one of the first few chapters of Elbi’s transfiguration.
New businesses opened by Multinational Corporations provide job opportunities and stimulate economic growth but at what cost? Their profits go to their coffers while they can avoid taxes and taxes can become politicized against the provincial poor.
Coffee could warm the sleepless Iskolar but it has left the evicted and financially disempowered cold on the streets.
The Untapped, rising
The renovation of Selina’s, Dunkin Donuts and Paponei’s, the rise of Centtro Boulevard and BonChon, the opening of National Bookstore, and the expansion of Bugong and Seoul Kitchen in the recent years are symptoms that Elbi’s profile has changed. The sudden and unexpected demise of Sulyaw, a legendary establishment known for its cheap meals (and world-class sanitation), could have been a trigger that Elbi was moving away from frugality (this could be true if not for the sudden stardom of Bogart’s Bentelog)
It is safe to assume that the demographic now consists of students who come from middle and upper income classes of the population. While Elbi culture demands one reforms their own ways to adapt to the hermit and frugal life of an Elbitizen, the current demographic’s desire for a cosmopolitan life defined by coffee consumption is about to be tapped. The harms that these desires and businesses bring might be unintended but they have long term implications. Higher property prices and the existence of highly valued establishments affect the cost of living in the university town.
Expensive rents would mean lesser options for current and prospective students who come from low income backgrounds. Education is free but students and parents also weigh in cost of living as part of choosing a university. Expensive restaurants might not kill all budget-friendly establishments but it trims down cheaper options for students. Much worse is the threat of eviction faced by established but cheap restaurants by big corporations and profit-driven property owners. In this scenario, the solution of providing stipends for low-income students is good but how far those stipends can go is the next question that needs to be resolved.
If Elbi refuses if not fails to address this, the university student population becomes less heterogenous by being composed more by the middle and upper classes. The consequence for academic freedom and diversity are harmful because it would mean a community who would have lesser boundaries of difference with regards to lived experience, thinking, and lifestyle. Much frightening are the lost talents and intellect who refuse to pursue Elbi because of high cost of living.
It is not Elbi’s obligation to adjust to the demands and desires of the middle and upper class for high priced coffee or Korean fried chicken. If market forces become the Oracle of our faith as a community, patronizing the remaining local cheap establishments could be a weapon to signal a strong demand.
If Elbi becomes a town of the privileged, does a state university then fully serve its purpose?
Like many alumni, Cady plans to visit Elbi annually because she still considers it as home. But she has to confront the question – “Is it still home when the parts of pieces of it have changed?”
She just hopes, Elbi doesn’t pull off an entire disappearing act.[P]
Words: John Albert Pagunsan; Graphics: Maria Maxine Jaleco