Kendall Square’s neoliberal cafe

Voltage cafe
Voltage cafe’s books and art

Kendall Square, home to MIT, was never a cultural hub. It did once have a cafe that was also an art gallery, called Voltage, owned by Lucy Valena. It was spacious, had rotating art exhibits by local artists and a wall-to-wall bookcase full of random books. You could have long private conversations without feeling cramped. I wrote much of my PhD thesis there. Voltage wasn’t some hippie commune, obviously; it was a high-end espresso shop and it was expensive, like the rest of Kendall Square. It managed to still feel somewhat cozy and had a slow pace about it.

Voltage is now Barismo and it’s glued to something they call a “co-working space” (run by the startup cove). On what used to be clean glass windows that you could daydream through, there are now enormous screaming letters: “get things done.” Just what you want to see when going to have coffee with a friend. As if people around Kendall Square aren’t already drowning in productivity anxiety.

Maximize production
Maximize production!

This new hybrid is just like Voltage, except they killed that spacious art gallery with the books and replaced it with a high-tech quiet-zone, where people are wired into their devices and headphones. You can now pay to be alone together with other productivity-maximizing techies who don’t have time to kill on human conversation. There’s a discount if you buy coffee.

Below is Lucy Valena’s letter to Voltage customers.

Lucy Valena letter to Voltage customers
Lucy Valena’s letter to Voltage customers

Yarden Katz is a fellow in the Dept. of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

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