Monday, October 31, 2011

A Community of Coffee and Power...

Columbus Avenue Starbucks, Springfield (WMassP&I)
With chairs cluttered around the power outlets, the Starbucks in Springfield became something of a refuge for residents from across the region seeking coffee and Internet access.  Seats were full at the Columbus Avenue location just off of Interstate-91 Sunday afternoon.  However in the hours and days after record breaking snow storm the café was crowded well after the last snowflakes fell.

Many patrons were drawn the Starbucks because it was one of the few places serving coffee and food.  Others came to take advantage of the Wi-Fi and electrical outlets.  The storm knocked out power for hundreds of thousands of customers in Western Massachusetts, particularly in the Springfield area leaving residents without not only Internet access, but the means to recharge dwindling laptop batteries.

The downtown and South End areas of Springfield did not suffer a loss of electrical power in part due to their urban character.  Both areas are densely built up and operate with buried utility lines decades ago unlike the city's more suburban neighborhoods and the surrounding towns.  The Springfield Starbucks, sitting on the edge of the South End and downtown only suffered from traffic generated by the Pride Station a few doors down.  Margaret Street, the Starbucks' other entrance, was littered with some tree limbs making driving difficult, but not impossible.  Damage in the South End appeared minimal in comparison to the June tornado.  

Margaret Street (WMassP&I)
Otherwise it was business as usual except for the stepped business caused by an influx of un-caffeinated area residents and Internet refugees.

Grace Kim a freelance interpreter fluent in Korean from Agawam, came to the café to finish up work due the day the storm hit.  “It was the only place that has Internet” she explained.  Kim received an extension for her project until tonight Seattle time.

The café also showed off a little bit of community writ small.  Ed, a photographer from Springfield who declined to give his last name, had a power strip into which several patron had plugged their computers.  Ed discovered the open Starbucks Saturday night after searching for electricity to finish up some photography work.  “I got my stuff done,” he said cheerfully.

Others felt the community spirit as well.  Karen Hellstrom of Southampton discovered the Starbucks was open after a harrowing adventure looking for an open gas station.  Saturday night she drove down from Southampton and discovered several stations opened near Springfield’s downtown, which did not lose power.  However, she could not return home that night.  “I spent the night in the Ludlow Rest Area,” Hellstrom said.  She came back to the Starbucks for electricity also armed with a power strip that several patrons had plugged into in order to make the most of the café’s limited outlets.

For others, a visit to Starbucks was about one thing: coffee.  Matt and Rorie O’Connor of Springfield came down to the Starbucks since almost all businesses in their neighborhood was closed.  “Everything’s dark,” Matt O’Connor said of the Sixteen Acres neighborhood.   Both O’Connors agreed the drive down was fine.  Digging out of their driveway and downed power lines provides more of a hazard than slush on the street they said.

Line to Columbus Ave Pride Station (WMassP&I)
Although Starbucks employees are prohibited from speaking to the press and baristas remained busy well into the night serving the drive-through, it was apparent that Saturday and Sunday nights had hit the supplies at the Springfield store hard.  By four o'clock, the pastry and deli cooler was nearly empty.  The stepped up business also required reinforcements in staffing.  At least one barista came in from Northampton.  On Monday WMassP&I overheard a patron recognize the Northampton store employee, which the barista confirmed.

By Monday afternoon, however, reinforcements had clearly come in the form of boxes of pastries (and staffing) and the Springfield Starbucks was noticeably less busy.  Still, a cluster of laptop users craving Internet access huddled around a power strip for the second day in a row.  Nearly every seat was taken and waits for drinks appeared longer than usual.  Pressure was taken off the Springfield Starbucks as the Westfield, Holyoke Mall and Chicopee stores came on line.

As electrical service was restored regionally, Springfield businesses gradually lost their advantage over neighboring towns.  For example Eastfield Mall is still without power while it has been restored to the Holyoke Mall.  Gas stations in the city remain bumper to bumper.  Similar outcomes were playing out in Hartford, which also fared better than its neighbors after the storm.

Throughout the Springfield area there were stories of a community coming together.  Nevertheless it was encouraging to see that happening even amidst the search for baser things like access to the web.  Ed, the Springfield photographer noted how it brought people together from all over. “We had a lot of people helping each other out,” he said, “there are people that have come in form Palmer, Enfield, Northampton."

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