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Danielle Paradis explores what makes Edmonton a great city.

Raise a paper cup to Edmonton’s coffee shops

The numerous Edmonton residential and office tower announcements of 2014 are no doubt exciting, but there's something else cropping up more valuable to the city than big shiny buildings. You won't spot it if gazing up at the cranes. You have to look down to find it: the coffee shop.

In the last month alone, Burrow opened in Central Station to become Edmonton's first underground coffee bar, Geoff Linden duplicated his popular downtown business Credo Coffee on 124th Street, and cafe/roaster Transcend, which has closed a struggling downtown location last year, has returned just four blocks north in the Mercer Warehouse's basement.

As Transcend's operations manager Michael Harvey pointed out to me while lugging equipment, "they're all sub-level." That's a curious truth, but more importantly they're enabling social interaction and energizing spaces like a double-espresso shot.

And the boldest is yet to come. Nate Box is expanding his tiny cafe kingdom (Burrow, Elm Cafe and District Coffee) into a heritage house smack dab in the middle of Riverdale.

The century-old brick home once belonged to JB Little, owner of the local brickyard, which was replicated at Fort Edmonton Park. By December, he hopes, it will be a coffeehouse and general store with a couple of private dining areas and an upstairs office for one of his partners.

He's already got the keys, the name ("Little Brick") and the roofers renovating the shingling. He's also got a unique vision. "We're trying to create these points of forced interaction," he says. "You walk in there and it's impossible for you and I not to have a conversation in that space — even if it's a limited one."

Coffee shops are the quintessential "third place," something that's neither home nor work but where friendships and a sense of community are fostered. After all, when we say "let's get a coffee" what we really mean is "let's have a conversation."

Other third places might be pubs or barbershops, but none are as inexpensive, welcoming and familiar as the neighbourhood coffee shop. It doesn't matter if the menu is written in chalk or branded with an encircled, quasi-religious green sea creature, having a nearby coffee shop is the most important feature of a community — at least according to the vast majority of Avenue magazine readers polled in its 2012 Best Neighbourhoods issue.

That a cafe is essential to building healthy neighbourhoods isn't news to us Timbit-scarfing Edmontonians. It's just something we've forgotten.

Because neighbourhoods today are decentralized and single-use, and because coffee chains now dominate the market, the humble cafe was flung into power centres too far or inconvenient for many to reach. When Tim Horton's pulled off a brilliant marketing strategy by converting a suburban house in Calgary into a full-on outlet overnight, the only disappointment was that it was just a gimmick and gone the next day.

Even though free Wi-Fi has just as well made cafes places for solitude—to slap on headphones and unfold a laptop like a protective shield—we still crave in-person contact. And by merely adding the sounds and sights of life they enrich areas and make residents and pedestrians there feel safer.

Just look at how Remedy Cafe, the only local coffeehouse open till midnight, injected life into two dark corners of central Edmonton. And soon it's taking its divine chai and cheesy slogans to Terwilligar. Given its friendly atmosphere and late hours, it will surely become the suburb's social hub.

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