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Everyday Cafe: A Place To Be

Posted by Elwin Green on December 20, 2016 at 11:20 AM

A print version of this piece appears in the Dec. 22 - 28 issue of Print, Pittsburgh's East End newspaper. Pick up your copy Wednesday at Salik's Hardware, 605 N. Homewood Ave., then SUBSCRIBE for more of Homewood Nation and other East End news!


My first visit to the Everyday Cafe, Homewood's new coffeehouse, was on Nov. 21, three days after its opening.


It immediately became one of my favorite places on Earth. I've been back multiple times, mostly for one-on-one meetings with friends old and new.


This is how my morning there went on Friday, Dec. 16:


At about 7:15, Ricky Burgess, Jr., the 9th District councilman's son, and I arrived (he had picked me up at home) for a get-together. We've had a couple of brief conversations and are meeting mainly to get better acquainted, but also to give him his first Everyday Cafe experience.


The cafe is billed as Pittsburgh's first cashless coffeehouse. Burgess orders a hot chocolate, and slides his card into the small processing device on the counter. (I order a lavender spearmint tea.) While the card reader does its magic, Burgess notices a sign that describes the different types of coffee drinks offered -- latte, cappuccino, etc. -- and tells Donna Taylor, our barista, that that's a really good idea, because not everybody knows how they differ.


Later, as we sit and talk, Donna asks him how he likes his hot chocolate. He raves.


"Tasty! Really, really good!"


He's beaming as he takes in the atmosphere of a clean, well-lighted place.


“It feels good to be here … it feels really good."


As we talk, Quincy Jones' recording of "Killer Joe" plays softly over the speaker system. Jazz, played at a volume that lets you hear it without it being a distraction, is an important part of the Everyday Cafe experience.


After Burgess leaves, I stick around to wait for a 9:30 appointment. A staffer from the Homewood Children's Village, whom I've met briefly before but never spent time with, comes in. Because I want to get to know the Village's people better, I chat with him a bit, and we schedule a meeting.


Not long after, a young couple who are members of Bible Center Church show up. I had spoken with the husband a few months ago, and we had meant to get together; now, we catch up as he orders his coffee.


In a little more than a month, the Cafe has already become, for me, a great place for serendipitous meetings. I'll be having breakfast or lunch with one friend, and another friend will walk in. If the two friends know each other, they then have a chance to connect. If they don't, they have a chance to be introduced.


At one point, at least three meetings are happening simultaneously -- the HCV staffer, the Bible Center people, and at the table behind me, another HCV staffer, Ben Walker, is chatting with Westinghouse Academy 6-12 football coach Monte Robinson.


*    *    *


Bible Center owns the cafe, which is largely the brainchild of their pastor, Rev. Dr. John D. Wallace Jr.


Wallace, who is also a professor at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Social Work, was inspired by research on the importance of "third places" -- places other than home or work where people go to "just be." (in particular, he cites the book "The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community," by Ray Oldenburg.)


The original concept for a cafe on Homewood Avenue called for the renovation of a building at 524 N. Homewood Ave. that was originally a post office, then a church. Its location, yards from the Homewood Avenue busway stop, where thousands of people board and leave buses every day, seemed perfect. Despite an award-winning design by Carnegie Mellon University architecture professor John Folan, and buy-in from the Urban Redevelopment Authority, it was deemed too expensive, and gave way to Homewood Station, the senior housing building with retail spaces on the first floor. Only the facade of the original building remains.


Operation Better Block, Inc., charged with finding tenants for the retail spaces, went through several potential coffeeshop owners before Wallace brought the idea of owning and operating a coffeeshop to his congregation two years ago, to create a “third space” for Homewood. They bought into it, and the church partnered with OBB and attracted investment from Bridgeway Capital to make it happen.


The church connection is not evident -- there are no Christian symbols or artifacts. But "for the church to be the driver of it, I think, is also an important message," Wallace says.


Instead of ministry being limited to two hours on Sundays, "we're now 56 hours a week of ministry. This is our witness in the world."


And part of that witness lies in the diversity of people who come there -- black, white, Asian, old, young -- a diversity that Wallace says is "at least a partial reflection of the kingdom of God."


*    *    *  


I order a sausage, egg and cheese muffin and an orange juice -- my default Everyday Cafe breakfast.


After Walker finishes his meeting with Robinson, he joins me. We have a bit of business to transact, and are overdue to meet, so this is serendipitous. We conduct our business, and he heads off.


My 9:30 appointment doesn't show. But that's okay, because Andre Young walks in, orders a coffee, spies me, and comes over to chat. As it turns out, Young, a businessman who ran against Councilman Burgess in the last election, comes here often.


Some people have complained about the cafe being cashless. Young tells a story.


He and his wife were relaxing on a recent evening when she asked how often he's going to the Cafe. He asks how she knows, and she says she saw it on the credit card statement.


He told her, "They gotta start taking cash, 'cause I don't want you tracking me that much!"


And with that, he laughs the matter off.


Young knows a thing or two about coffeehouses -- he owns one at the airport.


"They have good product," he says. "We need to be concerned about the quality of the product."


And he doesn't just mean the coffee. He says he had a turkey panini for lunch one day: "Fantastic."


Besides breakfast muffins and lunch paninis (turkey and ham), the menu includes a variety of sandwiches, salads, yogurt, and desserts, among other things. As I meet with more people there -- or just visit to spend some time on my own, I expect to work my way through most of their edibles.


Young and I have a long conversation before I ask him for a ride back home, the kind of wide-ranging conversation that the Cafe hints at in its slogan: "Where great coffee and passionate people meet every day." (Wallace, the social scientist, says that when he sees people together there, "I really want to know, what are they talking about?")


For me, the second half of that slogan is blazingly true -- when I show up at the Everyday Cafe, I meet passionate people, whether by appointment or by chance, and have conversations that stir my own passions.


I can't say anything about the other half.


I don't drink coffee.


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The Homewood Chronicles

Oct. 2005 - March 2010

Reports from a community in transition

In October 2005, after a bullet came through his living room window, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Elwin Green began writing "My Homewood," the first blog on the P-G's website. For 4 1/2 years, "My Homewood" shared stories of tragedy and beauty, of perplexity and hope - stories that live again in "The Homewood Chronicles."

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