I love my neighborhood. I have lived and worked in East Liberty for 15 years. When I bought my home, Home Depot had already moved in. There were plans for the Whole Foods. I knew that some amount of gentrification would follow (you can argue that I contributed to it by moving in) but I had no idea just how much.
I was happy to move into a diverse neighborhood. Happier still when my neighborhood association lobbied to sell three properties on my street to Sojourner House as permanent housing for women in recovery with children. Then I watched as things began to change. I watched as some of the businesses I loved began to close — Abay, then Shadow Lounge for example — to make way for more upscale (whiter) venues that were willing and able to pay the increasing rents.
Having worked in the business district for years, I love walking down Penn Ave — I know all the regulars on the street. It’s the small town feeling that I have grown to love so much about Pittsburgh over the years. I had to confront my own privilege recently when I realized that there was a sign posted outside my beloved local coffee shop.
I am embarrassed to admit that it had been there for about a month before I took notice, so I was obviously not the intended recipient of its message.
I started frequenting the coffee shop when it was in its original location on the other side of Penn Avenue than where it is now. When they were forced out of their location due to the property being acquired for more development, I empathized with their plight.
I donated as part of their fundraising efforts to stay alive and move to their current location across the street. I wanted to support a local business and not the Starbucks in the whitewashed “Eastside.” I noticed the movie theater style barriers go up after they decided to put tables out on the sidewalks (for customers only). But it took me a while to see the sign:
But when I did, I could not ignore it. Now? In this climate? When the police shooting and killing of black people is in the news regularly? When corporations and white-owned establishments are encroaching on a traditionally vibrant and proud black community? To sell coffee to white people in peace lest they be disturbed by the “local color?”
The coffee shop has been here. They knew what the neighborhood was. I cannot even begin to imagine what their expectations could have been to have resorted to this type of action.
The level of insensitivity to the issues of race and gentrification currently facing this neighborhood astounded me. I can’t help but believe that there is a better way. Hostility and aggression only beget the same in return, in my opinion. Rather than attempting an amicable and peaceful co-existence, this type of public display contributed to alienation and divisiveness. In trying to gain customers, they lost me.
I think that I reacted as strongly as I did because they were who they were: the underdogs, struggling to stay afloat in a progressively more expensive neighborhood.
After I let them know how I felt about the issue, one of the owners contacted me. He wanted to meet and talk. So we met. It was me, him and the manager of the cafe. He thanked me for coming in to talk. We sat outside at the tables for customers only. I asked what led to the placement of the sign. They described episodes of intoxicated people intimidating the female staff people, who said they were in favor of the sign.
Then I asked if it helped. They said “immensely.”
But that did not end the conversation. We kept talking. I explained my position. We brainstormed together and, as we sat out on the sidewalk on a busy Friday evening, I watched them interact with all the regulars, just like I do. In preparation for First Friday the atmosphere was festive and interactions were friendly and fun.
I asked if they would try a different kind of sign. One that conveys their intent, that they want their customers to have seating available without being hostile and threatening. In the end they agreed that they will try. They plan to now change the sign and see how that goes. I went in and bought a pound of coffee before I left.
I trusted that they had heard me and I believed them when they said that they would make a change. That was more than two weeks ago. I know that they are busy, as we all are, but I am hopeful that they have not simply forgotten or pushed it aside.
My optimism and faith in humanity drive both my belief that a new, less provocative and potentially dangerous sign would still yield the desired results and that the coffee shop owner and management will be true to their word.
I will not give up. If the sign remains I will continue to pursue the issue. I hope that others will notice as well and join me. But in the end, my hope is that I will be able to follow up with a photo of a new, improved sign and a report of positive effects.