Cups of Community: A response to “Cups of Controversy” or “The Free Cafe wants to talk about gentrification. But some say it’s part of the problem” by Julissa James, L.A. Times, Dec. 8, 2019, pg. A-1

 

The recent article in the L.A. Times attempted to generate controversy over my ongoing social engagement project, The Free Cafe.

Once a month, my partner and I invite neighbors to our home to meet up and chat over a cup of coffee. There's no agenda or suggested topic of conversation, as the article’s headline implies. Everyone in the community is invited to come by, hang out and engage with others however they'd like.

We started this gathering on our front porch in early 2018 welcoming both long-time residents of Leimert Park and surrounding neighborhoods, as well as new transplants to the area. A quick scroll through The Free Cafe’s Instagram page illustrates the inclusiveness of these gatherings—young and old, gay and straight, babies and kids, even dogs and cats! The Free Cafe "patrons" also represent nearly every racial background that can be found in Leimert Park and across L.A.

 

Neighbors gather on the front porch at The Free Cafe.

 

I bring up race because the Times framed their article in terms of black and white, making a point to list the race of every person quoted in the story. I personally identify as bi-racial—specifically, half Filipino and half Dutch. My mom is an immigrant from the Philippines and my dad was a first generation Dutch-American and L.A. native who lived in the Philippines for over 12 years. I was raised in the San Gabriel Valley surrounded by my large, extended Filipino family and steeped in the Filipino-American cultural experience. So you can imagine my surprise when the article described me as “a white artist of Filipino heritage.”

Many people who read the article wondered what that description even meant. One person jokingly asked in a comment on the L.A. Times’ Instagram page, “Is he a Filipino who paints white people?” Others online simply read the word “white” and left it at that. Similarly, my partner, who was raised in Hawaii by her native Micronesian mother and first-generation Portuguese father was described as only being of Portuguese descent. These misleading descriptions helped the Times create their false narrative of white gentrifiers acting in opposition to the local, predominantly African American community.

The article goes on to describe an occasion from over a year ago when I set up a folding table and cooler to serve free coffee in Leimert Park Plaza. This area, coined the People’s Street, serves as a public venue for community and cultural events. The one-day, pop-up version of the cafe was part of a city-wide festival of free, public art happenings.

 

A local dance group stops by the pop-up for some lemonade.

 

Prior to this event, one individual voiced his concern on Nextdoor.com that The Free Cafe pop-up might negatively impact the two black-owned coffee shops down the block in Leimert Park Village (Harun and Hot & Cool). Taking his words to heart, I met with owners from both businesses to describe my project and ask if they had any issues with it. They both liked the concept and said they had no objections to me serving free drinks for 4-hours in the nearby plaza. They laughed-off my concern that their businesses might be financially harmed, but as a measure of good faith, I purchased a bag of coffee beans from Hot & Cool to serve at the pop-up.

On the morning of the event in the Village, a handful of community members who had seen the negative comments on Nextdoor arrived early to show their support and help set up the cafe. One neighbor, a long-time resident of Leimert Park, surprised me by buying two large boxes of pastries from Hot & Cool (Harun was closed that morning). She joined me behind the table and handed out baked-goods to visitors while I poured their drinks.

The majority of the food and beverages that were given away at The Free Cafe pop-up were enjoyed by the many homeless individuals who congregated near the park that Saturday morning. There also happened to be a local charity distributing  sandwiches and water just steps away.

 

Dorothy prepares to hand out pastries she purchased from Hot & Cool.

 

But the refreshments themselves aren’t the main focus of The Free Cafe project. Sharing a cup of coffee simply functions as an ice-breaker to bring people in the community together. And if you happened to pay a visit that day, you'd have seen old and new residents of Leimert Park along with members of the homeless community, neighborhood leaders, local business owners, and folks visiting the area for the very first time, all hanging out and getting to know one another. Even the owners of Harun and Hot & Cool came by to join the gathering and enjoy a free drink.

Unfortunately, the Times piece did not fully share these details of the event, and the article was worded in such a way to imply an antagonism between the Free Cafe and the local coffee shops that simply doesn't exist. In fact, after reading the article, the owner of Hot & Cool contacted me to explain how his comments printed in the Times were taken completely out of context. He repeated his support for The Free Cafe project and even proposed hosting a Free Cafe event at Hot & Cool to highlight our neighborhood unity.

 

Visitors write personal messages to share on the "suggestion board".

Since that one event, The Free Cafe hasn't popped-up in Leimert Park Plaza or any other public location. Instead, we continue to host the monthly gatherings at our home (which is located over a mile away from the coffee shops in the Village). There have been nothing but positive responses from the community including countless comments and messages, online and in person, encouraging us to keep it going.

Even the individual quoted in the Times who voiced opposition to the pop-up wrote in that same Nextdoor thread, “Hosting free coffee on your front porch? Great idea! Brings the block together, brings neighbors together.”

 

Friends and neighbors enjoy a drink in the back yard at The Free Cafe.

 

As for the notion that people who come to The Free Cafe don't support local businesses, that too is false. Both my partner and I frequent our local cafes and restaurants, as do others who come to our events. The Free Cafe is only open three hours a month, and people in the neighborhood drink coffee everyday! Also, sharing information about new local cafes and businesses is a common topic of conversation at our monthly gatherings.

When the Times chose to dig up an incident that happened over a year ago and make it the focus of their story, readers were left with a negatively-skewed representation of the project. The article positioned Leimert Park residents against each other—old vs. new, black vs. white—by creating a hyped-up controversy. This brand of sensationalistic journalism serves only to deepen the divides that The Free Cafe works to bridge by simply bringing neighbors together around a pot of coffee.

(And yes, visitors are always welcome to use our bathroom.)

Cheers,
Michael Rippens
 

Read the L.A. Times article here.