Covering all of Chicago’s Feel-Good Experiences
By MJ Forbes November 21, 2013
Last month I was pleasantly surprised to see a tweet stating that a new internet café would soon be opening in the Englewood neighborhood. Having grown up about six blocks away from the new café’s location on 69th and Halsted, I was excited to see the introduction of a different type of business to the struggling neighborhood. Today’s Fun, Happy Chi-Town spotlight is shining on Kusanya Café. The coffee shop officially opened its doors on Monday, November 19th, at 7 am. When I asked executive director and member of the non-profit board that runs the shop Phil Sipka if I could sit down with him to write a piece about the café, his one request was that the article not be about him, but about the café itself and the experience of the residents. “I did not bring this business to Englewood. Englewood brought forth this business.” Sipka told me over the telephone. I gave him my word.
For nostalgia’s sake, the next morning I drove down 79th street to take in the sights. The neighborhood really hasn’t changed too much. I pulled up and parked at 825 W. 69th Street. Besides a small standing sign announcing that the business serves coffee and grits, there was no fanfare of the newly opened business. But on the morning of the café’s second day of business, it already had a neighborhood staple feel.
The front door answered my first question. Kusanya, Swahili: verb – to gather, accumulate, amass. The company’s logo is the word Kusanya worked into the geographical shape of Englewood. Inside I found a very cozy vintage style coffee shop. The décor includes leather benches, exposed brick, reclaimed wood everywhere, and even a recycled glass bottle lighting fixture. I shared the sentiments of one of the customers, Tyran, who is not a resident of Englewood but works in the neighborhood with the city’s Safe Passage program, ensuring that students are able to trek through dangerous neighborhoods safely to and from school. Tyran said, “I really like the look of this place. It makes me not want to leave. It’s new, positive, and different. We need more of this type of establishment in Englewood.”
Tyran was enjoying a coffee with his friend, Mario, who works at a popular neighborhood barber shop, Powell’s. Mario told me, “The atmosphere here is great. This is a nice meeting place, and they even have good music!” He plans to be a regular patron. They do play good music – mostly old school R&B. In fact, everything about Kusanya gives off a very good vibe. Items on the menu have playful names, some of them being references to Chicago based entertainers like the Bernie Mac &
Cheese and the Lupe Tobasco. They proudly serve halal meats and Bridgeport coffee. The walls are covered with colorful photos created by local artist Tonika Johnson.
The barista who assisted me, Barbara, informed me that I was the recipient of the café’s ‘Pay it forward’ program, and that the cost of my medium decaf with a peppermint shot was covered by an unknown donor. The café also boasts a nice display of books, where guests are invited to ‘Leave a book, take a book’. I helped myself to ‘How Long Will I Cry?’, a locally published book discussing the effect of violence on youth in Chicago. Fortunately I happened to have a copy of ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ in my car to leave in exchange. I was pleased to see someone reading it within 10 minutes. It made me feel good to share something that someone else enjoyed, and then it really hit home for me what the organizers are trying to accomplish with the café. The purpose of Kusanya Café is to provide a place for Englewood residents to always feel welcome, to share, to receive, and to feel comfortable. Sipka describes the group’s goal as making the shop ‘Englewood’s living room’.
Kusanya is owned, operated, and sustained by the Englewood community. The business was brought forth by the community because residents donated their time and money to get the doors open. A giant carryout coffee cup on the wall displays the names of all of these supporters. Sipka says that Englewood will have to rally around the business to support it in order for it to be successful. “If the business were monetarily successful, but not embraced by the community, it would be a failure,” he went on to say. It seems to be working already, as I witnessed a steady stream of customers ordering coffee and breakfast, including several police officers, and a few patrons working on their laptops. One of the employees, Chuck, voluntarily came in on his day off just to be present for the opening moment. The board is also very particular about sourcing all of its materials locally if possible, and only hiring from within the neighborhood. Their mission is to empower the community to make the success of Kusanya Café its own.
Englewood is more than high crime and low income. The neighborhood has nurtured some of our city’s brightest stars. It’s a community full of promise, bright ideas, and huge dreams.
I may not be a current resident of Englewood, but I am a product of the community. I’m honored to have the opportunity to support this venture.
Does your company provide a fun or happy experience and you want us to share it with all of Chicago? Tell me about it! Contact me at MJForbes_JBPub@yahoo.com or on Twitter: @AuthorMJForbes.