Saturday Diary: Beleza Community Coffeehouse -- changing the world, one cup at a time
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My neighbors file into the Beleza Community Coffeehouse every morning, each of us still marveling that we have such a place. It's small, just slightly funky enough and run by seven people who must be lauded by someone, so it's going to be me.Diana Nelson Jones is a Post-Gazette staff writer (email@example.com).
And I swear I do and always will pay for my coffee there.
Beleza -- which means "beautiful" in Portuguese -- opened a little over a month ago, in a storefront building at the corner of Jacksonia and Buena Vista in the Mexican War Streets. People were standing outside at 7 a.m., an hour early.
"We didn't advertise," said Joanna Deming, one of the owners, grinning in amazement. "We wanted to ease into it, so we just e-mailed some friends. I expected to know everyone when we opened, but I didn't know about 70 percent of them.
"They all knew each other, and everyone rotated around, talking. I thought, 'This is so cool.' Then it just started being full all day."
What Beleza means to our neighborhood is estimable, but the Beleza Seven's potential is a gift to the entire city of Pittsburgh, profoundly inestimable. The more I learn about them, their values and devotion, I think of what the anthropologist Margaret Mead once said: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world."
We waited a long time for someone to take the gamble. We're a tiny neighborhood with a penchant for hanging out together, and the Monterey Pub has its limits, mainly that it isn't a coffeehouse. Several folks made some headway in various ventures but came up short.
Seven alums of Hope College in Michigan made it happen. They wanted to stay together after graduating and held a change-the-world party to figure out how and where. Then, as now, their rule was that they make their decisions together and reach unanimous agreement or not do it.
As a high school student, Gavin Deming, a native of Kalamazoo, had been to The Pittsburgh Project, where he worked with youth groups and poor people making home repairs. On the strength of his experience at the North Side service agency, the group -- all are under 25 -- picked our fair city.
"We saw signs that said, 'Do you want to start a coffee shop?' " said Gavin's wife, Joanna. The Northside Community Development Fund had posted signs.
When the group told the Central Northside Neighborhood Council of their plans -- by which time they were ready to open, with help from the development fund -- "everyone started clapping," said Joanna. "People thank us all the time.
"We're all poor, but we want to affect change. We wanted to have an impact on a neighborhood," said Joanna, a Minneapolis native who has a delicately fierce passion. "We chose this one because it is diverse, racially and economically."
Four in the group had worked in coffeehouses. The one property that was ready to become one -- its owner had renovated hoping to attract one -- used to house the neighborhood council. It's a corner storefront with big windows on each side. As you approach it, the golden lamp light and gold curtains make you want to run to join the little crowd on the sofas, in window seats and at three tables.
The coffee is premium and has the blessing of social-justice advocates -- it's all certified fair-trade. The only food is in a pastry case, but the group is considering expanding to a small menu at some point.
Four of the seven work full-time at other jobs, filling in at Beleza, where two work full-time. One is a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh. All seven live on the North Side.
"We want to be a model for young people, to say, 'Look, you can stay in Pittsburgh and make things happen, just take the initiative,' " said Joanna. "Basically, we're advocates for getting people to move to Pittsburgh. When people come to visit us, they say, 'I had no idea.' For me it's the culture, and it's so beautiful. The parks are wonderful, and we love all the little restaurants, and the Strip is amazing."
Somebody pinch me. This is a cool, 20-something I'm quoting.
"We have three friends who are moving here, and I'm trying to get my parents to. When they visit [in May], I'm going to show them houses."
Once Beleza is humming along and the Beleza Seven have a better sense of other needs they can address, she said, they might discuss a produce co-op or weekend retreats for neighborhood children, a scholarship fund or a social enterprise cluster. I nodded my encouragement and mentioned the four vacant storefronts at the corner of Monterey and North Taylor.
Frankly, most of us are too happy that they're just running the coffeehouse to care what else they do.
But I can't wait to see what else they do -- and what someone else might do because they are here.
First Published April 1, 2006 12:00 am