Coffee, Community, and the Fight for a City's Soul

ink sign.jpeg

Tell me what community looks like.

As ink! Coffee reopened at 6:00am on November 28th after days of protests in response to their irresponsible advertisement (“Happily Gentrifying the Neighborhood Since 2014”), community leaders gathered in front of their door and chanted these words into the morning darkness.

There might not be a more fundamental human cry. What does community look like? What
society hasn’t struggled to answer this question and make good on its response?

While Mayor Hancock uses the rhetoric of “Inclusive Community,” his administration’s overriding response to the question of community is another phrase: building a “World Class City.” In this century, achieving our Mayor’s goal rests on aggressively pursuing a significant share of global finance, while assuming that other social goods flow from that source. And so, just up the street from ink!, a new World Trade Center is under way, preceded by neighborhood re-branding and breakneck construction.

Finance needs an investment outlet, and at historically high levels, it has found it in land
development. City policies are paving the way for speculative investments that carve up historically disinvested neighborhoods. The same neighborhoods, segregated long ago by white-flight and housing discrimination, where people of color raised families for generations.

In the Hebrew scriptures, the most common word-pair is mishpat and tsedaqah. When the
prophets responded to the question of community and its discontents, they planted these twin pillars. Respectively, they roughly translate to justice and righteousness.

Mishpat-justice is social and structural, a matter of policy and economy. For the people of Israel whose life has always been tied to a particular patch of ground, it was measured by every person’s right to a place in the land, particularly for the most vulnerable (and so the refrain: look after the orphan, widow, homeless, and stranger).

Tsedaqah-righteousness tied the behavior of individuals and households to the justice of the
nation. The prophets remind us that community is also a matter of every person looking out for their neighbor. Ink!’s customers might not be among the gentrified, but they cannot experience true community without those whose displacement their sign glibly celebrated.

In my faith tradition, we speak of repentance: literally turning around and going a new way. It is time for both the “ink!-s” of our community and our politicians to repent. A new direction would abandon the I70 megaproject gutting one of our poorest and most polluted neighborhoods. It would repeal the urban camping ban that threatens survival for the homelessness, expand renter protections, and seek housing as a human right. It would restructure “opportunity zones” to be for a neighborhood’s people instead of outsider’s profit. It would look like new businesses who listen to old neighbors and ally with them on their agenda.

The prophet Isaiah could have been speaking against gentrification when he wrote, “They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat.”

This is what community looks like.

Nathan Hunt