“Bars don’t invite activism. They invite, well, drunkenism. So repressive regimes don’t always go after the beer bars, but they do shut down the coffeehouses and teahouses.”
Tim Holmes, owner and manager of San Leandro’s Zocalo’s coffeehouse, explains the transformative cultural and social role he hopes his business and other community centers play in Northern California’s East Bay neighborhoods. We discussed this over a sweet specialty Kahlua-flavored coffee, while tickling the feet of Juliet, the nine-month-old baby for which barista Sarah Hammitt is a nanny.
To Holmes, city council and school board positions are pivotal for shaping local society and also training grounds for creating broader-scale change. For these reasons, Zocalo’s hosts candidate forums and other nonpartisan events related to local city and county elections.
Several other gathering places, such as Alameda’s Crosstown and downtown Oakland’s It’s a Grind franchise, also facilitate and encourage community involvement in ways that make sense for the local residents of their distinctive areas.
Many people associate Northern California coffeehouse culture with San Francisco’s North Beach, Beatniks, hipsters, and artists and college students either independently wealthy or living off their families’ cash. However, diverse and distinctive neighborhoods throughout the East Bay’s commuter and family/bedroom community areas feature their own versions of these gathering places, which offer unique blends of entertainment, conversation, and empowerment.
A dispute over their building lease and economic pressures may force Crosstown out of business, and they already have to vacate their current location by Friday, July 24th. Alameda has a few other independent coffeehouses, along with a Starbucks and a Peet’s, but most close earlier and are smaller than Crosstown.
Several Crosstown baristas and managers said they invite the landowners to come in and visit their place and try some coffee, see how nicely they keep it up and how many community events occur there.
Zocalo’s and It’s a Grind’s management admit to also feeling the effects of the economy – people have not necessarily stopped coming, as some are forgoing expensive out-of-town vacations, but regulars tend to buy fewer items.
Nurtured by the dreams of an innovative faith community, Crosstown replaced a run-down, vacated High Street bar with the help of dozens of local volunteers. Initially, everyone, including their upper management, was officially a part-time employee, and people put in many hours of unpaid overtime.
“We all believed in the project,” explained now-general manager Faith McRory. “It doesn’t seem like work when you really get excited about something.”