Grounded in Belief

(Temple Shipley)

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“What do you know about your neighbors?” This was the question that Amanda Neely, co-owner of Overflow Coffee Bar in the South Loop, posed to residents prior to its opening a little over a year ago. For many South Loop residents, like city-dwellers everywhere, the answer is not much. Fifteen years ago, the South Loop was mostly warehouses; now, it’s a hotbed of residential development. But Brandon and Amanda Neely, owners of Overflow Coffee Bar, think the residents need more than just the requisite stores: they need businesses that are committed to creating a sense of community.

Amanda and Brandon both grew up in small towns where, as Amanda says, they enjoyed the feeling of community camaraderie, the sense that “someone has your back.” After moving from small-town Ohio to Hyde Park to attend the University of Chicago, Amanda was impressed by the sense of community she found in the neighborhood. She recounts how impressed she was when Hyde Park residents banded together to save the seawall at The Point from being paved over, saying dubiously, “If they tried to do that on the 16th Street Beach, I’m not sure anyone would care.”

Since opening, Overflow’s intimate atmosphere has provided a space for South Loop residents to learn each other’s stories. It is comfortable as a living room–on a quiet Friday afternoon, some patrons have kicked off their shoes and curled up on couches with a book, and others sit cross-legged at tables, chatting animatedly with friends. “People do their taxes here,” says Zach, a 19—year-old regular who lives in Chinatown and works at a nearby coffee shop. They also give back to the Overflow community in small ways, such as by donating their well-thumbed books to the book exchange (which consists of an amalgamation of Danielle Steel novels and classics like “Lolita”) or their canned goods to the pantry, or simply by putting a few extra cents in the tip jar (which, on this particular day, reads, “Tip extra big for Brandon’s birthday!”).

In addition to providing a pleasant space for neighborly interaction, Oveflow holds many events that bring together their initiatives of community building and social justice. As Amanda says, “Changing the world is really tough, especially if you’re trying to do it alone.” Movie nights, held monthly in an auditorium in the same building as Overflow, feature films about social justice issues. Recently, the coffee bar showed the film “Good Fortune,” which tackles the subject of poverty-fighting efforts in Africa. Profits from the screening were used to finance a microloan to a small business owner living in poverty.

Monthly open mic nights let residents share their musical and creative talents, and for a few days in late February and early May, the coffee bar hosted readings as part of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ annual conference. Last year, a highly attended State of the South Loop address was held at Overflow, a clear indication of the kind of community space the coffee bar has become. And on Sundays, Overflow hosts a discussion section on social justice issues, considering solutions to problems that plague both the South Side and the world beyond.

Brandon and Amanda now hope to expand their community building initiatives into another sphere–religion. As a student at the UofC, Amanda became involved with the Hyde Park Vineyard Church, and she and Brandon hope to bring a congregation of the global church movement to the South Loop.

But Amanda says that she’s not interested in proselytizing or preaching religious dogma. Instead, in both the South Loop Vineyard she and Brandon hope to start and in the coffee bar they own, the couple aspires to create a place where people of their community from various backgrounds and ideologies can all come together. Overflow is, as Amanda puts it, “proud to be known for being the coffee shop that cares about the neighborhood.”

Overflow Coffee Bar, 1550 S. State St. Monday-Friday, 7am-8pm; Saturday, 8am-5pm; Sunday, 10am-6pm. (312)772-2356.

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