Making a Home in Englewood

In Englewood, where vacancies and foreclosures are common and neighborhood hangouts are scarce, one space, a kind of brick loft on the corner of 69th and Green, may end up as what its owner calls “a true neighborhood spot.” Kusanya Café is a forthcoming espresso bar and nonprofit in Englewood that will also serve as a community arts venue. Behind the café is Phil Sipka, a five-year resident of Englewood, who came up with the idea for the cafe about three years ago and acts as the project’s executive director and coordinator. The idea grew from what Sipka saw as the desperate lack of any communal gathering space or venue for the arts in the neighborhood. “Art dies when there’s no outlet for it,” he says. Most of all, he wants the place to have the feel of an Englewood establishment. “If we got a lot of customers and none of them were Englewood residents, I would consider that a failure.”

When Phil was looking for a building to house the café, he faced the mounting problem of what he calls the “infrastructural decimation” of Englewood. Not only was there a lack of leasable buildings, but also few owners were even willing to lease, especially on such an aberrant project as his. “A lot of building owners seemed to have bought property around 2008 thinking that the Olympics were coming, and then were left with a building that was worth less than what they paid for.” The severe infrastructural gap in Englewood has made rare the kinds of spaces like his cafe. True communal spaces–even just sit-down restaurants, he adds–are scant.

Whatever the stigma that often surrounds Englewood–a force Sipka readily acknowledges–there is an unscathed optimistic sincerity in his words, which stem from a committed belief in the potential of the neighborhood. The last thing he wants is for the neighborhood to get blamed, and instead he speaks to the city’s damaging policies that he argues have eliminated the kinds of social mechanisms that might allow change. Sipka believes in “living and fighting in places where injustice occurs.” Despite his view that Englewood fits this description, he can trace his optimism to an earlier job working with By The Hands, an after-school program in the neighborhood that brought together a diverse group of people. These people, he realized, wouldn’t otherwise find a place to engage with each other. Sipka believes the neighborhood’s diversity, like the neighborhood’s character is portrayed too simply. “Englewood is far more diverse than people give it credit for,” he adds. This diversity, he contends, can be turned into a strength.

Phil and his team finally settled with the building on 69th and Green, a block removed from Halsted. They had originally signed a lease with the building’s previous owner, but after some logistical strain, board member Lauren Duffy acquired the building last fall, giving the café a permanent place to call home. Duffy, a real-estate agent who quit her day job to take on the task of the project, was recently featured in an interview with the Huffington Post article detailing her work with the project.

In hosting poetry slams, art showings, or workshops with the urban farm group Growing Home, Sipka envisages an open environment and an opportunity for what he calls “community empowerment.” The café is currently slated to be open in June, though that date is subject to contingency. Since living in Englewood, he’s found that “there are so many people that completely surprise you,” which is where the cafe comes in. Fittingly, Kusanya is the Swahili word for “to gather.”

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