Review and commentary by Mason Johnson

Initial reviews of Kusanya Cafe (825 West 69th Street, Chicago) back in November didn’t focus on the quality of food, where they get their coffee beans or the decor — the things you’d expect an article about the opening of a new coffee shop to cover.

But to be absolutely clear, the food, decor and coffee are all great (and locally sourced).

The coffee, which is rich and smooth, is from the Bridgeport Coffee Company. Their bread and pastries are all Chicago-based and high quality, with cakes coming from local Englewood bakery David’s Cakes. On a recent visit to Kusanya, I enjoyed a Mozz Def sandwich for a late lunch, which was topped with tasty mozzarella, fresh tomato and basil between thinly sliced and toasted artisan bread.

The cafe’s exposed brick walls go well with the wooden tables and chairs, and also play host to photography by Englewood resident Tonika Johnson. The furniture in Kusanya is spread out, creating an open atmosphere that’s the antithesis of one of my pet peeves: cafes that squeeze as many tables and chairs into one space as possible (I hate when a cafe is arranged in such a way that it feels as cramped as a Chicago L train, especially when the cramped furniture isn’t even occupied by people).

Not only is Kusanya the kind of cafe that could easily fit into neighborhoods like Wicker Park and Lakeview, it’s the kind of cafe that could give the best coffee shops in those neighborhoods a run for their money — it’s that good.

And it’s in Englewood, which has been the dominant focus in many of the articles written about it.

There’s no escaping the gravitational pull of Englewood’s one-dimensional reputation. Search Englewood on any news website and, well, you probably know what you’ll find: gun violence.

Before heading to Kusanya, a friend gave me a short tour of Englewood. As we drove, we passed rows of buildings with giant red X’s placed ominously on their exteriors. These signs had an obvious message: Stay out. They’re meant for first responders, telling fire fighters and police officers that even they shouldn’t enter. It may be too dangerous.

With that said, for each boarded-up, once beautiful brick 2-flat, there are multiple houses with well-maintained yards and pristine exteriors that prove just how proud the resident is to be a homeowner in Englewood.

Sadly, when it comes to Englewood, articles about gun violence and urban decay get a heck of a lot more attention than articles about meticulously taken care of lawns (or any other positive attributes the neighborhood might possess). This is a misrepresentation that does some 65,000 people living in Englewood and West Englewood harm.

To accurately portray Englewood, you need to include places like Kusanya Cafe. Internet commenters who’ve never been within a mile of Englewood — the ones who spend their time detracting from the neighborhood in poorly written and myopic notes at the bottom of every internet article about Englewood — will be disappointed to hear that Kusanya Cafe has had no problems in the seven months it’s been open.

Kusanya in swahili roughly means "to gather." (Photo Credit: Mason Johnson)
According to Executive Director Phil Sipka, the neighborhood looks out for Kusanya Cafe. “We made a conscious decision to respect our neighbors and believe in the goodness that we all see living here everyday, and the neighborhood has responded with equal respect.”

Kusanya isn’t the product of outside sources, it’s Englewood born and bred. Not only are Kusanya’s events chosen by the community, but Kusanya’s employees and board members (It’s a 501(c)(3) non-profit) are Englewood residents. If the goal of Kusanya is to empower the neighborhood, as Sipka tells me, then they’re empowering the neighborhood from within.

So far, Kusanya is succeeding. It’s easy for outsiders like me (and maybe even you, dear reader) to take the many coffee shops, bars, storefront theaters, gastropubs and brunch spots — along with whatever the heck else litters our neighborhoods — for granted. In Englewood, if you want to meet a friend or conduct a casual business meeting, options are limited. It’s no surprise that Englewood residents have flocked to Kusanya.

Talking to patrons, it was easy to see the invisible lines that have developed in the neighborhood since Kusanya’s opening. Most found themselves at Kusanya out of pure curiosity, or because it was the only place they could go to get a break from their boring workdays. Soon, residents were bringing friends and coworkers. As time has moved, the regulars at Kusanya — once strangers — have acknowledged each other, developing bonds that have strengthened the community.

In short, Kusanya has become a vibrant anchor in the Englewood community.

In the past seven months, Kusanya — not City Hall, not the Chicago Police Department, not the prospect of a brand spankin’ new Whole Foods — has significantly helped to embolden and empower Englewood.

Which is exactly what everyone involved with Kusanya expected to happen, says Sipka.

“We all knew that if we could just get some of the resources together within the community that we could begin to empower ourselves and rebuild our community on our own — outside of the Chicago political machine, which has so often used our neighborhood as a political toy to advance careers, and done little to make life better for our neighbors.”

Phil ends our conversation by saying, “Sorry if that was a little ‘soap-boxy.'”

No need to apologize, Phil!

For years, attempts from City Hall have done little to improve the poverty and violence in Englewood. Regardless of your political affiliation, there’s no denying that Kusanya Cafe has been a major success, not only as a non-profit cafe, but as a forum where citizens can grow together as a community. It is, of course, a modest accomplishment. A single cafe, no matter how ambitious, can only do so much. But when you look at Kusanya Cafe next to organizations like the Resident Association of Greater Englewood (R.A.G.E.), an organization that gives a political voice to Englewood residents, and Growing Home, a program that does job training through urban farming, the path to improving Chicago’s impoverished and violence-plagued neighborhoods becomes clear.

Hopefully the “Chicago political machine” takes note and does even more to help proliferate organizations like this throughout Chicago — no strings attached, of course.