The stylish brick walls, the modest wooden furniture, the folksy-indie music softly playing while monastic patrons sip their coffees with iMacs illuminating their faces in the dimly lit space—it all offers a sharp contrast to the couple violently storming down the sidewalk across the street, exchanging obscenities on a recent Thursday. This coffee shop, Kava Shteeble, is one face of gentrification within Bed-Stuy. For that reason, not everybody in the neighborhood loves it, but some do—particularly some local artists, with whom Kava Shteeble has worked to forge a bond.
Located on 94 Ralph Avenue, Kava Shteeble, which in Yiddish means “coffee hangout,” just opened this past spring. Yidi Brier,the mellow yet attentive thirty-something manager wearing a worn, feathered purple fedora, which fits the vibe of Kava Shteeble, opened the shop after working in the neighborhood for years with Pacific Management, a Brooklyn-based construction firm. “I thought the neighborhood desperately needed a place where people could find good coffee,” he says. Tammy Brown, who has lived in Bed-Stuy for almost a decade, agrees. “I love that it’s so close. Kava Shteeble is a sweet, quaint spot to drink good coffee,” says Brown. “I originally had to walk all the way to Malcolm X Boulevard to find something close to this.”
Brier, who still works at Pacific Management, is constantly running in and out while relying on his barista, Alex Rodabaugh, who usually puts in anywhere from fifty to sixty hours a week keeping things under control. Although Brier is religious, he tries to strike the right balance—following his Jewish faith while trying to make Kava Shteeble to be a place where people from all walks of life feels welcome. Brier doesn’t work on Saturdays, but he does allow Rodabaugh, who is not Jewish, keep the shop open so long as the beans used for Saturday are all purchased the day before. (His beans, which Brier gets from Brooklyn’s Crop to Cop Coffee Importers, are not kosher.) Rodabaugh, who has a performing arts background, uses the open space inside Kava Shteeble every Saturday to invite local artists to perform. The artists, both new and long-standing performers in Bed-Stuy, range from jazz musicians to yoga instructors, playwrights, and interpretive dancers.
Rodabaugh believes that the neighborhood surrounding Kava Shteeble is, as he describes, “at the forefront of gentrification in Bed-Stuy.” Brier agrees, admitting that at least initially, he was concerned regarding how welcomed his new coffee shop would be by those who view many new businesses as a threat to what is considered traditional Bed-Stuy.
One thing he did about that: In addition to Rodabaugh’s Saturday performances, Brier began allowing local artists the opportunity to display their work and sell their pieces to interested customers, with all proceeds directly going to the artists. This business model, in Brier’s view, allows Kava Shteeble to reach out to the Bed-Stuy community and let their neighbors know that everyone should feel welcome. “For me, this is a win-win situation,” says Brier.
For some of the local artists, this has been the first time in their lives they’ve had the chance to have their work on display for the Bed-Stuy community to see. Three Bed-Stuy artists spoke about their art and their perspective on how Kava Shteeble fits into a changing Bed-Stuy.
Willie Dean III, 30:
Willie Dean III moved to Bed-Stuy four years ago from Houston. Dean has a marketing rep background and lives across the street from Kava Shteeble. He loves the new coffee shop and believes that Kava Shteeble’s presence is a sign of how Bed-Stuy is changing, especially in the area from Ralph Avenue to Broadway. Asked if he could name an alternative to Kava Shteeble’s quiet space with free Wi-Fi, Dean laughs when he says, “personally, I would go to the library. So that being across the street from me, that’s beautiful. I can roll out of bed and get a cup of coffee or just shout my order out the window.”
Manifest is what Dean calls his piece hanging on Kava Shteeble’s wall, directly across from the shop’s iPad, which serves as the cash register. Manifest is broken up into three separate pieces, each one coming together to present a multi-layered idea. “These are the steps, when put together, will help you manifest what you’re trying to do in life,” Dean explains. The first step, which is Man, was created to show the universal man symbol with glowing yellow rays above his head, and is meant to imply having one’s physical house in order when focusing on a goal. The second piece, Eye, “is where vision comes in, the visualization of a goal,” he explains. Finally, Fest, feeling the dream come alive once it’s reached. “Put together, your thoughts, actions and feeling, that’s how you manifest what you want,” says Dean.
Shurland Christopher Sandy, 51:
“Chris,” what he prefers to be called, views art as “mind therapy.” As he puts it, “you could be going through some problems, whether it be with family, and so forth. So what I did, I created the kind of artwork that will just break the cycle of your stress. And for that moment, when you look my work, you can escape.” Chris says wants an ageless quality to his work, so that if someone looks at it now or in fifty years, it won’t be obvious when Chris actually drew it. It takes Chris on average eight hours to complete each drawing. Initially, he gave Brier two pieces of his artwork, not to make any profit, he says, but to inspire customers who look at it.
Chris, reflecting on Kava Shteeble’s place within Bed-Stuy, thinks, “a lot of black people around here always looking at all the white people as coming in and taking over,” he says. “But I like it. I like to see the mixture. It’s like a fruit garden. Like a bouquet of fruits all coming together.” Chris says the coffee shop and his art hanging on the walls, “makes it seem like my work is hanging in the West Village. And that’s a good thing!”
Jerome Pogue, 59
Jerome Pogue, a warm, gentle, spiritual man, has a history filled with personal tragedies and struggles—including, he says, having been shot four times in the back as a teenager while trying to rob a train with gang members he used to associate with, and decades of addiction to crack cocaine. Just as he was finally able to overcome his addiction and stay clean, Pogue says, he was forced into dealing with the sudden loss of his wife from cancer, in 2008. Somehow, Pogue’s soft-spoken voice and outgoing personality reveal none of these inner demons. Pogue eventually remarried and lives with his second wife next door to Kava Shteeble. Currently on disability because of his knees, Pogue usually sits outside in front of the coffee shop’s window, painting. He is something of an unofficial mayor of the neighborhood, constantly smiling and interacting with passersby. “Everyone loves Jerome,” says Brier.
Unlike Chris’ eight-hour average for each drawing, Jerome Pogue can spend up to a year on certain paintings, making sure the color is just right. “Sometimes an image gets stuck in my head, and it’ll just stay there until I do something about it and paint it,” he says. The last painting Pogue sold at Kava Shteeble was of a lady balancing an old-fashioned Coca-Cola bottle on her head. He vividly remembers seeing her walking around the Marcy Projects back in the early 1960’s. “She would have this coke bottle on her head while taking her daughter to school every day, and it would never fall off. People from all over the projects would follow her around seeing if it would fall, but it never would.”
Brier says that one day, as he was working, an older man came into the coffee shop, and noticed the painting on the wall. “His eyes lit up, and he started getting really excited. I didn’t know what was going on, but I saw him looking at the painting. He then told me that he remembered that woman decades ago and couldn’t believe she was hanging up there!” After telling the story, Brier gets upset, saying that when he was away from the shop, Jerome made a deal with another customer to sell the painting—for $20. “Jerome is very talented. I got mad because I knew he could’ve made much more on something he spent over a year of his life working on,” he says. Jerome confesses, “I was just so shocked that somebody actually wanted to buy one of my paintings. Even if someone offered a penny, I probably would’ve accepted it.”
On this Thursday, which is soothingly cool for mid August, Amilia Williams, a woman in her early thirties who has called Bed-Stuy home her entire life, walks into Kava Shteeble. Williams takes a moment to look around, processing the hanging art, rustic furniture, and chalkboard menu with a hint of both wonder and confusion. Williams tells Rodabaugh that she walks by Kava Shteeble nearly every day on her way to work, but today was craving a hot chocolate and decided to stop in. Rodabaugh shows her an organic powdered mix he could whip up for her. Williams, hesitantly nodding, says she’s looking for something more natural and promises Rodabaugh she’ll be back soon to try the coffee. As she starts to walk out, I ask Williams what her honest feelings are about Kava Shteeble’s new presence in her neighborhood. Williams declares, “I have friends and family… and some frankly wouldn’t subscribe to this being here. But as long as it’s quality and at a good enough price, I welcome any business that’s trying to offer a unique, positive, cultural experience to Bed-Stuy.”