Pitt prof tests theory with a latte
The most remarkable thing about the Everyday Café in Homewood is that it exists at all.
John Wallace, faculty member in the School of Social Work, Katz Graduate School of Business and the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Sociology, founded the café last November. With its scattered tables, chalkboard menu offering lattes and sandwiches behind a glass case of pastries, bright hanging lights and shelves full of merchandise for sale, it looks like every other coffeehouse in town.
But it’s actually a nonprofit venture of the local Bible Center Church, where Wallace is senior pastor, and a kind of experiment to see whether academic theories about gathering places creating community actually work on the ground.
At lunchtime on a recent weekday, Wallace points to one table where the head of the local service agency Homewood Children’s Village sits with a Heinz Endowments program officer. At another table is a local meeting of the national Americorps program, Public Allies, which places young people with nonprofits. And in the door walks Pitt faculty member Jerome Taylor, just to enjoy lunch with his wife.
“You have people from all over who meet here, and heretofore couldn’t do it in Homewood,” Wallace says. Until Everyday opened, “other than bars, there was not this opportunity in Homewood” today.
He hopes the new café begins to build a more positive impression for neighborhood visitors. Plus, he says, “it is African American-owned, which I think is a good thing, a source of pride for a community.”
Wallace grew up two doors from the café’s location. But his childhood home had been torn down, and Homewood’s business district had collapsed as well.
Today Wallace brings his students here to do hands-on research with neighborhood nonprofits. In fact, Homewood houses many social service agencies, two schools and a student achievement center, two Y’s, the Afro American Music Institute and a Carnegie Library branch — but “literally no place to go grab a cup of coffee,” Wallace points out.
It’s not farfetched to believe that such a community gathering spot can spark more economic and social activity in a neighborhood. Wallace cites the book “The Great Good Place” by Ray Oldenburg, which posits that “third places” — gathering spots outside of homes and work spaces — are spurs for reviving neighborhoods.
“The space is nice; it’s a cool place to get some work done,” Wallace says of Everyday. “This is stuff that happens in healthy neighborhoods, meeting neighbors and friends, and hopefully will catalyze life and development here in Homewood.”
The next step, from an academic point of view, is to consider outcomes from this social experiment, he says: “What do we really need in a qualitative piece [of research] to give us insight into what a café does for a neighborhood?” he asks.
Wallace hopes in the future “to talk to people and find out: How has the café facilitated or networked your relationships? What do you feel the café’s presence here has done for the community?”
Alongside a “significant investment” by his congregation, Wallace reports, the café was funded by the Richard King Mellon Foundation, Heinz Endowments and Bridgeway Capital; the building is owned by Operation Better Block.
The Everyday idea began to take shape in 2009, when Wallace proposed that his church seek a partner to open a similar local business. “We had no interest in running the thing” — not at first, anyway, Wallace says. Two years ago, after failing to interest anyone else in bringing the project to fruition, Wallace changed his tack. He asked his church membership directly: “Are we as a congregation willing to take the risk?”
As a neighborhood improvement project, Homewood likely has a long way to go. Everyday Café’s innovation — as the first cashless café in the city — may sound attractive to younger people, Wallace says, and will help the business more easily track its finances, revise its menu based on customer data and track customer preferences with a loyalty card program. But it also helps make the place immune to thefts.
Once the place begins to turn a profit, Wallace says, he hopes to funnel money back into Pitt-related community programs. Those include STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs for local youth involving Swanson School of Engineering faculty, a class on social justice work at Westinghouse High School involving his colleagues at the School of Social Work, a makers clubhouse at the Pittsburgh Faison K-5 school in the neighborhood, and others.
“This is really a dream, that I get to marry my University work” with my church calling, Wallace says.
“Professionally and personally, it’s just an amazing opportunity and fit with the School of Social Work … as a scholar who wanted to be deeply engaged [in] practical, applied work in the community.
“I’m thrilled to be affiliated with a university like Pitt that is seriously committed to its role as an anchor institution,” he adds, citing the possibility that Homewood may be one location for the new community engagement centers Pitt is developing. “We’re not just focused on curing cancer and building robots, but we’re focused on on-the-ground work, helping children…”
For Africana studies’ Jerome Taylor, who lives nearby, Everyday Café already is accomplishing its central mission.
“Inevitably, we run into people that we do know, that we don’t know, that are involved in various aspects of community life,” Taylor says. “It’s something we missed in the city.
“It’s unlike any place in Homewood and unlike any place we know in the Hill District.”
Sure, a restaurant in the neighborhood may draw a crowd, he allows, “but it doesn’t have the connecting power of people who are engaged and involved in the community. This place is unique.”