By Camilla Zhang
On a rainy winter evening, with the overhead cacophony of the J/M line pounding in my ears and the weak light emanating from the sparse street lights, Bloom Cafe–located at 996 Broadway–called out to me like a lighthouse. The warm sherbet tones of the walls and the streamlined layout created a welcoming atmosphere indicative of Bloom Cafe’s open-door policy and overall positive connection with Bushwick.
“We wanted to make this more like a home. Believe it or not, all of the colors in this place are the colors of my apartment,” Duane Coates–a co-owner of the cafe–explained while I sipped a creamy caramel hot chocolate. In fact, everything except for the electrical wiring was done by Duane, his sister, and his mother. “We spent many nights here, sometimes four to five hours per evening,” he reminisced. As a family-owned business, Bloom Cafe has a personal stake in the community. Over the past ten years, the Coates family has witnessed changes–both good and bad–within the neighborhood.
The inspiration to open up the cafe came from the reevaluation of their own health and environment. Three years ago, the only food options around were greasy and fried. There was an obvious lack of more nutritious cuisine. Mama Coates, “the backbone and the rock on which Bloom was built,” had a culinary arts background back in Guyana. Her passion for food was shared with the family and in turn, with the community.
When asked about his aspirations for Bushwick, Duane said, “I’d like to see the natives staying and becoming a part of the changing community, as gentrification has hit us.” He’d “like to see more places not only accommodate customers who have been in Bushwick for a long time, but also open up new opportunities for work.” This is where Bloom’s open-door policy comes into play. The staff, whom he treats like family, are all neighborhood locals. The cafe suggestion box also helps them take “cues from everyone in the community.” They take the time to introduce health benefits, such as juicing, that are new and obscure to some. “I wanted Bloom to be kind of like the Cheers of the neighborhood,” Duane said with a genuine laugh. He’s not too far off the mark, since he knows most customers’ orders from the moment they enter. Oftentimes Duane will start making a customer’s usual before they even stride toward the counter. He even calls them by nicknames based on their orders. Meanwhile, many of the actual menu items have been named after current and old employees.
This kind of sincere rapport creates a calm, judgement-free environment, where customers can conduct interviews and business, talk about housing rights and gentrification, hold book club meetings, use the wifi to skype with their families in different countries, and the list goes on. There’s even a community bulletin board that customers use to publicize events and post information about apartments, bikes, and other things. Duane saves his leftover ciabattas and other food items for a local homeless shelter. He has even served homeless people at the cafe. Bloom is an “Every Man spot,” a place that can grow the seeds of a more interconnected community.
As it happens, the cafe hosts monthly open-mic nights, nurturing a “meshing of the new and the old.” Many nights are dominated by poetry, but the most recent one turned into a discussion group. Topics ranged from love, to politics, to business. People are welcomed to get on their soapbox or announce plays, album release parties, etc. There have been conversations about why bodegas now carry certain products, such as soy milk, when they could have been used before. Duane said, “For the all the years I’ve been here none of the bodegas on Myrtle Avenue looked the way they [do] now.” He further added that something opened 24-hours, as opposed to the little rotating window at night, would have been really beneficial to the community in the past.
At Bloom, the interactions that happen between the old and the new are indicative of people’s desire to relate and connect. Newcomers have shown up to the cafe looking for apartments and, believe it or not, natives have responded with information about openings in their own buildings. Newcomers can also learn about renters rights from locals. Duane said, “The folks that have been here the longest, they’ll tell you what numbers to call, how long a repair should take…they are good sources that new folks could benefit from.” Of course, this leads to more complex anxieties. A few long-term residents have discussed the rising rent costs. When young White people move in, Duane overhears “our ‘indigenous’ people” saying, “well, I can’t afford that rent, so now I have to move out.” Duane, who has lived in Bushwick since 2003, affirms that the rents have “at least doubled in the last three or four years.”
A place that breeds social forums may not solve all the looming problems right away, but it certainly opens up empathetic lines that are necessary for change. Bloom wants to see more local businesses that reflect the actual community. “[When] I see only Macs all along the window, I know most people living within the community wouldn’t even go in. [It’s] a deterrent. They think they can’t afford a place like that; that it’s not for them. You’re catering to one group. Most of the folks here are turned off by that.” The layout of Bloom, in some senses, purposefully tries to keep class lines blurry. When one walks by, the first thing one sees is not computers, but people. That’s not to say that customers should be ashamed of the computers they own, but it’s definitely food for thought to think about the implications of status symbols.
According to Duane, “A lot of places use that old rustic look. I’m all for recycling…but that look is not really my personality…The recycled look is more of a hipster kind of thing,” Duane explained. I have to admit that I agree with him on that one. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. People like what they like, but if you’re willing to get outside your comfort zone you can discover new things that you like even more. Bloom tries to encourage open-mindedness. “We want to make this in essence, kind of like your paper’s name, like a bridge.” They try to keep their offerings diverse, just like Bushwick.
I looked up at the cafe’s most popular fixture, a print that says “Make Tea, Not War.” It encapsulates what is so wonderful about Bloom. “Whatever the issue is, you have the opportunity to have your voice heard,” Duane said. The family refuses to let Bloom be pigeonholed. Their broad appeal is evident from the customers they have, which range from tourists, to natives, to young artists, to new families. As a medium for the community, they’ve fostered smaller businesses. For example, there are soap makers and jewelry designers to whom they’ve given space to sell their wares. I, for one, felt very welcomed and am looking forward to sipping smoothies in their backyard as soon as summer hits!
Jennifer Lubanko, who works at Bloom, welcomes all to partake in the spacious backyard!
Bloom Cafe is located at 996 Broadway between Willoughby Avenue and Ditmars Street.