Harlem Poetry Slam Brings Community Together
By Jeff Mays
HARLEM—Derwin Williams Jr. had been at Praxis Housing Initiatives in Harlem for just a couple of weeks when he read fellow client Ernest Kaufman some of his poetry.
That's when Kaufman, 49, told him about Taza de Cafe, a new coffee shop that Praxis— which provides transitional housing to homeless people — opened at West 155th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue to give its clients work experience.
Once a month, the cafe turns into an open mike poetry slam that attracts Praxis clients, neighborhood folks and people from the Bronx and Brooklyn.
During a recent slam, Williams stood before the crowd of 15 people. Speaking softly, the Compton, California native read poetry written on his phone in what was his first ever public performance.
A little later Kaufman, who was working at the cafe that night, slid off his apron to sing a gospel song he wrote while in prison.
"We are given gifts and they aren't meant to be kept to ourselves," Williams, 27, said.
That's what Praxis CEO Svein Jorgensen had in mind when the organization decided to turn the former Democratic club into a cafe.
Locals told them they wanted a nice place where they could grab a cup of coffee and read the newspaper. There was also a demand for a space where people could display their talents.
Taza de Cafe, or "cup of coffee" in Spanish, is now both.
"We've been operating in this community for many years and one of our philosophies is to try and be a good neighbor. We want to be a part of this community," said Jorgensen.
The community hasn't always welcolmed the non-profit Praxis. The agency is the largest provider of transitional housing in the city. It houses 400 people a night in three Manhattan locations and one in Brooklyn.
Some people were concerned that too many places to house the homeless were being stacked in neighborhoods like Harlem.
In 2003, the founders of Praxis were accused of misusing funds to operate similar for-profit facilities. They resigned and paid a fine and now the agency is under new management.
For Kaufman, Praxis provided a place to gather the pieces of his life after time spent in prison and problems with drugs.
"I want to show people how drugs can make you do things you don't want to do," Kaufman said.
Now, Kaufman says he's back on track. He asked to be placed in Harlem to be close to his daughter and her six children. After a few weeks at Praxis, he moved into his own apartment in Brooklyn. He works at the cafe a few times a week.
"They will help you to do anything you want to do if you show the initiative," said Kaufman.
Andre Cartier, Praxis' vocational coordinator, said working at the cafe is a transition for most clients. "This is a way of putting your foot back in the workforce," he said.
Cafe manager Melvin Lyons agrees even though he's not a Praxis client. After growing up with drug-addicted parents, Lyons, 32, served four years in jail on drug sales charges.
While there he learned to be a cook and later obtained his culinary degree. Now, he does catering all over Harlem and is engaged to be married. He brags about how hard he pushed the staff to earn an A on the city sanitary inspection.
"They gave me an opportunity and I took it and ran with it," said Lyons, who is working on opening his own restaurant.
"With this cafe, we are giving back. This used to be a drug area. This makes the area more colorful. People are moving in and they expect to have a nice cafe close by."
Come performance time, the cafe starts to fill up with performers and audience members
Lyons opened the show with some of his rhymes. Soon Williams and Kaufman were on stage. The show also had featured acts such as singer Unyquee Ortiz from the Bronx and two school teachers, Fred Arecoleo and Demetrius Daniel, who played the trombone and the guitar.
Tasad Aird, 23, a singer and poet, walked off the street during one open microphone night — and was tempted to come back to perform.
"When I sing and do poetry I feel inspired and believe I inspire the crowd," she said.
Host and curator Marilyn Thomas King, 61, said, "This is becoming a gathering place for the community, not just Praxis people,"
Jorgensen said the plan is to have the cafe support Praxis' mission of providing transitional housing, especially as budgets continue to tighten. The slam is so popular that its increasing performances from once to twice per month.
"This was literally a hole in the wall that we decided to make an asset," Jorgensen said. "This is a beautiful community with a wonderful history. We just want to add something to it."