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Art Installation Debuts at Englewood Cafe Site

By Chloe Riley | December 10, 2012 7:14pm | Updated on December 13, 2012 10:26am

ENGLEWOOD — A crowd-funded café that has yet to open after two years of struggle showed its determination to be a force in the community Sunday when it officially debuted a photo installation on the exterior of its building. 

Kusanya Café co-owner Phil Sipka envisions the space at 825 W. 69th St. as a coffee shop and gathering place for Englewood residents and professionals featuring locally made food. He wants to remodel the interior.

But getting the cafe on its feet has not been easy.

“We have had the worst-case scenario happen at every stage of the game,” said Sipka. “What we’re doing is so small, and the city has made it so difficult.”

Sipka said the path to opening a café in Englewood is “not well-worn.” While fast food abounds, there are not many buildings in Englewood that have had food service permits.

The photo installation showcased Sunday is the first-ever in Chicago for See Potential — a project developed by South Siders and Brooklyn-based photographer Emily Schiffer — that creates public art installations on potential South Side developments.

Orrin Williams, executive director at the Center for Urban Transformation, was one of the collaborators.

Williams said the installation is intended to "battle the aesthetic of oppression."

"You see that all the time in a community like Englewood. One of the things we want to do is change that visual and change that narrative," he said.

One of the photos on Cafe Kusanya's exterior, by photographer Jon Lowenstein, shows a couple having breakfast at the LG Restaurant in South Shore. Lowenstein said they ate there because there were no options where they lived in Englewood.

Another photo features a young woman with an afro staring out at 63rd Street from Kusanya’s front door.

The young woman is photographer Tonika Johnson's 10-year-old daughter Nyjah.

Johnson, 33, grew up in Englewood and now teaches photography at two Chicago elementary schools. She said when she was younger, she used to travel to Wicker Park or Hyde Park if she wanted to work on her computer in a coffee shop.

But she said she hopes Kusanya will change that.

“It’ll be a place for people, like me and others, to go,” she said. “It would have been great to have that type of place here growing up.”

Those who attended the debut were driven west from 730 W. 69th St. by “party bus,” decked out with music and flashing lights, to Kusanya’s site. 

“Some people didn’t want to get off the bus to look at the photos,” Asiaha Butler laughed.

Butler, a lifelong Englewood resident, and co-founder of Resident Association of Greater Englewood, said the photos were chosen to represent neighborhood residents of all ages.

“I’m always talking to young and older people who are extremely excited about the café coming and always are asking about the launch date,” she said.

Butler, 36, writes a blog called Mrs. Englewood, which focuses on Englewood events that don’t involve homicide.

“It’s not just poor people and poverty and crime [in Englewood]. There’s actually a lot of genuine, professional, smart individuals here,” she said.

The café’s name, Kusanya, means “gather” in Swahili. Sipka said it’s supposed to be just that: a safe meeting place for a community that doesn’t have many.

“It’s not because Englewood residents need gourmet coffee, but to have a social gathering place is incredibly important,” he said. “And Englewood does not have that right now.”

Sipka, 32, currently works at Robust Coffee Lounge in Woodlawn to keep his coffee-making skills on par for Kusanya’s opening, perhaps as early as spring 2013.

At the meeting for the photo installation, a tall man wearing a black leather jacket calls out to Sipka, “Hey Phil! What’s the favorite kind of coffee that I drink?”

“Large peppermint soy mocha,” Sipka said without hesitation.

The coffee drinker is Deacon Mark Yelverton, 57, of Canaan Community Church in West Englewood. Sipka has been a member of the church for three years.

“We call Phil ‘PTWG.’ ‘Phil the white guy.’ ‘Cause he’s the lightest guy there at church,” Yelverton said.

At first, Yelverton said he was skeptical about the café’s presence in Englewood. 

“When he told me the location he was thinking about I said, ‘Dude, are you serious? For real?’ But listening to him and others who are involved in the café, I think it could be a viable location,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of places that came into Englewood to take, not necessarily to give back.”

And giving back to the community is something that, with its nonprofit status, Kusanya Café will do, according to Sipka. He said the café would feature locally made items from Chicago vendors, such as Dat Donut in Chatham, and Bridgeport Coffee Co. in Bridgeport.

Ultimately, Sipka said, the goal of the café is to give Englewood residents a more positive sense of what it means to live in their neighborhood.

“Somebody walking down the streets of Englewood and seeing somebody sipping a latte outside … can somehow slowly start to chip away at what Englewood is to that Englewood resident,” he said.