Businesses come and go, but the Beleza Community Coffeehouse is more than a business. The seven Hope College alumni who opened it in February 2006 were guided by a sense of mission -- to be a force for good in a city to which they relocated together, in a neighborhood in which they all chose to live.
As of next Saturday, April 11, Beleza, at 1501 Buena Vista St. in the Central Northside, will close.
The building is up for sale. It has four units besides the commercial storefront that has been a neighborhood gathering place; the Central Northside's first and only wireless coffeehouse, its first and only agent for fair trade products.
Three years is a long time when you're in your 20s, and it's unreasonable to expert seven people to stay together for very long. But many in the neighborhood are sad.
"We've been talking about Beleza for the last half hour," said Beth Christensen, who sat this morning with several friends and regulars.
"Their impact has been so positive that we're worried about what's going to happen on this corner," said Sandy Kneiss.
"I'm thinking about the relationships they have built in the neighborhood," said Beth.
"Just their youth and energy," said Jana Thompson. "They reminded us to recycle and to be green, that paper towels come from trees and to use just one."
"They should be proud of what they achieved regardless of what happens next," said Bruce Thompson.
As a neighbor and patron, I'm sad, too. But everyone has the right to move on.
"We're passionate about community but none of us graduated and said, 'My dream, is to run a coffeeshop,' " said Kimberly Walkenhorst, the youngest of the Beleza group at 24.
It broke even in its first year, which, for a place that depends on the sale of coffee is almost like being profitable. But business did not build enough to sustain itself when the economy went sour.
"We have been close to being a success," said Joanna Deming, who along with her husband, Gavin Deming, are founders. I call them the Beleza 7, and if that sounds like a group of revolutionaries, it is. Beleza acted as such an anchor on that corner. It brought people out. They gathered at the corner outside, sitting on the curb with their coffee cups. Traffic that used to zip through the stop signs actually started stopping, slowing. The coffeehouse was a safe haven for children to stop in after school.
The 20-somethings from Hope didn't just give the Central Northside a coffeehouse. Their enthusiasm for the place was infectious. At least 25 of their friends have relocated to the neighborhood from outside of Pittsburgh.
The group has been active in youth projects, garden projects, bringing black and white neighbors together, offering Beleza for meetings and being a quasi art gallery to help people sell their work.
"Someone could do something amazing here," said Kimberly. Someone with deeper pockets.
Most of the Beleza founders work for non-profits.
Kimberly works at the Children's Museum. Joanna works for the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania and her husband, Gavin Deming, works for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Stephen Frey-Wagg works at Whole Foods, and his wife, Emily Frey-Wagg, works at the Pittsburgh Project. Phil Johnson, the only one who has left the neighborhood, now works at Tazza d'Oro, a coffeehouse in Highland Park.
Phil said a coffeehouse was a great way for seven friends to do something together.
"I'm a little sad and a little relieved," he said. "It has been stressful. We really really want someone to come in a run a coffeehouse there."
The group chose to relocate en masse in Pittsburgh because Gavin Deming had been here as a teenage volunteer one summer at the Pittsburgh Project and has great memories.
They started Beleza on $40,000, with a $15,000 loan from the Northside Community Development Fund. The Fund has also helped Amani in Deutschtown and Hoi Polloi in Allegheny West. Three independent coffeehouses in such clsoe proximity a challenging market may have been too many.
"The decrease in revenue this year tipped us over the edge," said Joanna.
"We were carrying fair trade coffee and should have been charging a lot more from day one," said Kimberly.
"But we wanted everyone to be able to afford it."
This neighborhood's loss may not be long-felt. Joanna said several people have called with interest in the business. And just knowing that the Beleza 7 will still be out there, doing good things for more people, is a consolation.
Farewell, Beleza Community Coffeehouse. Our neighborhood is better because of you.
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