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Bronzeville Coffee and Tea House

Principle: Develop a vision

By Meg MacIver

November 2008

Exterior of Bronzeville Coffee and Tea House

If you could take Louis Armstrong back to Bronzeville, the South Side neighborhood where his career took off, he probably wouldn't recognize it. A short walk down 43rd Street, once a bustling avenue lined with shops, is all it takes to know this historic south side community is in the midst of a major transformation. Old buildings with boarded windows slouch next to vast, fenced grassy lots, destined for development. A tire-repair yard and a little white church face brand-new brick condominiums.

Further down the street and just a few blocks from the Green Line El stop the small brown awning of the Bronzeville Coffee and Tea House beckons people inside to sit and stay awhile.

Since opening three years ago, this café has become a hub and a hearth for the changing Bronzeville community. More than just another coffee shop, it is a busy meeting place and an outpost on what many hope will become the neighborhood's central corridor.

The café is the result of a shared vision for the future Bronzeville community. A few years ago, Trez Pugh and Richard Chalmers, co-owners of the coffee house, realized many of their friends were leaving places like Lincoln Park and Old Town to move to Bronzeville, "where living is more cost-effective. Those other neighborhoods have great amenities like cleaners, steak shops," said Chalmers, "but all of those things were missing here."

Pugh and Chalmers saw the potential for a thriving Bronzeville. "It's a great location: near downtown, near Hyde Park, and near the lake. It's just bound to change and grow," says Chalmers. The two decided to invest and in 2000, Pugh acquired the space.

This December marks the café's third anniversary. Since opening, the café has become a gathering place and a "showcase for the Bronzeville community," says Pugh. "All the art you see on the walls is from local artists," added Chalmers, "and everything is for sale."

When the weather is beautiful, "we also use the venue to help local, up-and-coming comics," said Pugh. "We set up a stage on our patio and we put out tables with umbrellas."

Pugh and Chalmers also installed a bulletin board with announcements about community activities. People post fliers advertising everything from apartments to job openings to massage treatments. Beneath the board is the free book-exchange, a small lending library with works by Immanuel Kant, Danielle Steele and everything in between.

Interior of Bronzeville Coffee and Tea House

As one of the most popular meeting places in Bronzeville, the Coffee and Tea House is frequented by a devoted group of regulars. Many sit chatting at the coffee bar, leaning over their cups. Others have laptops for company, plugged into the Wi-Fi connection and to one of over 40 outlets in the café.

The café remains one of few popular places on an otherwise developing street, but Chalmers has hope it will not always be this way. Already, the café has paved the way for other retailers to open their doors. Next to the coffee house is a new, high-end men's fashion store called Agriculture. Owner Milton Latrell said the café complements his business. "You can go next door, have some coffee, and then come by and let me show you some fine fashions," said Latrell.

Chalmers, Pugh and Latrell all hope other stores will join them on 43rd Street. "I hope the aldermen, when they develop this area, will make a lot of mixed-use buildings," said Chalmers. "That's what we need to make the street busier. Having all those other businesses around helps us, too."

If you want busy streets and a vibrant neighborhood, said Pugh, "you first have to build a node," a cluster of activity that sustains a community. Opening their coffee shop was the first step in forming a node on 43rd Street- and a major step towards realizing the vision for the future Bronzeville.