Sunday, E Pine’s only anarchist-friendly cafe collective, Black Coffee Co-op, hosted a Punk Prom. Predictably, it was a little noisy and ran late into the night. And, predictably, neighbors in nearby apartment buildings and businesses weren’t happy about it. But one of Black Coffee’s four founding worker-owners tells CHS that the co-op has charted a new course to be better neighbors and, yes, even implement “policy” as their experiment in community-minded business continues.
“Word had gotten out that you won’t be kicked out. People were coming in to just hang out,” Black Coffee’s Scott Davis tells CHS about complaints in recent months that the co-op wasn’t doing enough to stop blatant drug use in its bathrooms and was becoming a hangout for thugs and criminals.
East Precinct commander Capt. Ron Wilson confirmed the complaints but declined to provide specifics of any investigations related to the coffee shop:
All I can share with you at this time is that over the past several weeks we have received several complaints about activity at Black Coffee. Some of the complaints deal with City and State code and/or regulation compliance issues, while some deal with public safety issues.
We are sharing the complaints we receive with other city and state departments that may have responsibility/jurisdiction for non-police issues. Any allegations of illegal activity will always be fully investigated.
CHS’s message to Black Coffee’s landlord, Capitol Hill real estate investor Ron Amundson, has not yet been returned.
The complaints about Black Coffee were being lodged in the area since well before this year’s May Day when vandals busted glass at three Capitol Hill businesses after a day of rallies and protests. Black Coffee was closed that day so, as Davis put it, the workers could be part of the day’s celebrations and activities. There was a private “after party” event at the cafe. Davis says, despite the party, Black Coffee was not some kind of anarchist training ground or headquarters on the day.
“I love un-permitted marches in the street that stop traffic,” Davis who marched and was part of the protests said. “I thought it was super unfortunate that Bill’s window got broken. We are not a Black Bloc training ground.”
Black Coffee opened last year on E Pine in the building formerly home to Travelers — itself a counterculture-friendly hangout of a different ilk. It has settled in as a busy, interesting place to spend time and grab a coffee or tea while reading, working or debating social theory. Its anarchist and social leanings shape the space from the lending library to the black flags that fly above the cafe’s large E Pine windows. Meanwhile, commerce is underway with credit cards and cash part of the exchange as mugs are filled and re-filled.
The original group of four worker-owners has expanded to five and Black Coffee has grown already to be one of the headquarters of alternative culture and politics in the area. The space is frequently transformed into a meeting hall or performance space. In its six months on E Pine, Davis estimates Black Coffee has hosted more than 150 events and meetings.
“We didn’t set out to be a venue,” Davis says of the demand for the space. The group has already moved to cut back on how the cafe can be used and when, he says, and is limiting music performance to events tied to fundraisers and third parties.
Davis says rules around performances and how the cafe is managed have been part of a necessary evolution for a project with members wanting to cleve closely to social ideals while maintaining a functioning business.
“It wasn’t what we wanted,” Davis said of some of the troubles Black Coffee began having with the hang-out crowd.
Davis also said it was “eye opening” for him to experience just “how big the homeless population” around Capitol Hill is.
At first, Black Coffee attempted to solve things purely through community.
“Signs went up,” Davis said. “We wanted to resolve this as a collective.”
As complaints continued, the group discovered it was going to take more. Black Coffee resorted to the bane of any good anarchist.
“We did come up with a policy,” Davis said. “Zero tolerance for sexual behavior. Zero tolerance for intoxication.”
The result, he says, is a collective Black Coffee that can function — and serve its community — in the middle of busy, densely populated E Pine.
Still, he knows Black Coffee faces major challenges when it comes to fitting in — even on tolerant Capitol Hill.
“The landlord will never get a call that says hey thanks for leasing to these guys,” Davis said.
But he adds that he’s serious about making it work and is proud that the shop has been able to pay its rent in its first six months of business.
“This is my livelihood, something I’ve poured my whole life into,” Davis said.