Growing Pains: ‘You don’t have to erase us’

Local businesses like Whittier Cafe are more than a neighborhood coffee joint

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Most neighborhoods have a local coffee shop or a favorite restaurant. But some businesses transcend geographic boundaries because of a service or value they provide to the community.

The Whittier Cafe, a coffee shop in the neighborhood of the same name at 1710 E. 25th Ave., has quickly become one of those businesses. The five-year-old shop is owned by Millete Birhanemaskel, who consciously chose the Whittier neighborhood for its cultural history in Denver.

In the 1930s, when Denver used redlining to segregate neighborhoods between black and white families, Whittier was one of the first neighborhoods in the city where black people could buy homes. As Denver has started to grow, Birhanemaskel said she has begun to see black-owned businesses close. The black community is also starting to move out of the neighborhood, she said.

Denver’s black community needs those businesses to survive, she said: They become a refuge, a place where the community can see and be with people who look like them.

“We’ve kind of become the anchor,” Birhanemaskel said of the coffee shop.

Earlier this year, Birhanemaskel’s landlord, the Mohamad Ahmad Jodeh Trust, put her building up for sale. It has since gone under contract. Birhanemaskel is in a five-year lease, which gives her some protection, she said. She has also retained a lawyer to help her keep in contact with the landlord. No plans for the building have been announced yet. Birhanemaskel said she wished the landlord had included her in the conversation about the sale.

“I don’t have an interest in stopping development or stopping growth or stopping improvement,” she said on the potential sale. “You can develop this space and still include us.”

Life on Capitol Hill could not find contact information on the Mohamad Ahmad Jodeh Trust.

Birhanemaskel works in real estate as her side business. She said the feeling in Denver right now is to scrape and start fresh, which means that a lot of older businesses get left behind or have to close as a result.

“I feel like the belief is, in order to improve something, you’ve gotta erase what’s there,” she said. “You don’t have to erase us. We don’t have to be carnage in that process.”

In addition to being a safe haven for black culture, the Whittier Cafe has become a place where Denver’ activists meet.

“There’s aren’t many spaces left where you can do that,” Birhanemaskel said. “I think Hooked on Colfax is still a great spot where a lot of activists go, but Purple Door has shut down. It’s kind of a nightmare that we’re losing all these spaces where people can organize.”

Activism is in Birhanemaskel’s blood. Her father was the governor during the Ethiopian Civil War. As he worked to build a resistance, her family was pushed into Sudan. Birhanemaskel was born in a refugee camp there. Eventually, her father was jailed. When the United Nations offered to relocate him to a new country, he picked Colorado because he already had a friend here.

On the local level, the Whittier Cafe hosted a fundraiser in 2015 for the family of Jessica Hernandez, a 17-year-old girl who was shot and killed by Denver Police. Hernandez was behind the wheel of a stolen car when she was shot. The city later paid a $1 million settlement to her family in 2017, and reversed its policy allowing police officers to shoot at fleeing cars. The city also stopped allowing the police department to release the criminal history of shooting victims.

Birhanemaskel agreed to host the event in 2015 after a different coffee shop refused, saying they didn’t want the activists there. Since then, she said activists consider the cafe to be a home base when talking about progressive candidates or violence in the community.

“This seems to be the space where everyone comes to organize, which I think is kind of a beautiful, natural organic thing that happened,” she said.

Birhanemaskel said she’s concerned for what will happen when minority-owned businesses start to close down. Where will those people go to find members of their own communities?

Neighborhood businesses also force people to interact with people in ways that they might not normally. They meet people and get to know them, she said. When the news broke that her business might have to move when the building sold, the community responded, hoping to protect the Whittier Cafe. Birhanemaskel said it showed what love in a community business can mean.

“It is a place of healing,” she said. “It’s more than just the product.”

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