Can a Café Fight Gentrification?

Cote Soerens in front of La Resistencia’s permanent South Park home on 14th and Cloverdale, currently under construction. Photo by Kelly O.

There is no more potent symbol of gentrification than the coffee shop. Last year The Washington Post, pondering the D.C. arrival of San Francisco’s Blue Bottle Coffee, described specialty coffee shops as “the canaries signaling an increasingly gilded age.” In Denver’s historically black Five Points neighborhood, Ink! Coffee posted an ill-advised sign, joking that “nothing says gentrification like being able to order a cortado.” Their quip drew protests and, later, vandalism, but they weren’t wrong.

I live in South Park, a historically poor, Latinx neighborhood that’s a long way from selling overpriced succulents in glass globes but is grappling with gentrification nonetheless. Modern townhouses are popping up, home prices have about doubled in the past year and rents are rising at a similar pace. Concurrently, neighborhood stalwarts like Muy Macho, a beloved Mexican joint, have been forced out by rising rents, while newer, fancier business are opening left and right.

I can’t be mad about the neighborhood’s upscaling—I moved here three years ago, fleeing rising north Seattle rents, and I’m likely the target audience for these new places—but I can be sad. I wanted to live in South Park because of the way it is, not in spite of how it is. My goal was to escape the oppressive, upper-middle-class whiteness of north Seattle, not bring it with me.

So when I saw a big banner for what looked like a chic new coffee shop, La Resistencia, hanging from the patio fencing at the already chic Burdick Brewery taproom, my first thought was There goes the neighborhood. It was owned by well-meaning white people, I imagined, the Spanish name a way of “respecting” the neighborhood. The new family-friendly public house selling a $14 grilled cheese was one thing, but this was the last, inevitable nail in the coffin.

I could not have been more wrong.

La Resistencia is owned by Coté Soerens, a Chilean immigrant and the founder of Puentes, a nonprofit that specializes in helping undocumented immigrants access mental health services. The idea for a coffee shop came to her in 2016, when she heard about a woman that was killed in a South Park alley by two young men who grew up nearby.
“That really hit me. Like, what are we doing with our youth?” she says. “When you break the fabric of relationships in a community, you have a ton of people that are isolated or marginalized. It hit me really deeply, and I got this urge to create a space for hospitality.”

Last summer, Muy Macho, one of South Park’s Mexican mainstays, was forced out of their physical space by rising rents. They’ve been replaced by a fancier Mexican place and now operate a taco truck in the parking lot around the corner. Muy Macho’s move, along with a spate of other new restaurants on South Park’s main drag, has neighbors worried that gentrification is well underway. However, one of those newcomers—a fancy coffee shop—sees itself as the antidote. Photo by Kelly O.

Soerens intends to bring South Park’s disparate social groups together in a space that she hopes will be “accessible and available to any neighbor.” The accessible part is important to her, she says, noting that the abstract concept of “too bougie” can have tangible consequences. Recently she and some neighbors decided to check out an open house held by an architecture firm, but two of them opted out en route. “They didn’t feel like it was open to them,” Soerens says. “They have had a lifetime of feeling discriminated against, so they kind of self-select out of those spaces.”

The standard third-wave coffee shop is exactly the type of space that people self-select out of, though added effort results in exceptions. At the Station in Beacon Hill, for instance, owners Luis and Leona Rodriguez created a space that’s often packed with people of all incomes and ethnicities. Soerens wants to do the same for South Park.

“It’s gonna be hip!” she says. “But that’s where the other pieces that you need to be extra-intentional about come in. For example, are we hiring people who reflect the community? Can connect and resonate with people who are from here and have relationships [with them]?”

La Resistencia had to move out of the Burdick space when the brewery sold to a new craft-beer venture in April, but its new home a block away will be every bit the modern
coffee shop—albeit one with a giant mural of a peasant woman with an AK-47 strapped to her back and holding a baby.

Soerens will offer discounts to local first-generation immigrant activists, called Primatores. Primatores will receive a permanent 50 percent discount, “so they can have their meetings and not worry about a $4 latte,” she says. “To me this is a headquarters. That’s why it’s called Resistencia, man!”

The café’s play area will be called the Rebel Base, and will be gated off so moms can get some work done without worrying about their kids. The vibe Soerens is going for is open and relaxed, with big windows up front and a communal table by the bay door in the back. The shop opens at 6 a.m. and closes at 5 p.m. in order to serve as an evening event space. Soerens says the second Thursdays of June, July, and August are already booked for a dance night held by a group of Latinx elders.

The new shop adds off-menu favorites like the cinnamon sugar Xingona Latte and the vanilla peppermint Colin Kaepermint onto the official drink list, along with light café fare such as Molly’s Sandwiches, which are made in South Park, and weekend pan dulce from the popular Comadre Panaderia pop-up. They’re also applying for a beer and wine permit. Most importantly, they’ll have good coffee, which South Park previously didn’t (apologies to the bikini baristas of Cowgirls Espresso).

But the most appetizing thing about Resistencia might be that Soerens sees the shop not as a marker of gentrification but a tool to combat it. “The notion of places that are controlled by the community, it’s important,” she says. By opening the first fancy coffee shop in South Park, she hopes she’s secured the chance to do it right.

“This is gente-fication,” she says. “Have an awareness of what your impact is in the community. Bend over backwards to make it accessible to people.” Including to the type of people who might reasonably be called gentrifiers. Income diversity helps everyone in the neighborhood, she says, citing South Bronx activist Majora Carter, who reasons that a concentration of poverty leads to community disinvestment. (Carter herself opened a neighborhood coffee shop in 2016.)

Soerens has a point. Displacement and gentrification exist because of policy, and policy is generally determined by the rich. What better way to win them over than with a well-made cortado?

La Resistencia Coffee
1249 S Cloverdale St.