Why you should care

Because every neighborhood should have a place like this that cares about serving the community — and cinnamon-dusted doughnut holes.

“Reclamation” is a theme at the Currency Exchange Café, which artfully repurposes a burned-out hull of a former exchange, complete with old signage, a fully stacked bookcase and new uses for old wood in the Washington Park community on Chicago’s South Side.

“It’s a very clear service to feed people, but the real desire is to have a safe space for the neighborhood,” says Eliza Myrie, the cafe’s director, of the community that is mostly young, black, poor and single, sitting in the shadow of the University of Chicago, next door in Hyde Park, the Obamas’ homestead. “There aren’t a lot of dining options nearby if you’re a young person who wants to sit, have a cup of coffee and be positive.”

This little cafe in the ’hood is the brainchild of noted artist Theaster Gates, who’s on a mission to leverage art and commerce into opportunity in disadvantaged communities. His team includes individuals who are also artists in their own way: Myrie is a sculptor; house manager Tess Kisner is also a DJ, responsible for the well-curated tunes wafting through the eatery; and in back, chef Nick Jirasek, a food artist, serves up an eclectic menu featuring fries sprinkled with starch for a sonic crunch and smelt tacos.

Theaster Gates sitting in studio looking at camera

Artist and conceiver of the cafe, Theaster Gates

“We opened to the neighborhood first,” Myrie says. “We had a couple of days where we gave away free coffee and said, ‘Come in and check it out; we want to be open for you before anyone else.’ Everything is not about the University of Chicago kids. They are our patrons and we love them, but it was important to be present for the neighborhood.”

Being “present” includes something many Chicagoans will find unusual: staff who actually live in the community. It is often said that in Chicago, where every aspect of life is politicized, too few black residents see people who look like them working in their own neighborhoods — and why is that?

No one wants to have to drive, bike or take public transportation to get the basic things we need.

“It’s good business,” Myrie says. “It’s great to have someone from 10 minutes away come to work; you don’t have to go through the drama. It’s great to have people tell their friends about a space they’re working locally.”

And it’s logical, says patron and TV producer Bruce Montgomery on his third visit to sample the food and free Wi-Fi: “This kind of investment is exactly what is needed to set the tone for others. Unfortunately, crime can happen in any community, but this place is very safe because of its visibility on the boulevard. No one wants to have to drive, bike or take public transportation to get the basic things we need.”

To be clear, the cafe is Gates’ enterprise, Myrie says. However, he is also director of the University of Chicago’s Arts + Public Life initiative, which creates space for artists to do their thing. The Currency Exchange Café sits at the foot of a 1920s building that houses the arts incubator on the expansive Garfield Boulevard. This stretch has gone largely ignored even though it’s a gateway to the prosperous Hyde Park to the east and Interstate 94 to the west.

Harder to ignore is the gangly waiter (or is he an oracle?) pitching today’s special while wearing a spiffy straw hat he says he got from a thrift store for 5 bucks: “This will be life-changing!”

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