Community and Coffee at Omaha’s Perk Avenue Cafe
It’s fun to do stories that try to place an establishment, in this case a cafe, with a neighborhood, in this case a near downtown urban swath on the edge of of rebirth and oblivion. The Perk Avenue Cafe in Omaha opened as a humanitarian mission and community building experiment for activist owners John and Jennifer Cleveland and it was my pleasure to try and convey that within the context of the couple’s own personal experiences and beliefs as born-again Christians. They minister to the neighborhood through the food and coffee they serve, the cozy gathering spot they create, and the warm welcome they extend to everyone who comes in. The story appeared in the Omaha City Weekly, a newspaper that is no more. To be honest, I’m not sure the cafe is still open.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Omaha City Weekly
Perk Avenue Cafe fits the road-less-traveled crowd coursing Park Avenue, an off-the-beaten-track artery linking immigrant south Omaha with transitional midtown with mainstream downtown. From its modest 1107 Park Avenue digs in a mixed use district ranging from stately old homes to shoddy rentals and open air drug-sex deals to revitalization efforts, the cafe’s that rare spot where urban families, adventurers and fringe dwellers all feel welcome. Beyond its free-trade coffee, made-from-scratch pies and home-style breakfast-lunch menu, Perk’s real mission is as a community center — an extension of proprietors John and Jennifer Cleveland’s well-practiced beliefs.
Neighborhood activists residing in the area, the married couple opened Perk Avenue in the fall of 2003. The brick building was home to a vending business before sitting vacant. The property, like other nearby lots, was plagued by addicts and prostitutes. Veterans of missionary work abroad and social service work in Omaha, the couple bought the site and then surveyed neighbors about what should be done with it. When the consensus said it should be made-over into a community gathering spot, the husband and wife team renovated it for that purpose.
By day, Perk Avenue is the prototypical laidback coffeehouse/diner whose counter-hugging patrons warm up over coffee and conversation. The Clevelands, a mellow combo whether dishing out their low-priced food or their well-articulated social advocacy, are a main attraction along with their four chatty children. “Our children are a big part of this,” Jennifer said.
Tim Siragusa, an actor and waiter who walks to Perk Avenue for his “pre-yoga double-shot of espresso” said, “I’ve just been charmed by the owners. John and Jennifer brought a nice communal space into this part of town that wasn’t here before. And I think one of the things that keeps neighborhoods vital is a coffee shop. A place where everybody can come in the morning and get their coffee and chat over the paper. And their delightful children have no problem speaking with the customers.” Or joining in with artists who variously perform music and give readings there. For an Omaha Public Library Program, Siragusa read Farenhite 451 at the Perk.
With time, the couple’s vision for Perk Avenue has broadened. For example, on some nights the Clevelands, in concert with Mosaic Community Development, hold Spanish and English classes as “a bridge builder” to bring together the neighborhood’s disparate peoples.
On Friday nights, the joint jumps to live music by folk musicians or grunge bands. Other nights, it becomes a venue for parties and receptions. The commercial kitchen is an incubator for food entrepreneurs like Bob and Mary Brown, who use the premises to sling up half the cafe’s menu in addition to their own catering business dishes. Whether hosting meetings of the Ford Birthsite Neighborhood Association, which John Cleveland has headed, or reaching out to street denizens, the couple use the Perk Avenue as a base for their “holistic approach” in addressing the social, economic, political and spiritual concerns of an area Cleveland said is “on the edge — it could go either way.”
Being change agents is an intensely personal thing for the couple, born-again Christians whose own lives bear witness to the transforming power of faith and love. The product of a broken home, John was “a self-styled Satanist” and “chief sinner” waging a one-man war against God before his conversion in 1986 at Trinity Lutheran Church in Omaha. He describes being taken into the fold as an “adoption,” adding, “It was a family, it was a place of purpose and belonging.”
“I hated God, and that He could somehow reach into my heart and make that kind of life change in me,” said Cleveland, “it made me believe there was nobody on this planet beyond His reach or His help. I felt a real deep conviction and compulsion, and a real called mission, to do something.”
He met Jennifer there. After attending bible college together they made an early 1990s Christ in the City International missionary tour — first, to Costa Rica to learn Spanish, and then to Medellin, Colombia to work. Arriving in drug warlord Pablo Escobar’s last year in power, the couple started their family in the poor, violent land, where John ran a program training Colombian youth to help orphans, drug addicts and AIDS victims. It was a fulfilling but trying experience.
“It was hard on our family. There were bombings and kidnappings. Like a war zone. My second day there, a 10-year old prostitute approached me. She didn’t want my help. Nothing they taught in bible school prepared me for that. It was like hell on earth for some. We were in constant danger. It was terrifying at times,” he said.
John recalled one hairy confrontation with armed guerrillas. “We were coming back from the coast with a team of Colombians. We had a ton of people in the Toyota car I was driving. We pulled into this military checkpoint and we knew something was wrong because there was nobody there. It was a ghost town. So, we kept going and at the crest of the next hill we were stopped by two guerrillas. Apparently they’d come down out of the hills and done an operation and were now retreating. This one came up to my window and started asking questions. What had we seen? Where were we going? Who were we with? Where were we from? His questions started getting more specific to my being an American.”
This was in a time and place, Cleveland said, when if it was assumed “you had any value, they would kidnap you and hold you for ransom. Well, we’re at that point when, all of a sudden, the guy can’t talk. He’s choking on his words. The other guy is freaking out because it’s taking too long. They’re exposed. And the guy who can’t talk finally gets so mad he just waves us off, like, Get out of here. So, we tear off and everybody in the car is like, Oh, my God, it’s a miracle. On the other hand, I’m hyperventilating, going, I just about died — God, what were you thinking?”
Of their time in Colombia, he said, “We were so young. Freshly married. A new family. There were a lot of things we should have done differently, but that’s OK. We made it through and learned a lot from it.” Once back in Omaha, John tried working in the for-profit arena, but was “miserable.” He said, “I love people and I felt we could apply some of the principles of community development we learned in a foreign land to what we do here locally.” He joined the local office of Christ for the City, heading a program for Lutheran Family Services called Strong Urban Neighborhoods. He now works at Turning Point, a youth-centered organization.
The Clevelands were drawn to the area bounded by Park Avenue, the Ford Birthsite and Field Club for “its cultural diversity.” Immigrants from Latin America and Africa settle there for its affordable housing.
Plus, John said, “We wanted to use our Spanish. We felt a real affection for the Hispanic community. And we wanted to live in a community we felt we could contribute to, and this neighborhood was perfect. My big emphasis in ministry has always been community development. Getting community ownership, finding community solutions to problems and sustainable solutions locally.” And “breaking down barriers,” like in the language classes offered at Perk Avenue that help diffuse differences. Participants range from immigrants trying to master English to city inspectors and landlords needing to communicate with Spanish-speaking business owners and tenants to teachers from nearby Liberty Elementary School, where three of the couple’s kids attend, looking to breach the divide with newcomer pupils. In the process, he said, “perceptions change and dialogues start, and I don’t know where else that would happen.”
With so much diversity intersecting the area, Cleveland wants Perk Avenue viewed as a safe haven for everyone, even the late night street walkers he shoos away but also assists when they appear battered or cold or disoriented. “We want a place where people from Field Club can rub shoulders with people from down here and where everybody thinks it’s theirs. We’ve tried to make this a melting pot.”
On a recent morning, customers included a middle-aged contractor, a thirtysomething Hispanic laborer, a senior couple, actor Tim Siragusa and young artist Leslie Iwai, who discussed bible passages with companion Jonathan Starkey. Iwai welcomes what the Clevelands are doing. “I think it’s a light in a dark place. It brings order to a location that’s had a lot of oppression. It’s establishing something here — like grass growing through a crack in the sidewalk. We didn’t need another bar.” Starkey agreed, adding, “It’s good to see a healthy establishment.”
Cleveland said the neighborhood seems to be turning the corner. He’s helped lead efforts to combat dealers, addicts, pimps and hookers. “It’s frustrating, because you want to extend help and you want to see life change, but in the meantime I’ll settle for relocation. There’s a sense of righteous indignation of — you know what? — this has got to stop. There’s enough people in this neighborhood who are to that point that it’s starting to make a difference.” He’s also encouraged by a new development that’s renovating a former illicit drug-sex den into Boston row houses.
The couple hope Perk remains a community resource long after they’re gone. “It’s not ours. It’s not about us. It’s about the destiny of this neighborhood. It’s just a matter of time, I believe, before people start owning it. There’s great potential here,” Jennifer said.
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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