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What Urban Planners Can Learn From This Idealistic Coffee Shop

By any measure, the area around an industrial patch of Ninth Street in Brooklyn, straddling Park Slope and Gowanus, ought to emerge as an urbanist’s utopia — a space where painters, poets, craftsmen, professionals with artsy jobs and working-class people live and connect and thrive. It should be the kind of place where small businesses holding dear to collectivist values serve a polylithic community deeply invested in itself. In late June, Katie Bishop, a 33-year-old former Marine and bassoonist with an advanced degree in music theory opened a coffeehouse — Principles GI — on Ninth Street with precisely such a vision in mind.

Unlike Blank Street, the quickly multiplying coffee chain backed by private equity, Ms. Bishop’s venture is held together by her ethics and enthusiasms, aiming, for example, to reach “zero coffee-cup waste by 2023.” Principles was inspired by a movement in the late 1960s, energized long before she was born, when protesters of the Vietnam War opened coffeehouses, typically near military bases, to provide a forum for soldiers increasingly disenchanted with American aggression abroad. As Fred Gardner, a young Harvard graduate who opened a venue like this near Fort Jackson, in South Carolina, wrote: “By 1967 the Army was filling up with people who would rather be making love to the music of Jimi Hendrix than war to the lies of Lyndon Johnson.”

Ms. Bishop hoped to create, as she put it recently, “a social hub masquerading as a coffeehouse.”

A native of Arizona, she moved to Portland, Ore., a decade ago (after she was stationed in Albany, Ga.) and got involved with the Occupy movement, particularly with a veterans’ group that opposed the war in Iraq. By 2016 she was in New York, attending Queens College, loving coffee and working as a barista. Principles would merge her interests — for quality beans, for inclusion and activism, for the vibrant exchange of ideas, for cycling. (In a corner of the shop, she has set up a bike tool library so that anyone could come in and make repairs.)

To start the business, Ms. Bishop raised $5,000 via GoFundMe, borrowed $25,000 from friends and got an interest-free loan in the same amount from the Hebrew Free Loan Society, a 130-year-old organization that extends credit to low-income New Yorkers. Beyond that she secured a five-year lease for $5,000 a month (at 1,600 square feet, the space is big), brought in found furniture, got help building more from a friend in theatrical production and had countertops given to her by a woodworker whose shop is across the street.

The coffeehouse in Gowanus aims to reach people underrepresented in the biking world. A section of it offers tools for repairs.Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Low margins allow for the most distinctive feature of her operation — letting people pay whatever they want for a cup of coffee (specialty drinks come at a set price) based on what they can afford or are willing to give. Some people pay nothing, some $1, some $20 or $30. In the roughly two months that Principles has been open, she has found that certain patrons see a virtue in turning over more money than even the very best cup of coffee on earth could possibly be worth.

Progressives in New York and other large, punishingly expensive cities often bemoan the absence of small, socially minded independent businesses like this. And yet they simultaneously resist the kind of density that would allow them to succeed. During the past month, nearly 300 residents have signed a petition asking the Department of City Planning to oppose a residential rezoning of Ninth Street between Second Avenue and Third, the site of Ms. Bishop’s shop, that would permit nine-story residential buildings with mostly market-rate rental apartments — presumably housing people willing to offer $5 for a cup of Mother Tongue, “a queer-run, woman/trans-centric roastery,” as Ms. Bishop described it, out of Oakland, Calif.

There is no question that some of the concerns about the plan, which the Adams administration supports (because, as a spokesman for the mayor put it, “Mayor Adams has articulated a bold vision to turn New York into a ‘City of Yes,’”), require long and serious conversation. Gowanus, which already famously contains a canal that is a Superfund site, remains especially vulnerable to storm surge and consideration to what the current infrastructure can and cannot sustain is crucial. The real issue, though, is that the proposal does not account for enough affordable housing which the petition fails to address. Kathryn Krase, a social worker, lawyer and one of the forces behind it, who owns a home nearby, said that her group was deeply in favor of its expansion but preferred an overall rezoning plan more “modest” in scale.

For the past several months, Shahana Hanif, the newly elected councilwoman for the district, has been working toward a different kind of proposal, one that would require a greater number of affordable units (the current plan puts the number at 13 out of 48) delivered at rents that low-income, not merely middle-income people, could manage. “With the compounded issues of our housing crisis, new immigrants coming and residents still displaced from Ida who are living in hotels,” Ms. Hanif said, the configuration as it stands now “is simply not enough.” On Ninth Street one of the places poised for development is a parking lot, which ought to be entirely uncontroversial. “Housing should be everyone’s biggest priority,” she said.

To start Principles GI, Ms. Bishop raised $5,000 via GoFundMe, borrowed $25,000 from friends and got an interest-free loan. Found furniture is spread throughout. Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

A city built around silos of wealth, poverty and middle-of-the road affluence cannot remain animated; it can’t cook. In one sense, Ms. Bishop’s venture, however idealistic, provides a template for how we ought to think about emerging neighborhoods — as places deeply integrated at the level of class, race and even philosophy. It is easy to imagine a certain kind of New Yorker eye-rolling over her business model, just as it is easy to imagine another losing her mind over the fact of an international ad agency called Mother, also on Ninth Street, which bills itself as refusing to answer to the tentacles “of the grotesquely swollen octopus of global capital.” We need all the crazy dreams, in the end.

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