The Free Cafe Wants To Talk About Gentrification. But Some Say It’s Part Of The Problem

Written by Ann Brown
Gentrification has become a major issue in Los Angeles’s Black communities. One, in particular, is Leimert Park, the once Black arts enclave. Image: Instagram

Gentrification has become a major issue in Los Angeles’s Black communities. One, in particular, is Leimert Park. The once Black arts enclave is now mainly Hispanic, so when Michael Rippens moved in 2014 things were already intense.

So Rippens, who is an artist of white and Filipino heritage, thought it would be a good idea to bring together the community to talk about the elephant in the room –gentrification. But many Blacks left in the area considered him part of the problem. 

According to a Times analysis of census data, the Black population in L.A. has dropped from 500,000 in 1970 to 333,000 last year. They made up only about 8 percent of L.A.

Rippens, 41, turned his backyard into a monthly pop-up he calls the Free Cafe where locals can gather for free coffee and conversation. 

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“A menu lists the price of coffee, tea and lemonade as “Free” and includes the event’s Instagram handle. There’s a display board where people can pin up handwritten notes or sketches that, likely, will be displayed on social media. For a while, he ran other pop-up cafes, including one in Leimert Park Plaza,” The Los Angeles Times reported.

Many Blacks in the area were not impressed. 

“Early rumblings appeared on the hyper-local social networking website Nextdoor, where Rippens was criticized for serving free coffee near Black-owned coffee shops such as Hot & Cool Cafe and Harun Coffee during one of his pop-up events,” The Los Angeles Times reported.

“People were thinking, ‘This is just a benign free cafe,’” said Lawrence Ross, 53, a longtime Leimert Park resident. “But I was the first one to bring up, ‘Wait a second — you think this is benign, but what about the [black-owned] cafe that is about 500 feet away from you? You think this is a small thing, but every time you give away a free something to someone, they’re not purchasing something from this business that depends on receipts.”

In response, Rippens connected the owners of the other coffee shops and he and one of his supporters bought coffee beans and pastries from one of the Black-owned coffee cafes to give away for free at one of his events.

“I wanted to create a work that could serve and benefit my neighborhood, but I certainly didn’t want to become a contributing factor to the negativity and divisiveness that I viewed online,” Rippens said. “I began to see how the Free Cafe project, just like a Starbucks on Jefferson [Boulevard] or an art gallery in Boyle Heights, might be viewed as a threat to someone’s community or way of life.”

Still, that is not what locals see. Ross, a 20-year Leimert Park resident who is a partner at Black-centric creative and co-working space Metaphor Club, noted, “People who move into communities like Leimert Park typically think of themselves as good people — and God help them — they probably are good people. But they’ve never, ever had to think about the dynamics of the community which they’re moving into.”