Get Mugged: Gourmet Coffee in the Ghetto

A single luxury high-rise stands alone in Worcester, Massachusetts stretching twenty four stories into the sky. You can see it from I-290, the highway running through the middle of the city. It’s one of the definitive buildings in Worcester’s modest skyline: The Skymark Tower. I saw floor plans and video tours of the interior when I was apartment hunting last year–it looks really nice. When President Obama was here last week, he stood just blocks away from it. And I’m sure he could see it from Air Force One as he took off from Worcester Airport.

Don’t be fooled. Directly across the street from the tower’s entrance, a homeless guy is pissing himself and blacking out in front of a liquor store in the warm afternoon sun. Further up the block, a shirtless guy is yelling at himself and massaging his own belly fat like a couch pillow, while a crackhead wearing a suspiciously unseasonable winter coat passes by on a girl’s bicycle.

Welcome to my hometown.

Ironically (and perhaps symbolically for locals), the tower marks the entrance to the self-proclaimed ghetto of Worcester–the southern neighborhoods of Main Street affectionately known as Main South.

This is where dreams go to score dope. Visitors rarely venture into this part of town (shockingly, you don’t see many Yelp reviews in these parts) and self-preserving locals know what streets to avoid. Most of the city’s drugs mingle here. Shootings and stabbings are common. Worcester Police recently installed a gunshot detection system that targets several problem areas in the city, including Main South and Grafton Hill (a rising star on the high-crime watch list).

The city’s movers and shakers have tried to gentrify parts of Main South for a long time, focusing their efforts primarily on the area surrounding the iconic Hanover Theatre. Buying up devalued property, raising rent, and pushing poorer residents to the outskirts of the city and surrounding suburbs–Gentrification 101. The tower is one of the most identifiable symbols of “revitalization” in the city.

Results have been moderate and progress has been slow. Main South is still home to low-level street gangs, prostitution rings, and plenty of drugs, but it also has some awesome ethnic food (naturally), highly-ranked Clark University, and…

Acoustic Java

Empty tables at Acoustic Java on Main Street, Worcester, MA.
You’ll forget all about getting robbed at gunpoint and remember the emergency $20 you crammed in your ass (gotta have street smarts). The coffee is that good.

An oasis. Not the shitty British band. This place is a true oasis from the drug-infested shooting gallery that surrounds it. Ok, that’s overly dramatic. This isn’t Compton. But, Main South is definitely a desert wasteland especially if you grew up around here. Thankfully, Acoustic Java on 932 Main Street is a magical pool of glorious life-nectar (and you don’t even have to leave the heavily-patrolled main artery).

It’s a welcomed respite from the grimy streets. The green storefront blends into the row of adjoining shops but there is a dark sign above one of the doorways. Find it and get inside quick.

Have a seat and enjoy a book with your coffee and snack. The troubles outside will seem like a distant memory.
Have a seat and enjoy a book with your coffee. The rough streets outside will seem like a distant memory.

Stocked bookshelves, loaded dessert cases, gourmet coffee & tea, a clean lunch menu, and a really warm atmosphere–all the makings of a great little coffee shop. The smell of coffee beans will smack you in the face as you walk in. Hard. Beans from all over the world. Brazil, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Colombia, Costa Rica, and more. I asked for two pounds of Ethiopian and Sumatran. It sounded like a drug deal and I cackled to Laura in the store. I am 28 years old. Why do you ask?

Coffee, tea, sandwiches, snacks... Are we still in Main South?
Coffee, tea, bistro-style sandwiches, pastries… Are we still in Main South?

I’m hittin’ that Ethiopian shit right now, man. Strong stuff.

This should be the future for small businesses in America. The new generation of business owners are not afraid to take chances in developing neighborhoods with lower rents; neighborhoods previously thought to be fruitless and too dangerous. They rely on good relationships with locals to remain relatively unscathed (aside from recent surges in graffiti & tagging) and quality products & services to succeed.

Or maybe they don’t have a choice?

Credit is hard to come by and most cities have made it clear that “presentable” areas of town are reserved for established business owners and national chains. The cool kids table.

Instead of peppering the edges of the ghetto with parking garages and loft apartments, the city needs to attract more small business owners by offering financial incentives and increasing police reinforcement. Get people to spend money in our city again and feel safe about doing it. Let’s keep things funky and grimy without the threat of getting stabbed.

We don’t need to cover our tattoos with cheap suits from Macy’s to pretend we fit in. Rough edges are more interesting.

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