YOU HAVE heard the claims: Coffee prevents grumpiness and may reduce gallstones, Parkinson's disease, even suicides. But how about this one: Coffee heals ailing neighborhoods?
This notion is winning wide acceptance among urban thinkers. At a recent Harvard seminar, the appearance of coffee shops was cited as one of the best gauges of neighborhood revival.
And there's proof right here in Baltimore. Take Pigtown, a struggling neighborhood that derives its name from the bygone times when pigs ran through its streets on their way to slaughterhouses. In a mere two months of serving up lattes and espressos, Porters Coffee House has given Washington Boulevard's largely vacant retail corridor hope of better days to come. It has become a symbol of renewal, along with a townhouse community rising nearby and an industrial park slated for a major upgrade.
More proof comes from East Baltimore's Patterson Park area. Two coffee houses have opened in the past year along Eastern Avenue to satisfy the caffeine cravings of young homebuyers and renovators. A third is under construction at Baltimore Street and Linwood Avenue, but there has been a change of plans. The reason: munchies.
"The coffee house idea was something we wanted initially. But we decided to skip it: We are now aiming at a restaurant as a neighborhood gathering place," explained Jim Shettler of Patterson Park Community Development Corp.
In Pigtown, Porters aims to cover it all. It features hot breakfast and lunchtime sandwich menus and table service on two floors where artworks abound on exposed brick walls. Dinner is available on weekends, when Porters stays open late and tables are added to the sidewalk.
This is quite ambitious for a coffee house in a neighborhood pockmarked by vacant houses and empty storefronts. But Pigtown boosters say not only that Porters will make it, but that Japanese and Tex-Mex restaurants are also eyeing Washington Boulevard, which connects the University of Maryland downtown campus and the Montgomery Park office complex.
Many other neighborhoods ought to investigate coffee houses as part of their revitalization strategies. They are a marvelous way to strengthen a neighborhood and introduce it to would-be residents and businesses. With or without caffeine.