Decorated with a large mural featuring titans of Black cinema, Momentum Coffee in North Lawndale doesn’t look like most cafes.
The beans from a local Black roaster and actress Pam Grier looking down from a mural on the wall are a MacGuffin for what the Black-owned coffee shop is really about.
“Our mission has always been to create spaces in underutilized communities,” said Tracy Powell, who owns the cafe with his spouse Nikki Bravo.
The North Lawndale cafe, on Ogden Avenue across from the Sinai Medical Center, is their fourth and the first on the West Side. The others are in the South Loop, Englewood and downtown.
It’s a needed oasis in the West Side neighborhood, an area with few bars, restaurants or other cafes.
The menu includes espresso drinks, teas, smoothies and sandwiches. The cafe also sells equipment for making coffee at home. The decor was inspired by its proximity to Cinespace Chicago Film Studios and the predominantly Black neighborhood. It opened in late February.
Powell hopes it can become a buzzy cafe, but for him, a cup of joe is just a way to welcome folks to the place.
“Once you get in the door, then you can see what kind of stuff we have going on,” Powell said.
For Powell, the idea is to create a space where community can form and for community programs, including the adult entrepreneurship programs and youth technology education classes hosted by Powell and Bravo’s nonprofit, Ignite Technology and Innovation.
So far, they’ve hosted only programs associated with the hospital but expect to branch out.
Powell and Bravo opened the first Momentum in South Loop in 2019, where from the beginning the idea has been to create community space.
The idea came after Powell launched a co-working space in 2017 — The Blue Lacuna in Pilsen — and found many of those using the space would leave to get coffee and wind up continuing to work at whatever cafe they went to. That space shuttered during the pandemic.
“You can’t really have a co-working space without coffee, so how about we flip it?” Powell thought.
The North Lawndale cafe is an anchor tenant of Ogden Commons, an effort to revitalize the neighborhood. That plan, announced in 2018, includes around 120,000 square feet of commercial space and about 300 residential units on two former Chicago Housing Authority sites.
The cafe sits inside Ogden Commons’ first phase — a 30,000-square-foot commercial building completed last year.
The first apartment building won’t be done until spring 2024, and another commercial tenant at the building — Ja’ Grill — has already closed. But Momentum is brewing, with a steady stream of customers from the hospital.
“The grill didn’t last long,” said Tyrie Chambliss, the main barista at the cafe.
Chambliss, a West Side native, cut her teeth as a barista at Starbucks. Now, the Black 27-year-old helms a cafe that celebrates Black icons. On the TV, selections of Black cinema play from the Criterion Channel, though sometimes Chambliss puts on old episodes of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
Chambliss said she was nervous about taking such a prominent position but has settled into it.
“It gave me some courage,” she said. “It makes me feel like I have a lot more responsibility.”
She hopes she can move to Powell and Bravo’s next cafe, set to open soon in Austin, where she lives.
That cafe will be inside the new BUILD Chicago center that opened in March at Harrison Street and Laramie Avenue.
Leaders from BUILD say the 57,000-square-foot center is about creating community space, and a good roast is essential to the plan.
“We knew we had to have a cafe,” said Bradly Johnson, BUILD’s chief community officer. “We intended for our facility to be a gathering space for the community, and we believed that’s one of the things we lacked and we could use — a good place for people to gather to meet to talk.”
Johnson, 53, grew up in the area and said it had nothing like the cafe back then. That lack of neighborhood amenities prompted him to want to leave as soon as he could.
He hopes the cafe — “Black-owned and run by somebody that looks like you” — can be the start of that change.
“That tells you it’s attainable and something you can do, too,” he said. “It’s an investment in peace.”
Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.