Arts & Entertainment

'I'm the café and he's the leche': Highland Park cafe owners discuss gentrification, revitalization

Café de Leche owner Anya Schodorf grew up in Managua, Nicaragua, and came to the U.S. when she was 14.
Café de Leche owner Anya Schodorf grew up in Managua, Nicaragua, and came to the U.S. when she was 14.
Shereen Marisol Meraji/NPR

 This week, Morning Edition ran a series of reports and interviews about coffee. NPR's Code Switch blog decided to add to the "coffee talk" with a snapshot of a café in northeast Los Angeles where, for some, gentrification is synonymous with a good cappuccino with a design on the foam.

Café De Leche

Café de Leche (yes, all you Spanish-speakers, it is de leche not con leche) sits on the corner of Avenue 50 and York Boulevard in Highland Park, a neighborhood that's been predominantly Latino and working-class for decades.

Before it was a coffee joint that sells drinks made from Stumptown beans (Stumptown Roasters claims to have started the coffee revolution in Portland), it was an insurance business with a notary public. You can make it out in the famous shootout scene with Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) in Quentin Tarantino's '92 flick, Reservoir Dogs. It's the building on the corner with the blue awning.

Now imagine that same space lined on the outside with chartreuse bistro tables and people of all stripes (many wearing stripes and skinny jeans) sipping on horchata con espresso (the most popular drink) out of paper cups stamped with a hummingbird. Some are hunched over their smartphones, others type furiously on their laptops bobbing their heads to whatever is coming out of their white ear buds.

Hipster Haven?

The Los Angeles Times reported last March that "revitalization" has "really" arrived in Highland Park. Three years earlier, The New York Times called it a "new culture district." Both pointed out that York Boulevard, once home to auto-body shops, is now home to nice restaurants, boutiques and a hip coffee shop.

Most of the negative Yelp reviews about Café de Leche revolve around hipster loathing: "hipster central," "hipster hangout" and "self-absorbed, smelly and unkempt looking hipsters." And if you're looking to get online, you'll find a Wi-Fi network on the list with an unprintable title that insults hipsters. Tension? Yeah, maybe a little.

'I'm The Café And He's The Leche'

Anya Schodorf owns Café de Leche with her husband, Matt. They met in Highland Park, fell in love, got married, had kids, opened a coffee shop and later a sandwich shop on York Boulevard. "When my husband told me you were coming to do this interview, I said, 'I hope they don't portray us as gentrifiers, because we're not.' "

Anya Schodorf was Anya Montalban before she married Matt, a tall, pale, Ohio native who grew up in Ventura, Calif. She grew up in Managua, Nicaragua, and came to the United States at age 14. English is her second language.

"We were criticized at the beginning because people thought we had the wrong name," says Schodorf, adding that local bloggers were saying white people who didn't speak Spanish must have named the coffee shop because it's café con leche (coffee with milk). "Café de leche is a regional thing in Nicaragua," Schodorf explains. "One day my mom was at home, and she told Matt in Spanish, 'Mateo, get me my cafe de leche' and he said, 'That's it, that's the name!' "

Schodorf says it took the longest time to get the Latinos from Highland Park to walk in the door. "They would look through the glass and shake their head and keep walking," she says.

"I don't understand why Latinos can't be successful and creative and have something nice. Why do we have to just a stand on a corner? What hurts me the most is that we're being put down by our own people," says Schodorf.

'Just Not A Mexican Thing'

Café de Leche employee Carmen Castillo says, "It's like my mom; my mom will not come in for a cup of coffee." Castillo has worked there for the past five years and grew up in Highland Park, just a couple of blocks away. She says her mom walks by the café often (she doesn't drive) on her way to pick up her brothers from school or run errands. She waves hello from outside.

"It's just not a Mexican thing to come into a coffee shop," says Castillo. "It's just ... it's more of a white thing."

Castillo says Highland Park is changing, and she's conflicted about it. She loves the new businesses that line York Boulevard and keep it bustling with activity, but she adds that she'll never be able to buy a home in the neighborhood she grew up in.

As far as her mom is concerned, Café de Leche is for the newcomers to Highland Park; she's content drinking her café de olla at home.

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