Elena's Soul Lounge in West Philly burned on Christmas Eve, 2012, raining ash down on Cedar Park and forcing the evacuation of surrounding businesses.
“We were in here when it happened,” says Nicole Lee, co-owner of Cedar Park Cafe, a popular neighborhood greasy spoon that was still doing a brisk business despite the holiday. “We smelled a fire smell and we thought, oh, the toaster is burning. We check everything, so we went outside in the backyard and…we realized it was next door.”
Firefighters soon arrived and forced diners to abandon their scrapple and coffee.
Word spread quickly on Twitter and Facebook, and a small crowd gathered to watch the immolation of the neighborhood barroom. Fewer people were around two days later when a city-hired private contractor badly bungled the demolition of the bar, which was several stories taller than its neighbors, sending debris crashing through the roofs of Cedar Park Cafe and Gary's Nails. Both were utterly wrecked. (Check out this photo of the diner's interior from a City Paper article on the Department of Licenses and Inspection's mismanagement of the situation.) The beauty parlor is still a vacant shell.
But less than a year after the calamity, Cedar Park Café is open for business again.
“Everyone seems so happy,” says Lee. “Everyone shows up and is coming back. All the neighbors communicate on the Facebook or something, they connect each other. It is a very tight neighborhood here.”
When Lee moved from Queens to Philadelphia in 1991, she lived in North Philadelphia where she owned a grocery store with her husband Jason. (They've since decamped for Landsdale, a suburban town in Montgomery County 28 miles northwest of the city.) But since the mid-'90s, they've owned a string of breakfast spots around the city, most recently Happy Joy on South Broad Street. They found that thoroughfare too busy for their liking and, in 2011, decided to settle in Cedar Park, though they knew nothing of the neighborhood.
In an area rich in Ethiopian restaurants but lacking in many other dining staples, Cedar Park Cafe quickly became a neighborhood institution. After the disaster, the couple opened another Cedar Park Cafe in Overbrook, but had no plans to abandon their titular neighborhood.
When asked if the City of Philadelphia offered any help, Lee simply says “No.” Insurance covered the vast majority of the re-building expenses — which ran to tens of thousands of dollars — but she was especially moved by the outpouring of support from the community. On the corkboard that hangs near the café's entrance, Lee proudly shows off a postcard written by a neighborhood kid. “We missed the best breakfast on the planet,” the note reads. “We are so sorrowful that the fire caused you to move to Overbrook.”
A more substantial, if less adorable, display of neighborhood solidarity helped fuel Cedar Park Cafe's quick turnaround. Early in 2013, Cedar Park Neighbors, a longstanding neighborhood group, and the Baltimore Avenue Business Association threw a gala to show support for Lee and the others affected by the dual disasters. Fifteen businesses from up and down Baltimore Avenue kicked in food and booze, from as far east as Green Line Cafe on 43rd Street and Queen of Sheba (an Ethiopian bar and restaurant) on 45th, to Dock Street (a gourmet pizzeria and brewpub) a few storefronts to the west; they donated three kegs of beer. Meanwhile, Cedar Park Neighbors rallied volunteers to staff the door and play music.
While Cedar Park Neighbors holds fundraisers every summer to raise money for college scholarships and jazz concerts in the park, organizers didn't go into the event expecting to raise much money. The point was to just to show support.
“Absolutely packed would be a fair way to describe it,” says Michael Fichman, a local DJ who used to spin at Elena's and attended the fundraiser. “It was a really nice winter night. It snowed lightly. Kids were running around and there was a fire outside. In the multi-purpose room, where people were speaking. It was so crowded that people had to crane their necks from the hallway to see.”
They raised $5,000 that night. The pot was eventually split between the owners of the Café and Elena's (Gary's Nails declined to participate).
“We got help from the insurance, but the amazing thing was the neighborhood,” says Lee, tearing up. “They made a fundraiser and…it was so touching, an emotional [event], like 200 people. I was almost crying…It was really nice.” (There is no current plan for the future of Elena's old lot.)
The loss of Elena's and the Café was a particularly harsh blow to a neighborhood on the fringes of the University of Pennsylvania's influence (the school's unarmed security personnel patrol to 50th street). In the late 1990s, Penn began pouring money into the neighborhoods on its borders; Cedar Park is the westernmost recipient of those attentions. Though the neighborhood was never uniformly African-American (as its counterparts to the west are) the demographics have certainly been shifting in recent years as more young professionals — mostly white — move in. Many of the businesses are distinctly segregated.
“There's not a whole lot of places in the neighborhood that reflect the diversity of the neighborhood,” says Michael Froehlich, president of Cedar Park Neighbors. “I would say the two places that best did that were the Cafe and Elena's. Especially when you look at the demographics of the neighborhood by the numbers — it is an extraordinarily diverse neighborhood — so when you go into a bar or a restaurant and you see, oh look, ten percent of the people are white people or ten percent are black people, that's not reflective.”
On a recent Sunday, Cedar Park Cafe (which closes at 3 p.m.) is thronged with diners. Lee is busily cooking in back, while a line forms out the door. The customers range from families with roving packs of children to tables of haggard revelers, restoring themselves after Saturday's excesses. A back-of-the-envelope estimate shows the exact diversity Froehlich praises. Hot coffee and heaps of food, for a reasonable price, appear to be a universally appreciated experience.