The exterior of Sweet_ness 7 Cafe, its first location on Grant St.
In the heart of the West Side, a café called Sweet_ness 7 is bustling. Cozy, eclectic and personal, Sweet_ness 7 has a friendly staff and rave-worthy food. An original iconic Shepard Fairey poster depicting President Obama is framed on the wall, a phone booth waits to be explored by young children and an “Eat” sign hangs above the exit. Hand-drawn murals cover the walls. Books are stacked in nooks and crannies. A hub of communal activity, the cafe also was voted the best place to eat breakfast alone by Buffalo-based magazine Buffalo Spree, noting, “Here on Grant Street, the egg sandwich is slammin’ and the Turkish coffee service is worth the wait … S_7 is an anything-goes kind of place.”
A small business is often the reflection of its owner. Prish Moran is generous, creative and fearless, just like her café. Ms. Moran grew up in the suburbs of New York City. After living in Europe, she came to Buffalo in 1986. She fell head-over-heels in love with the Victorian city, and she went to work restoring her own home. A decorator, painter and designer by trade, Ms. Moran has taken jobs across Buffalo and its suburbs. Ever since moving here, Ms. Moran has acquired buildings off the city’s demolition list, at a rate of roughly one per year. Her restoration projects include apartments, family homes and now, with Sweet_ness 7, commercial properties as well. “I have such a respect for old buildings and craftsmanship. I’m grateful that I can see past the ugliness and see the beauty of a building. Every house I restore, neighborhoods have changed around them,” she tells us.
This is nowhere more true than Buffalo’s West Side, a bustling urban district in the early and mid-20th century, that fell into steep economic decline in the late 1960s. At that time the streets filled with vacancy signs, buildings began to deteriorate and crime skyrocketed. Even still, the neighborhood has always been home to resilient, hardworking people. Recently, the West Side has seen some turnaround. New properties are being purchased and restored by people like Ms. Moran, often with the assistance of numerous community groups that have helped the revitalization process.
The West Side has seen an influx of immigration after The Refugee Protection Act of 1980, which, according to the non-profit Restore Fairness, “created a legal status for asylum and a formal process for the resettlement of refugees from around the world.” According to Bryana DiFonzo, the Volunteer Manager at Journey’s End Refugee Services and speaker at the 2013 TEDx Buffalo talks, 1,800 refugees now come to Buffalo each year. Since the 1980s, some 20,000 refugees have settled in Buffalo, many on the West Side. New people means new businesses, and the meeting of different cultures makes comfortable meeting spaces vastly important.
Although Sweet_ness 7 is a destination of connection and hope, it was born from sadness. In 2007, Ms. Moran’s son had recently moved back from Florence, Italy to Buffalo, but shortly thereafter was killed in a car accident. Following his passing, Ms. Moran wandered the streets close to her son’s former Parkdale Avenue home when she stumbled upon a Victorian building, dignified but unloved, at the intersection of Grant and Lafayette Streets. “This building on the corner was full of graffiti and the windows were boarded up,” Ms. Moran recalls. As fate would have it, she saw a man she knew from Forever Elmwood — a community-planning board for the popular Elmwood Village neighborhood — outside planting a tree. When she spoke with him, Ms. Moran learned that the building, which was caught in a standing vacancy because its owners had moved to a foreign country, was to be released by the courts for sale that coming Monday. Ms. Moran called the lawyer that afternoon and by the next day she was the owner.
It took nine months of hard work and renovation to bring the building back into a useable condition. The property had been vacant for five years, and when Ms. Moran entered she found a gutted space orange and black wall coverings and where everything broken. She learned that the building had housed a flower shop for many years, and it was also a big mafia hangout. Upstairs there are seven apartments, which Ms. Moran updated and now rents out.
Although the renovation itself was a tremendous undertaking, Ms. Moran had other difficulties. She was advised to, “Get out while you can,” admonished with advice like “You’re throwing your money down the drain,” and patronized with rhetorical questions such as “Do you know how much crime is there?” Even city officials at that time were unsupportive. One of the bigger challenges was broken sewer lines, caused by the removal of old-fashioned elevator delivery systems and the addition of sidewalks in the 1960s. In the basement of the café there was sewage — a mess, as well as a fortune for the city to fix up. Sticking to her guns, Ms. Moran stood up for herself, and eventually convinced the city to repair the sewage lines. “I had many people angry at me downtown, even though there were also many honest people. Now, everything has changed, and they are huge supporters,” Ms. Moran says.
When Ms. Moran started out, she didn’t plan to open a café. In fact, she had no plans for the building on Grant and Lafayette when she bought it, but as she spent time working on it, she decided to open the café, and she would run it herself. It is named after her son — Sweet_ness 7 was his email address. Ms. Moran didn’t know much about her new neighborhood, but she has grown to love it immensely. Her dedication and admiration show in everything she does, from collecting coats for those in need in the community, showing support for other local stores (recently, she made a call out to new area storefronts Black Dots Independent Record Boutique, Esther’s Press Raw Food and Juice and The Gypsy Parlour), to inspiring community discussions, such as soliciting signatures to support traffic calming and bike lanes on Parkside, or urging others to donate to a fundraiser to restore the First Presbyterian Church at One Symphony Circle.
In 2010, she opened a second Sweet_ness 7 Café location in Buffalo’s Parkside neighborhood, near the Buffalo Zoo and Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Martin House Complex. In that spot, crêpes are the house speciality.
“Third places,” the concept of community building in which individuals find places to congregate away from the home and the office, like Sweet_ness 7, are spaces where one can relax with a coffee and chat with the person next to you. They are also places to learn about other ideas and cultures, and to feel welcome. In Buffalo’s West Side, where hundreds of refugees are making their homes, feeling comfortable is extremely important. Sweet_ness 7 Café, Ms. Moran and the staff work to treat everyone the same — respectfully and generously. It may not be the best business plan, but it’s a good way to live, Ms. Moran told us. While painting the mural on the outside wall of the cafe, a group of Burmese immigrants and their interpreter approached her. Insisting that they wanted to meet, Ms. Moran learned that the symbol in her mural, which was inspired by the backdrop in a magazine, came from an ancient religious wall in Burma. “They told me that it was the god of happiness. Still, they tell me, ‘When we saw that, we knew we were in the right place.’”
For an intimate look at the people of Buffalo’s West Side, see the work of the award-winning social documentary photographer Milton Rogovin (1909-2011), who documented the working class of the Lower West Side in Buffalo over a span of 20 years.