At 2 p.m. on Tuesday, the tables at Hilltop’s new cafe are mostly taken.
A Black Keys song plays in the background as three sisters behind the new venture, Red Elm, pull espresso shots and make small talk with the clientele.
Is a new coffee and breakfast spot in Tacoma news?
It probably wouldn’t be, at least for this section of the paper, if not for Red Elm’s chosen location.
“It was really important for us to be a community spot, specifically for Hilltop,” Sarah Joslyn, the youngest of the three sisters running the show at Red Elm, told me during a temporary break in the afternoon business flow.
For those who live on Hilltop, as Joslyn and her sisters, Adina Joslyn and Jennifer Richardson have for years, or frequent the historical and historically maligned neighborhood, the need for a cozy, welcoming coffee and breakfast spot was well known.
Red Elm, which opened for business Feb. 20 and celebrated its official grand opening last week with Hilltop’s City Councilman Keith Blocker and other neighborhood luminaries on hand, immediately fills that void.
But, as other new businesses in the district have experienced, its opening also thrusts the unassuming cafe into the age-old revitalization versus gentrification debate.
It was really important for us to be a community spot, specifically for Hilltop.
Red Elm co-owner Sarah Joslyn
Most agree the Hilltop needs to attract new business. Red Elm opened in a long-vacant spot on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, across from the sad, empty eyesore that is the former Rite Aid. It would be unfair to make it the poster child for the way economic development can displace low-income residents and longtime business owners.
Still, the sisters behind Red Elm are well aware of the tightrope new businesses like theirs walk on Hilltop, given the neighborhood’s past and residents here who could potentially end up on the wrong side of a blind drive toward increased economic activity and vitality.
It’s a subject I delicately attempted to wade into as we sat toward the back of a cafe where families, guys with earbuds plugged into laptops, and business types sip lattes on a cold and dreary day.
How do you make sure Red Elm is a place for the Hilltop community, and not just …
“New hipsters?” Sarah Joslyn quickly interjects, cutting through my awkward diplomacy.
“We’re concerned about the gentrification of Hilltop, even though we know we’re part of the problem, right? We’re the white people that moved in and bought up space,” Richardson says. “But we are concerned about that. We want the neighborhood, the diversity, to stay and to thrive.”
“We’ve all lived in the Hilltop area. We love Hilltop. We love the people. We’re involved in the community here,” she said. “I love the people. I love that the people have been through so much together that they stick together. … I feel like it’s a community, like Hilltop people went through some bad times and came out on the other end, and it bonded them.”
We’re concerned about the gentrification of Hilltop, even though we know we’re part of the problem, right? We’re the white people that moved in and bought up space. But we are concerned about that. We want the neighborhood, the diversity, to stay and to thrive.
Red Elm co-owner Jennifer Richardson
Spend an afternoon at Red Elm talking to the sisters, and it quickly becomes clear this endeavor is more than a business. They talk about the need to fit into the community, not redefine it. They outline the ways they plan to contribute to the Hilltop, not take from it.
A look at the menu, which consists of simple dishes topping out at $5.75, and you see these efforts in action. And when Richardson discusses the cafe’s plan to contribute a portion of Red Elm’s monthly earnings to nonprofits that serve Hilltop, you get the sense that it’s more than just talk.
“For me, I’m a single mom, and I said, ‘I want a single mom with two kids to have a comfortable place to go, where they could afford to buy a grilled cheese sandwich and a cup of hot cocoa for their kids, and sit, and their kids can play, and it’s comfortable,’ ” Richardson said.
“I want that for our community.”
The sisters choose the right words, for certain. But, for me, it was the sight of well-known Hilltop local knitter Henry Lee Walls, spread out at what Sarah Joslyn describes as “his favorite spot” at Red Elm, engrossed in his latest work, that made me think Hilltop’s new cafe will ultimately succeed in becoming a place that welcomes those who’ve long been here.
“We didn’t have any big hero plans,” Sarah Joslyn told me.
“We’re not trying to fix our neighborhood. We’re just trying to be in our neighborhood.”