PeaceLove beckons with a downtown vibe

New café tries building community with a healthy menu

Louis Palma was smiling as he emerged from PeaceLove Café, where he had just bought himself dinner.He paused under the bright blue awning adorned with hearts, peace signs and butterflies to listen to some jazz, and said, “As a musician, I love to see places like this—a grown-up atmosphere for grownups who don’t like to go downtown.”

In a neighborhood where fast food is everywhere and hip-hop is dominant, Darada David, the proprietor of PeaceLove Café wants to offer an alternative. At the six-month old café on Melrose Avenue near East 151st Street, she serves up inexpensive organic food and jazz.

She put her singing career aside and risked her personal savings to open the café last August. Now she’s filling the place up on weekend nights with poetry readings and live jazz.

Because so many local residents don’t have access to computers and some have never used one, she included an Internet café on the second floor of PeaceLove. She says people use it to access unemployment forms and to create resumes.

PeaceLove also serves as a meeting ground for community organizations. It has hosted meetings for local bloggers and for the Bronx Entrepreneurs and Business Network to discuss how to better the community and future business plans.

Banks, David found, weren’t enthusiastic about the neighborhood. Even though she said she had great credit, when she applied for a loan to start her business, she said the response was always the same: “No one in the South Bronx wants a health food café.”

For David, PeaceLove is as much a mission as it is a business. “Positive businesses have the potential to change the dynamic of a neighborhood,” she believes. “Good food can change people’s perceptions of themselves.”

David, who grew up in Mott Haven, said she frequently heard her family and friends say, “There’s nothing to eat around here.”

PeaceLove’s menu features organic salads, turkey and avocado sandwiches and fresh okra that she prepares herself. Instead of serving soda or alcohol, David makes fruit smoothies and has organic tea brewing.

“I shop daily and choose naturally good-tasting products that let the food speak for itself,” said David. “When people get a smoothie they see me cutting up the fruit rather than squirting artificial colors in.”

In providing that menu, David said she wanted to make Mott Haven and Melrose, where more adults suffer from diabetes than anywhere else in New York City, healthier.

Skeptics warned that organic food would be too expensive to feature on the menu of a restaurant in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the poorest Congressional District in the United States.

David said the solution was simple, sell cheap. Nothing PeaceLove offers costs more than $6.

“This area needs more places for people to hang out without booze,” customer Betty Morales said. “This is a nice, low key atmosphere, with opportunities for conversation and good music and food.”

But although locals like Morales appreciate the effort PeaceLove is making to fill the void, business has been slow. According to David, because what PeaceLove offers is different from what most people are used to, it has been hard to attract a weekday and daytime crowd.

A graduate Parsons, The New School for Design, David was confident she could create an atmosphere where people felt comfortable spending an evening.

Her paintings hang from wood-paneled walls, next to chalkboard menus. A bakery-style glass refrigerator filled with homemade pies is set in front of the prep station. Small tables and wooden folding chairs surround the performance space.

David said she has seen empty lots transformed into new apartments and neglected streets turned into shopping districts, but she contends that the quality of life has not changed in Melrose and Mott Haven.

“Some people will pass by the store and look, but are too afraid to come in,” she said. “I have to tip-toe to the door and assure them it’s safe for them to enter.”

The neighborhood has the potential to be great, David says; it just needs a little help.

“There are stores like mine serving health food and playing live music in other neighborhoods,” said David. “Those areas are no more special than ours. This area deserves some peace and love.”