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Food Articles

Brooklyn’s anti-gentrification coffee shop : Playground Coffee

Sep 26, 2018

Brooklyn’s anti-gentrification coffee shop : Playground Coffee


Meet Zenat Begum, the owner of Brooklyn’s Playground Coffee.

On a strip of Bedford Avenue — far from the touristy stretch that surrounds the subway stop —  you will find peace of mind at Playground Coffee Shop. From the outside, you’d say something like, “This looks like it might be a decent coffee shop.” Upon entering, you think to yourself “Oh thank god, this is indeed a lovely coffee shop.” And then finally, espresso in hand, you realize it’s much more than a coffee shop: it’s a small neighborhood marketplace, full of people. If you look up and there is a young woman working the counter, there’s a good chance it’s Zenat Begum, the owner and founder of Playground Coffee.

Begum is a force of nature. If you only meet her for two minutes you’ll be bowled over by her charisma and work ethic, both of which are on full display. You’ll be struck by the ways in which she encourages others around her to put their energy towards the things they love via Playground, the coffee shop that’s also a conduit for underrepresented voices to be heard.

WestwoodWestwood spoke with Begum about the difficulties of starting a community center from scratch, and her plans for the future.

How did Playground get started?

ZENAT BEGUM: In 2015 I graduated the New School and was working with 8Ball Zines. After a year of working odd jobs and being a photographer’s assistant I decided I was going to start a fashion line. My friend and I raced back and forth between coffee shops. At the same time, my father was in the process of liquidating his business hoping to rent it to someone else. After weeks of running around it came to my attention that I could transform the space.

It became clear that I had to take it upon myself to sell my dad on giving me a chance to do something there. I was imagining shows on shows, books, coffee, meetings, etc. I revisited the idea of being very young and helping my dad, playing jump rope with kids in the neighborhood. It made sense [to call it] “Playground,” it’s an artist playground where people live, breathe, create, hold meetings, facilitate shows, host workshops. In October of 2016, after a year of waiting for permits to be processed and physically renovating it with my dad, Playground opened to the public.


You guys do so much more than serve coffee and pastries, but what is your philosophy with the basics of running a coffee shop?

A coffee shop is the initial symbol of gentrification. You see a coffee shop and it gives everyone else the go to fuck shit up. Things become more expensive, inaccessible, and even shunning to a community that has always lived there. Playground doesn’t do that. We employ a staff of color, sell non-academic literature and merchandise by some of the greatest DIY artists, and we are consistently providing free programming. It would be one thing to just close up shop everyday and move on without the support of my community, [but]those institutions do not last! You build with your communities.

As a business owner and barista— yes, I work behind the bar — you meet folks who are hungry and want to offer advice on their field of expertise. It’s always so scary walking into gentrifying space because you don’t know what impact is being promoted but we here at playground make it our duty to collaborate with people who can help those around us. Get a coffee and then once you sit down in the shop, see how you can help your community easily! Throw a feminine hygiene drive. t’s almost seamless to give back and be an active member of the community. It’s as easy as walking into our shop!

How did you get the idea to have a store attached to the space? And then when did you transition into having live shows?

We actually did live shows before we even opened the coffee shop. After we renovated, my friends encouraged me to throw a noise show and at the time i was regularly attending shows in DIY spaces. It just felt right, t I saw that potential in Playground. I know so many amazing New York bands and playground was a place to showcase those groups.


What sort of events do you have coming up? Any partnerships to look out for?

We aim to offer courses and workshops on zine binding, pattern making, bystander intervention training. i want to make these class accessible if not free to the public, starting at all levels. But in order to do this I must get funding that will provide tools, supplies, and equipment for each course.


What advice do you give to people who want their business and politics to overlap more?

Be as ruthless as you can. You’re gonna be upset that you never vocalized your issues because you could have spearheaded change. It all starts with someone!


What other things should we be looking out for from Playground Coffee?

Our Block Bazaar on October 13 — over 25 vendors and a whole day of programming.