Belly of the Beast

A setback for the city is a win for residents.

Ground Zero

Controversy keeps percolating at the Perk & Pub, the seventeen-month-old coffee shop whose file with the city is probably large enough to fill the storefront's entire 565 square feet. In May, the Board of Adjustment for Zoning Appeals finally ruled that the Perk & Pub could reopen its patio, a popular community gathering place and a major source of revenue during the six months it held down the corner of Emerson Street and Ohio Avenue -- and a very sore spot after the city ordered it closed last November ("In Their Cups," May 19).

In the two months since that ruling, owner Kimmie Cominsky had let herself make plans again. Although a proposed Highland branch remains on hold, she and partner Dave Blanchard went ahead and opened their Uptown Perk & Pub, taking over the former home of Sweet Rockin' Coffee. Cominsky even scheduled a two-day trip to take her kids to visit their grandmother in Philadelphia. And then she heard that protesters were coming to her place on Tuesday morning, and she postponed her flight.

Of all the java joints in town, they had to roll into this one.

To mark the fifteenth anniversary of the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, activists with the Atlantis Community -- a historic organization in its own right, with a solid record of fighting for the civil rights of the disabled -- decided to demonstrate at the Perk & Pub, which has a handicapped-accessible bathroom but a nine-inch step blocking the way to that facility. Then again, there are no curb cuts along the streets in front of the coffee shop; the city's schedule for building such ramps has slowed with the economy. So the Atlantis vans had to pull into the alley to unload nine wheelchairs, and then their occupants and supporters and kids made their way past the laundromat and the newspaper boxes and the parked dogs to the patio on the corner.

Dawn Russell, who heads Atlantis's ramp program, had talked with Cominsky earlier, and the wheelchair-bound organizer did most of the speaking now, too. "We're here in the spirit of the ADA," she said. "You've got a wonderful business in there, and we'd just like to be able to get in." Not be served on the patio, not be lifted into the coffee shop -- "That's a dignity issue" -- but get in under their own power.

"I'm willing to do whatever it takes as long as the city allows me to," responded Cominsky, pointing out that both her father and grandmother are in wheelchairs. After all, it was a city mix-up that initially convinced the Perk & Pub that a patio was allowed, and after that patio was closed, taking 75 percent of the coffee shop's capacity with it, Cominsky had to lay off employees and scale back the business -- including any plans to build a ramp into the hundred-year-old building, a project that had been estimated at $8,000.

"That's robbery," Russell responded. "We really believe that you won't have any trouble working with the city."

And to prove it, she got on the phone with Ed Neuberg, director of the city's Commission for People With Disabilities. Minutes later, he arrived and huddled with Chuck Crowley, a developer working on a duplex project a block away who's all too familiar with the city's confusing codes, a fellow who'd read about the Perk & Pub's problems and had become a regular as well as a friend. Together they figured out what sort of ramp might work, what kind of variances Cominsky would need to get from the city, whether Crowley could start pouring concrete as soon as next week.

What started as a protest began to feel like a party. Cominsky suggested to Neuberg that the city include ADA compliance on its punch list of requirements that businesses must meet before they're allowed to open. "As businesses, we need to be educated more," she said. Neuberg suggested to Russell that they have their next awards-planning breakfast at the Perk & Pub.

"It's the responsibility of everyone to do the right thing," agreed Russell. "Business owners have to behave responsibly. The city has to behave responsibly. We all have to behave responsibly."

And then she did the responsible thing. "I'm ready for a cup of coffee," she said. -- Calhoun

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