Superman returned this summer, and while it's always good to see him up in the sky, Superman and the rest of his super-ilk tend to reinforce us in our belief that it will take something, someone, literally super to set this world right. We are, of course, wrong; there are plenty of more-or-less ordinary folks fighting the good fight, and if they don't get movies made about them, well, all the more reason to mention them here, and I've got two in mind.

Peter K. Schaffer is an Oklahoma City attorney specializing in adoptions. That's not why he's being mentioned here. Mr Schaffer is the director of the Oklahoma Bean Project, which was originally modeled on a vegetable-packing cooperative in Colorado but which eventually became much, much more: one of maybe two non-profit restaurants in the nation, which provides jobs and job training for about a dozen folks, some found through agencies, some literally plucked off the street.

Kaiser's Ice Cream Parlour dated back to 1910; at the time, it was at 7th and Robinson. In 1919, needing more room, Tony Kaiser relocated to 10th and Walker, and there he stayed until his retirement in 1957. The Parlour remained a viable operation for many years after that, but shifting population patterns and the general decline of central Oklahoma City spelled the end of Kaiser's circa 1990.

In 1994, Schaffer reopened Kaiser's, ice cream and fountain intact, as the Grateful Bean Cafe. Robin Garr, author of Reinvesting in America: The Grassroots Movements That Are Feeding the Hungry, Housing the Homeless and Putting Americans Back to Work, dropped in at the Grateful Bean early on, and here's what he found:

The cafe has already become a popular lunchtime spot for neighbors and business people who drop in to the well-kept black-and-white building near downtown, although its location in a downscale neighborhood that's largely deserted after work has made business problematic at night. (It's currently open for business from 9 am to 2 pm week days, serving hearty breakfasts and a tasty, healthy and predominantly vegetarian selection of salads, soups and sandwiches.)

The cafe provides jobs and job training for more than a dozen employees, called "team members," a combination of job-seekers off the street and unemployed people referred by the state employment service. Workers are paid $6 an hour to start, of which $1.25 is placed in a fund and witheld until they've completed a 90-day training period, at which point they receive the back money about $900 in a lump sum. In theory, all workers rotate through all jobs in the cafe. In practice, some are more comfortable than others working in public-contact positions such as waiters, so they may trade assignments. The jobs aren't considered temporary; while some employees use the experience to move on to bigger and better things, others stay.

The Grateful Bean scraped by for ten years, until urban renewal came knocking in the fall of 2004: while the Kaiser's building was spared, the infamous five-way intersection was shut down and replaced with a roundabout, and business fell to a trickle. Schaffer closed the doors. The construction took longer than expected, and so did the cafe's return; originally scheduled for November '05, it didn't happen until the summer of '06. But the entire character of MidTown has changed in the last couple of years: the vacant Plaza Court building, across the street, has been refurbished and is now nearly full again; area flophouses are being restored to some semblance of dignity; new businesses are opening. Schaffer is confident enough to go beyond breakfast and lunch: the hours are being expanded to 7 am-8 pm, six days a week, which will provide more opportunities for the locals to visit and more opportunities for the Project to help some folks get back on their feet.

Ann Felton is the co-chair of Fred Morgan's campaign for Congress, and is the widow of physician and Nichols Hills mayor Warren Felton, who died in 2002; she's here, not for those reasons, but because she's the chair of Central Oklahoma Habitat for Humanity, which has built four hundred homes for low-income families in the Oklahoma City metro area since 1989. Ms Felton's particular genius is for lining up community support from all sectors, and I do mean all: in 2004, Habitat put up two houses on donated property in Heritage Hills East, the first time I can remember anyone doing such a thing in a district zoned for historic preservation, and this month Habitat built a house right in the middle of Bricktown, just east of the ballpark, to call attention to its work and drum up further support. (The house was subsequently moved to the south side.) Habitat is, of course, national, but Ann Felton has built the Central Oklahoma branch into the Top Ten among two thousand affiliates, now building 40 homes a year.

There are good reasons to look to the sky, but none of them involve a character with a cape; we have lots of Clark Kent types down here on the ground, doing their part for truth, justice, and, um, all that stuff.

The Vent

  16 July 2006

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 Copyright © 2006 by Charles G. Hill