A’Roma Roasters

Smell the Coffee

By Janet Wells

A’ROMA ROASTERS cafe in Santa Rosa no longer serves food or drink on its front sidewalk after 8 p.m. A small thing, perhaps, in a city where zealous development, church scandals, and nightmare traffic rule the headlines. But for a city that seems desperate to revitalize its near-desolate downtown, it’s a significant–and demoralizing–sign.

When the sun is still barely going down, A’Roma Roasters’ little tables and chairs are stacked inside, and the usually teeming front sidewalk, like everywhere else in downtown Santa Rosa, just seems to roll up.

In June, owners Kay and Dayna Irvine clamped down on the crush of people hanging around outside their doors in the evening. Patrons of the Hotel La Rose across the street, where room rates top $200 a night, were complaining, as were patrons of the cafe, who had to wade through the throng for a latte. City police nagged the owners to do something about the unruly-seeming crowd.

“It’s not just 70 or 80 people, and it’s not our customers,” says Kay Irvine. “It’s hundreds and hundreds of kids. It’s all the kids who got kicked out of every other coffee shop.”

Irvine clearly is pained by the decision. Most of the kids are “wonderful, darling,” she says. It’s not the kids who “dress in black and look scary,” she says. It’s not the transients who have adopted Railroad Square as home. It’s not those who take up table space playing chess by the hour, or even the 75 people a day who use the bathroom and buy nothing. The last straw came from people who asked for a glass of water, grabbed a spoon, and headed for the bathroom.

“We found a needle in the bathrooms. They were shooting up,” says Irvine.

CITY POLICE advised a mandatory dress code to keep out the “undesirables.” But Irvine, a very-out lesbian whose motto is “A’Roma’s is for everyone,” is loathe to discriminate. So she and partner Dayna decided on a blanket rule.

“We so much wanted to not resort to this,” she says. “But we’re not a teen center or a homeless shelter or a public bathroom or a public phone. We’re a business, and we’re trying to make money. We have 33 employees trying to support their families.”

The draconian measure doesn’t seem to be working, however, as the party continues a few feet away, in the adjacent parking lot located, ironically, next to the Santa Rosa Visitors Bureau.

“It’s so heartbreaking. Kids need a place to go,” Irvine says. “These kids have no options.”

Why should A’Roma Roasters–one of the only lively evening attractions remaining downtown–bear the brunt of Santa Rosa’s social ills?

“We don’t get good help from the city,” Irvine allows.

Public bathrooms and pay phones would be a good first step, says Irvine, who also hopes that the long-awaited youth center at the renovated Lena’s across the way will give teenagers a place of their own.

As for the transients who contribute to the Railroad Square image problem, Gov. Gray Davis’ extension of the use of armories during the winter has given the city a reprieve from negotiating with NIMBYs who abhor the idea of a homeless shelter in their neighborhood. But the city needs to do more to effectively tackle the issue locally. The new panhandling ordinance may lead a few souls to social services, but it does nothing to replace the grassy plots of Railroad Square as a convenient place to lay a bedroll.

So A’Roma Roasters, trying to walk the fine line between serving the community and being a community service, has to take the life out of its front stoop.

“If anyone can come up with a solution,” Irvine pleads, “tell them to come down and talk to us.”

From the August 26-September 1, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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