By Adilene Díaz
The scene inside Mottley Kitchen on a recent Saturday was unusual for the South Bronx. Adults enjoyed vanilla bean lattes and chocolate buckwheat muffins while children danced around a rustic wooden table to the melodic beat of djembe drums as educator Rabin Nickens read Eloise Greenfield’s poem, “Honey, I Love.”
The lively Saturday morning children’s reading event is one way owner Kathryn Creech, 31, is seeking to ease the tensions that can simmer in a gentrifying neighborhood such as Mott Haven, where her café and catering business opened on East 140th Street a little over a year ago.
“I hope that we’re embracing the aspect where, instead of pushing people away, we’re bringing people in and we’re all sharing a space together,” Creech said in an interview.
Creech opened her café at a time when the South Bronx – once a symbol of urban blight – was undergoing great change. In recent years, developers converted old warehouses and former factories into condominiums and artist studios. Real estate brokers rebranded the area “SoBro” and the “Piano District.” New condo towers and hotels are being built and restaurants such as Mott Haven Bagel & Barista, Ceetay, and Nobody’s Pizza opened to cater to new residents.
Creech has tried to differentiate Mottley Kitchen from other new businesses by reaching out to the entire neighborhood. According to a neighborhood profile by New York University’s Furman Center, the population of Mott Haven and adjacent Melrose is 67.2 percent Hispanic with a poverty rate in 2017 of 44.2 percent, compared to the citywide rate of 17.9 percent.
One of the larger events she offers to the community are the Saturday morning readings held in collaboration with community partner, Boogie Down Books, a small, locally-owned online bookstore with a mission to provide Bronx children with books.
This is the café’s busiest hour. On a recent Saturday, the spacious coffee shop with its whitewashed brick walls covered with work by local artists was filled with customers. The seven long wooden tables and window seats were all occupied with the exception of two being used for story time. Its white countertop was filled with freshly baked goods including blackberry challah bread pudding, vegan carrot cake and strawberry glazed crullers.
Creech also provides space in the café for Boogie Down Books’ pop-up shop. She sells Bronx-themed merchandise from Bronx Native and Graffiti 2 Community Ministries and has worked with other local vendors including Bronx Narratives, an online publication that collects stories from Bronx residents.
Despite these efforts, residents initially were a bit skeptical about the café’s arrival.
“I had mixed feelings at first,” said Idelsa Mendez, 42, who has lived in Mott Haven for more than 20 years. Mendez said she was unsure if the café was a good fit for the neighborhood but now finds it welcoming and spends every morning at the shop.
Mottley Kitchen has been able to help stimulate the economy of the South Bronx by cross-promoting other local business on the café’s aesthetically pleasing and carefully curated Instagram account. Since opening, Mottley Kitchen’s team has grown from a staff of three to eight people. The new employees are locals, as Creech wanted to create jobs for people who live in the community.
Samuel Brooks, president of the Mott Haven Historic Districts Association and a resident for more than 40 years, said the café also has been beneficial for other small businesses by attracting more people to the neighborhood. He hopes it will lead people to learn more about the history of the neighborhood and what it has to offer.
Prior to coming to Mott Haven — or even New York — Creech worked at a culinary school in France where she began taking lessons and developed an interest in the “kitchen side of things.” The principal of her school connected her to a job at a bakery. There, she met a family friend who was opening a bakery at the Plaza Hotel in New York. She applied for, and won, a position there, and moved to Manhattan in 2011.
Once Creech decided to open up a catering company, she said she faced difficulties finding a kitchen space. Because her business was not large enough for its own space, she had to rent from other people.
Eventually, she got to the point where she was ready to sign her own lease and have her own kitchen. That was when she found the Mott Haven location — a raw, empty space with no plumbing, electricity or a staircase, but with an eclectic history; the location had, at various times, been a church, car repair shop and even an underground salsa club.
Now, Mottley Kitchen is a hub for both long-time Mott Haven residents, as well as a wave of newcomers. In the midst of great changes, Mottley Kitchen acts as a bridge, connecting the neighborhood’s past and present.