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Beloved Rhizome Café set to close in July

'Rhizome stepped in at a time when we really needed a space'

"The beautiful thing is that we're ending while Rhizome is still very strong and still is very vibrant and still everything we hoped it would be, and more," says co-owner Lisa Moore (left, with Vinetta Lenavat). Credit: Shauna Lewis photo

After seven years of being a hub of social justice activism, dialogue and a welcoming space for queer community and other human rights groups, Rhizome Café will close its East Broadway doors in July.

“Together, we’ve created a particular kind of magic in this space, one that has allowed us to develop our collective resistance to injustice, and to imagine and build a better world together,” café co-owners Lisa Moore and Vinetta Lenavat say in an April 15 open letter to their patrons informing them of the closure.

“We’ve developed relationships that couldn’t have been forged elsewhere, and we’ve created a shared home where many of us have been able to take root. It pains us tremendously that this part of the journey is coming to an end, yet we hope that together we will find ways to ensure that these connections are able to live on.”

Moore and Lenavat say their reasons for closing the space that became a community living room are many, including a need to focus on their East Coast families and social-justice struggles in the US and elsewhere, as well as the challenge of “ever-rising costs.”

Community activist Fatima Jaffer says Rhizome’s impending closure is a terrible loss.

“Rhizome stepped in at a time when we really, really needed a space to come together, a space to be creative about our activism,” Jaffer says. “It represented the 2000s in the sense that it connects us with the activism we had in the ’90s.”

“It had such a broad appeal,” she continues. “It reached out to so many different communities. It introduced wonderful ideas, like board games are sooo gay, to responding to political events like Occupy, to providing a space for academics.”

Jaffer says she can’t think of a single sector of social-justice organizing in Vancouver that has not used and appreciated Rhizome — from unions, to the women’s movement, to the queer community and anti-poverty organizations. She says it’s a shame the owners weren’t able to “make a go of it financially in the end.”

In 2011, Moore told Xtra that the global economic downturn, combined with rent and food cost increases, had put a strain on the café’s operations, leaving the future of the space uncertain.

She and Lenavat reached out to the community for help to keep the financially strapped café afloat. That led to the formation of a committee to brainstorm ways to ensure the beloved space would continue to thrive. The Friends of Rhizome donation group arose out of those sessions, the concept being that once people donated, they automatically became members of the group, owning a piece of the space.

Within a week of going public about its need for support, Rhizome raised more than $5,000 from about 150 short- and long-term donors.

“We were so overwhelmed by the support we got — the number of people who were willing to donate what they were able to, when they were able to, to continue this thing that they considered their home and shared resource that they were committed to, and that has really been beautiful,” Moore says.

But Moore says that despite the community’s “generous support,” the cumulative stress of trying to stay afloat and keep the books balanced while staying true to their values has been hard.

“The beautiful thing is that we’re ending while Rhizome is still very strong and still is very vibrant and still everything we hoped it would be, and more,” she says.

Moore says that since the announcement of Rhizome’s impending closure, it’s been “beautiful to hear and read so many different voices, expressing that this is a place that’s been important to them.”

She says it’s testimony to what she has felt all along: that physical space is critical to people’s sense of place and identity in the context of a city, especially one to which many have migrated. “That simple act of having a place to go that you feel is yours is just hugely anchoring for so many people.”

“When you think of the community response, they did have a very good response,” Jaffer agrees.

Jaffer points to the increasing gentrification of Main Street as one of the challenges to the survival of spaces like Rhizome. “I do think it has to do with economic factors that are kind of beyond their control, in the sense of rents, in the sense of the costs of running an establishment like that, city policy, licensing.”

Moore says the neighbourhood in which Rhizome is located has changed a lot over the last seven years. “It’s become harder and harder for small projects like this to survive, and that is something that I’m hugely concerned about as it applies to spaces like ours and so many others that have struggled to survive.

“It’s something that I hope the city will be able to do, to find ways to hold space for cultural spaces that really are the heartbeat of neighbourhoods and communities.”

Moore and Lenavat say they plan to move to Toronto at some point and will likely reopen Rhizome there. They call their announcement “more of a transition than it is of an end.”

But even as Moore and Lenavat prepare for that eventual move, they are also looking for a buyer who will not only take over the lease here, but make sure the space continues to be a “warm and welcoming one.”

“I think whoever takes over the space, we will orient them on what the space has housed before and hope that they will at the very least continue to make it a welcoming place, especially for people who don’t necessarily feel welcome in other places in the community,” Moore says. “The onus will be on that person to decide whether or not they want to do that or turn it into something else that is a project they have wanted to create.”

Moore says she believes that the community can reflect on what Rhizome has meant and find ways to carry on the values and commitment.

Jaffer says spaces like Rhizome usually run when there’s a vision held by a few people who have the commitment to move it forward. “It does take a handful of people with the gumption, the courage to make it work, so I hope there are people, or there is someone who is in a particular place in their lives where they would take something like that up.

“There are people like that in Vancouver; it’s just that it takes a certain kind of synchronicity.”

She says the legacy that Moore and Lenavat have established in the city is that an entity like Rhizome is possible.

“We hope that we really will leave with our community having built connections in this space that will last long after the physical Rhizome is gone and that we will ourselves be able to invest energy in creating something new and tending to parts of our lives that we’ve had to kind of put on hold while we did this work,” Moore says.