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4 min

Rhizome’s bittersweet closing night

‘This experience has only told us that we want to do it again’: Lisa Moore

Rhizome Café's Lisa Moore and Vinetta Lenavat on closing night. Credit: Sabina Zahn

Stationed behind Rhizome’s bar, Vinetta Lenavat pauses every so often to look up at the buzzing crowd that has packed into the beloved East Broadway community space Aug 22 for a final evening of savoury food, tasty libations and good company.

As she deftly whips up another batch of martinis or mojitos — one last time — Lenavat longs to connect with, and say her farewells to, the continuously circulating regulars who have made Rhizome their hub, home, cultural sanctuary and social-justice headquarters for seven years.

Under the well-inscribed menu board, and through a porthole that separates bar and kitchen, her partner, Lisa Moore, is equally engaged — almost studiously — in helping fill the meal requests that are coming at her hand-over-fist — one last time.

One last to-die-for mac-and-cheese. One last pay-what-you-can bowl of feta-sprinkled lentil stew.

In an April 15 open letter, Moore and Lenavat announced they’d be closing the café.

“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.

“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.”

The sentiments that Moore and Lenavat expressed in their letter were echoed and expanded upon during the final night’s gathering, which was joyful, even celebratory, but tinged with sadness at the imminent loss.

“Rhizome is a place where I live, is a place where I have had the space to learn and transform and become, be a member of community, contribute to community, benefit from many communities gathering and utilizing the space here,” community educator Mia Amir says.

Amir, who learned that Rhizome was closing by email, says that when she thinks about home, the café is the space her mind first conjures.

UBC professor Juanita Sundberg also sees Rhizome as a second home and remembers the debates in which she got involved, including a memorable one about dating rules.

“I think one of the beautiful things for me about Rhizome is that I always either met somebody new while I was here or encountered somebody new and was able to spend time with them spontaneously.”

Sharalyn Jordan, of the LGBT advocacy group Rainbow Refugee Committee, who remembers going to Rhizome for a queer salsa night, says the café has been an important place for her to organize, connect and celebrate “across generations, across cultures.”

“This is a city where space is so privatized and so corporate, and to have a place where anyone can walk in and have a meal and a comfortable place to be and feel welcome is precious,” she says. “There’s no other place like it in Vancouver, and we will miss it dearly.”

“My kids grew up here — my oldest is seven now — and we always joke that Rhizome and she are the same age. Really, my kids, they don’t know [life] without Rhizome,” a tearful Shahira Sakiyama told Xtra. “This is their first reference outside of our home. When I first broke the news to them, they just started bawling.”

Sakiyama, who is expecting another child, recalls Lenavat saying that she’s “bummed” Rhizome won’t be there to welcome a new baby.

From a social-justice perspective, Rhizome’s closure is a huge loss, she says, adding that she’ll miss the café’s “all-encompassing” environment where different communities overlapped and collaborated.

Amir feels it’s important to locate Rhizome’s closure in a broader sociopolitical context, pointing to the gentrification that’s taking place across the city and the closure of a number of “very central” venues, in large part due to rent increases.

“That’s not the case with Rhizome, but there was an economic factor that contributed to the sustainability of this space being possible, and I think that that’s a really brutal reality for the communities that I’m a part of, where we have less and less space,” Amir elaborates. “It’s not just a proprietary relationship; it’s a relationship of belonging.”

Both Amir and Sakiyama are hopeful that the space will remain a viable one that is welcoming to a variety of communities.

Trinity United Church, which is set to open a new café at 317 East Broadway, has invited the community to an open house scheduled for Sept 5. 

In a letter addressed to the “Rhizome community,” minister Bethan Theunissen noted the “clear alignment of values” the church and Rhizome share. “As a progressive United Church congregation we also are passionate about safe LGBTQ positive space, being a social justice hub and providing a community living room, and we also love to bring people together to create a new world,” the letter states.

Theunissen also invited the community to help the church come up with a new name for the café that “honours” Moore and Lenavat’s legacy.

Moore and Lenavat, who plan to move to Toronto at some point, will likely take the Rhizome concept there.

Moore says closing night filled her with “an incredible mix of emotions,” the culmination of four months of saying farewells.

“We’ve just had waves and waves of beautiful community gatherings.”

Over time, Rhizome has grown into “something that has exceeded anything we could have imagined,” Moore says.

“It feels good to be wrapping something up on such positive terms and with such a powerful, loving ending.”

While Trinity United didn’t “necessarily set out” to run a café, Moore says, the news that Rhizome was closing prompted them to step up and carry on this work.

“We’re grateful to them for the opportunity to move on to other things that we need to focus on without feeling that we’ve abandoned what we created,” Moore says.

“This experience has only told us that we want to do it again,” she adds. “This is a role that we want to play in the world, creating spaces like this.”