I’m walking up Alameda around four in the afternoon. The traffic is already somewhat heavy during the rush hour, and the breeze is very pleasant. I had just felt like taking a stroll, so I pass Union Station and Olvera Street, then the Post Office. Philippe’s is on my left. I pass the California Endowment Center, then Starlight Nails and Beauty Salon. Across the street is Los Angeles Fleet Services, yellow taxicabs in constant motion in and around the building. I’m nearing my destination, Homeboy Industries. Outside there’s a large break area where people are milling around, laughing and smoking, chatting and texting.
According to the Homeboy Industries, Homeboy Industries traces its roots to “Jobs For A Future” (JFF), a program created in 1988 by Father Greg at Dolores Mission parish. In 1992, as a response to the civil unrest in Los Angeles, Father Greg launched the first business (under the organizational banner of JFF and Proyecto Pastoral, separated from Dolores Mission Church): Homeboy Bakery with a mission to create an environment that provided training, work experience, and above all, the opportunity for rival gang members to work side by side.
The Homeboy bakeries building seems to be half recruiting station, half coffee shop. I walk in and find myself in what appears to be a gift shop. Homeboy Industries apparently has its own line of clothing of coffee mugs, all emblazoned with Homeboy/Homegirl Bakery and neatly displayed in the small room. The girl behind the counter greets me, her dark brown lipstick cracking as she smiles hello. The articles are all available online for purchase as well.
Through the glass door is the bakery, known as the Homegirl Cafe, and a large corporate-feeling reception area is through the other door to my right. That office is the headquarters of Homeboy Maintenance, its mission to provide “exterior and interior maintenance, landscaping and other services for commercial buildings and private residences.” A separate location houses the Homeboy Silkscreening division, where “you can order custom shirts, pens and more with silkscreen or embroidery for your team, your school, and your business.” Most importantly, though, are the free services available at Homeboy Industries, in this beautiful building. The free support services focus on case management, education (including Opportunities for Learning Charter High School), job training and placement, legal services, mental health counseling, twelve step meetings, pre-release and transition counseling, and tattoo removal.
My eyes return to the glass case in front of me, displaying temptations divine—cakes, cookies, éclairs. And then my eye lands on my favorite item of all, strawberry and raspberry cheesecake. I move closer to the case, my fingers smudging the glass as I point out my treat, and then inch over towards the register. The cashier is about my age, her hair moussed and crinkled, her eyebrows drawn in a fine, thin line and lending her a perpetually surprised look. She smiles at me as I place my order, and says mmm, that’s one of my favorites. I’m not sure if she says this about each item purchased in her bakery, but the slice looks so absolutely delectable that maybe, just maybe, she really means it. She packs it up in a little plastic container, swipes my credit card (I never have cash) and hands me the receipt and a fork. She can’t find a pen for me to sign with and instead hands me a pencil with a broken top. We laugh at the absurdity of the little stump and I pull out my own pen to sign.
I feel like a particularly suspicious squirrel hoarding nuts as I look for a seat. I station myself at a marble topped bar where I can see the other entrance and the door that leads to the offices. Behind me a couple of students are sprawled out in a booth, their backpacks forgotten and stashed away under their feet. The cashier is joined by the cashier from the gift shop and a few more women behind the counter. They all speak in low tones, swapping stories about their kids and boyfriends. I notice that there’s actually more to the café towards the back that is currently cordoned off, but has all kinds of tables and chairs and wall of windows. The sun is setting, and the long, spindly shadows fall across the carpeted floor.
I focus again at my treasure. I snap open the plastic container and unsheathe the fork from its plastic wrapper. I am a caricature of a starving woman, mouth salivating in anticipation. I scoop up the first bite and voraciously devour it. I can divine each separate flavor – the graham cracker crust, the original cheesecake, the raspberry topping, the fresh strawberries. I am in heaven, Downtown LA Heaven. I take another bite, and then another, barely stopping to savor each.
I turn back to the shop and watch the employees at work. One woman is diligently sweeping as other workers come in and out of the various entrances. I see heads tattooed, necks tattooed, jeans three sizes too big and belted at the waist. I see a Hispanic woman with her hair down in long cornrows, her work shirt thrown over her shoulder. I see the reception area packed with people filling out job applications.
I again take in the ambience, the feel of this cute bakery. The walls and pillars are all covered in shiny green tile. The counters are smooth and clean. The seats are cushioned, and I sink into my bar stool as I devour my cheesecake. I watch as one woman cleans the window case of the baked items. She has an aerosol can of window cleaner, and she uses it to tag the surface like a graffiti artist. She catches me watching her and we both laugh as she methodically wipes down the glass.
There is a bustle and hum of activity here that is ever present. The various people form mixed backgrounds and cultures work in unison. The whole production feels like an after school special, the converted convicts and felons now working alongside one another in perfect harmony. This year, 2008, marks the 20th Anniversary of the work Father Greg began. Homeboy Industries is recognized as the largest gang intervention program in the county, and has become a national model. It’s a beautiful thing. And the food isn’t bad, either.
The café is open from 7am to 5pm, Monday through Saturday.