In her neighborhood
City-council candidate Tremaine Wright helps build her community through coffee.
By Tracy E. Hopkins
Photography by Dan Dry
Tremaine Wright, JD’99, calls Common Grounds, her coffee shop in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, “a neighborhood gathering place.” On a hazy summer afternoon, it’s easy to see why. A young man at a front table types on his laptop, a couple stops by for smoothies, and a distinguished older gentleman plops down $2 for a regular coffee.
Responding to a lack of coffee shops in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn lawyer Wright opened her own café.
In New York City’s largest African American community, Wright says, “you know all of your neighbors on your block. People tend to take care of their yards, exchange plants, and do small things that show they are invested in one another.” In fact, the 36-year-old Brooklyn native is so invested in the neighborhood, commonly called Bed-Stuy, that she’s one of eight candidates running for the 36th District’s city-council seat.
Seated at a round table inside her sparsely decorated coffee shop accented by vibrant red and yellow walls, Wright explains that she opened Common Grounds in March 2007 because it was needed. Before it opened, Wright’s nearest coffee-shop option was several blocks away, a trek she calls unreasonable compared to Manhattan and other parts of Brooklyn. “I noticed there was a void for places to sit and relax in the neighborhood,” she says. Since then four newer cafés have opened, each about a block away from her shop.
Although business is down about 15 percent since summer 2008, “our weekdays are busier than weekends,” she says; Common Grounds opens at 7 a.m. for commuters, closing weekdays at 8 p.m. The menu offers a house blend of African coffee, assorted herbal teas, Belgian waffles, pastries, panini, and soups in the winter. Patrons linger, connect to free WiFi, and watch the flat-screen TV suspended on a back wall. In the small backyard space, Wright hosts film screenings, poetry readings, and private parties. In May Common Grounds and the Tompkins Avenue Merchants Association—which Wright helped organize six years ago—cohosted a Neighborhood Beautification Day to help “spruc[e] up the district.”
“We are a huge expanse of land as far as neighborhoods go”—about 300 blocks—“and there are people who live in one area and don’t ever walk or talk to people in the other part of Bed-Stuy,” she says. “That’s part of my vision for the area, to bring people”-—the neighborhood has nearly 150,000 residents—“together.” Building a stronger commercial strip would draw “clusters of businesses, and people will shop and stroll. It can get people walking and exploring their hood more.”
Wright returned to New York City after earning her law degree. While working as an associate at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, LLP, she thought about opening a coffee shop. Laid off in late 2002, she formulated her business plan, which was a runner-up in the 2003 PowerUp business-plan–writing competition sponsored by the Brooklyn Public Library and Citicorp.
A year later Wright joined Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom as a staff attorney, a position that allowed her the flexibility to move forward with Common Grounds. When the staff-attorney program dissolved in 2009, Wright devoted all her time to the coffee shop and her city-council campaign.
“A combination of desire and ability to do the job,” Wright says, qualifies her for the city council. She was inspired to run for office in part by a former Chicago law lecturer’s political success. As a student, she took several courses, including constitutional law, with Barack Obama.
Like Obama, Wright takes a grassroots approach to her campaign. She generated buzz before the September 15 city-council primary by attending neighborhood block parties, health fairs, and community events. “People are beginning to recognize my face and name,” she said in July. A longtime member of her block association and a community board, she’s also part of a biking coalition that encourages residents and visitors to explore the neighborhood. She does pro bono legal work for the City Bar Justice Center’s Neighborhood Entrepreneur Law Project.
Then there’s her coffee shop. Before closing Common Grounds for the day, Wright stands outside, greets passersby, and chats with a neighbor repotting plants on the sidewalk. The shop “reflects the community,” she says. “That’s the vibe—it’s inviting, warm, and active. That’s what it was intended to be.”