When the foil wrap came off the trays of fried catfish, barbecue chicken, beef stew and all your favorite sides, a guest at the Welton Street Cafe’s anniversary celebration had some sage advice:
“Go get you some culture,” Chairman Seku said, gesturing toward the free buffet.
He lost his bid for mayor, but is a winner when it comes to picking restaurants. He said he eats at the Welton Street Cafe at least once a month.
The home-style African-American and Caribbean cooking that the cafe dishes out to longtime regulars such as Seku as well as newcomers to fast-changing Five Points was once as ubiquitous in the neighborhood as jazz. The cafe that has been at 2736 Welton St. for 20 years is the last soul food restaurant on the block. Instead of lamenting what’s been lost, many of the hundreds gathered at the cafe Tuesday said the two-decade milestone was a chance to reflect on culture as well as lessons of resilience and relationships.
His first try at a restaurant, just a few blocks from 2736, closed after six months when his landlord sold the building, said Welton Street Cafe founder Flynn Dickerson, who came to Colorado from St. Thomas as a teen. He persisted through a few more location changes over the last 34 years.
Dickerson said what he was celebrating Tuesday with free food and music for all were the connections he has made.
“It does my heart good to be part of a community,” he said. “I have no desire to go into a strip (mall) or downtown, because that’s just business.”
Five Points can be as successful and as rooted as the cafe, businessmen and neighborhood advocates Haroun Cowans and Norman Harris said at Tuesday’s gathering, which also drew Mayor Michael Hancock and Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca.
“I feel like we’re celebrating a renaissance,” said Harris, a force behind Five Points’s annual Juneteenth festival of African-American culture and commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States.
“We’re celebrating a community, a family,” added Cowans.
The two have been part of a group working to revive the Rossonian, a long-shuttered hotel just down the street from the cafe where jazz stars such as Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald once stayed and played.
George Roberts, another Welton Street Cafe regular, remembers when his grandfather was a partner in a barbershop in Five Points. It and other black-owned businesses have disappeared.
“It’s for-real gentrification,” Roberts, a pastor, said of changes in the neighborhood where he has lived all his 61 years.
He said the Welton Street Cafe, where he often comes for a meal after presiding over a funeral, has been able to endure because of the Dickersons.
“They’re doing something right,” he said.
Flynn Dickerson’s wife, Mona, whom everyone calls Miss Mona, is known for helping struggling young people, Roberts said.
One of those she has helped, Adrian Garcia, made a point of coming Tuesday.
Garcia said that a few years ago, he had lost a child and had no place for his family to live. He’d gone to East High School with Flynn and Mona Dickerson’s twins Fathima and Fathim. Miss Mona offered him a job.
“They helped me out at a time in my life that was disastrous,” he said.
He said he learned to work in the high-pressure environment of a restaurant kitchen. He also observed the Dickerson’s approach to customer service:
“Things go bad, they get it fixed.”
He went on to work in other restaurants and now is a property manager.
“I’m proud to say I used to work here,” Garcia said. “I feel like part of me is here.”
Change is inevitable, said Fathima Dickerson, who along with her twin brother has taken over running the cafe day-to-day.
“Five Points has seen a lot of movement,” she said. “One thing I’m hopeful of is that we are going to be here to serve the people, no matter who they are.”
She kept a worried eye on the weather as she talked. Her guests did not let rain deter them. Many came with umbrellas.