If you pass by Espresso 77, a cafe and wine bar that doubles as a gallery for local artists, you can’t help but stop and admire their colorful display, proclaiming “Jackson Heights Strong.”
The vibrant artwork was created by Afzal Hossain, the owner of the popular cafe located at 35-57 77th St., after they were forced to board up their original glass window display with plywood. On the night of Tuesday, May 26, Hossain said two individuals tried to break into the cafe by smashing the windows with a brick.
Julie Nymann, Hossain’s wife, said they got calls from neighbors who saw the attempt and called the police. Hossain spoke with police that night, but hasn’t received word that any arrests have been made, as the two individuals fled before anyone arrived.
The incident occurred days before the Black Lives Matter demonstrations for George Floyd began in New York City.
Hossain didn’t think it’d be necessary to board up the cafe before the incident, as they felt it brought beauty to their neighborhood.
Still, Hossain believes “everything happens for a reason.”
“It does make me angry, but I said, ‘I cannot be angry. I need to calm down,'” Hossain said. “So I immediately thought about doing something beautiful.”
Nymann said they were able to find an emergency glass repair to fix it the next day, but decided to board it up for the time being since the cafe has remained closed for several weeks due to the COVID-19 health crisis. They’re still not sure when they’ll re-open, as they want to keep their staff and customers safe.
But when Hossain and Nymann posted about their shattered window on social media the next day, David Heatley, a cartoonist who lives in the neighborhood, immediately volunteered to help create the artwork and suggested they make it a community project.
“I think of their cafe as central to the neighborhood,” Heatley said. “I drew a lot of my first books sitting there. I had a gallery show there. I feel very connected to them, and feel they’re important part of the Jackson Heights community.”
And so they began painting the next day. A small group of kids, teens and adults from the neighborhood joined Hossain and Heatley to help paint the vibrant display.
Hossain said the artwork “came organically” in a “flow of angriness and happiness,” as they drew outlines of trees, fish and more abstract figures with a red, green, blue and yellow color palette.
“This kind of came about for unfortunate reasons, but it was a way to continue being a space for creativity,” Nymann said.
Espresso 77 has hosted live music, art shows, poetry and a space community members can use as their “living room,” as Hossain puts it, for 12 years now.
“We’re a community business, not a big business,” Hossain, who emigrated from Bangladesh more than two decades ago, said. “People are already coming and taking photographs. It sends a good message.”