Immediately after stepping outside, a bitter wind slaps me in the face, causing my eyes to water. Digging my hands into my pockets, I shrug as I bury my chin and mouth into my scarf, lessening the available area for the wind to numb. I blink quickly, my vision alternating between focused and blurry as I attempt to clear the moisture from my eyes. My body shudders as I get hit by another blast of wind. It’s hard to believe, but the last time I was here, I was walking around in a tank top, shorts, and sandals.
Lining both sides of the single lane, one-way street are dozens of small, mom-and-pop shops, all connected, one right after the other. It’s a typical midwestern scene: brick buildings, branded eaves and bulbed street lights. In the summer, the sidewalks overflow with bustling crowds of high schoolers, college kids, young families, and retirees all making their way between this quaint downtown and the beach, just down the hill. Today, in January, I see only a few individuals wrapped up in winter coats, scarves and hats, hurrying from one heat source to another, trying their best not to freeze.
Aside from the winter winds whipping in off of Lake Michigan, it’s quiet.
I’m in Southwest Michigan today, visiting some friends. We’re supposed to get lunch at one of their favorite restaurants: The Mason Jar Cafe. They inform me that the café closes at 3:00pm and am urged to hurry as it’s currently 2:30. Gladly, I hop into a car, where it’s much warmer.
We quickly make our way over to the city of Benton Harbor, to the Arts District. The landscape has a similar small-town feel, but the buildings seem more vacant, weathered and spread out. I make a comment to my friends about how it seems that this town has seen better days. They nod but then begin to point out a myriad of shops and businesses that are being filled and rehabilitated by creative-types. It seems life is springing up from the ashes.
We pull up next to an old, brick building attached to a warehouse. I follow my friends around the side of the building, confused as to why we aren’t headed to the front where I presume the front door is located. As we turn the corner, I notice a side door and window discreetly placed on the broadside of the bricked wall. In the window is a sign that reads, “Come In, We’re Awesome.”
Surprised as to the placement of the main entry, I step inside.
Immediately, off to my right is an open kitchen behind a half wall, with two cooks greeting us with a nod and a smile as they continue to work. The main seating area is off to the left where we’re seated promptly, despite arriving fifteen minutes prior to closing time.
Sitting back, I take in the scene. The café is open and airy with plenty of natural light. It’s designed with a modern, Midwestern-farm feel. Strewn throughout the space is a myriad of lacquered, wooden tables with mismatched farmhouse chairs. The walls are white and decorated with random pieces of artwork. There’s a portrait of Lucille Ball on one side of the room and a landscape of a farm on the other. Decorative stars in black, white, and silver hang from the blacked-out ceiling, probably still leftover from the holidays. It’s cozy and clean.
True to its name, cold beverages are served in crystal clear mason jars. I order the quiche of the day and get a bowl of tomato basil soup. I take a spoonful, letting it linger as it makes its way over my tongue and along the sides of my mouth before swallowing. I’m surprised and delighted at the depth of flavor. The food is delicious and the perfect response to this winter cold.
After lots of conversation, laughs and jokes about the way we take pictures of our food and drinks, we get up to leave. But instead of heading out the door we came in, we walk toward the other side side of the building where the warehouse is.
Initially, I see a few tables and chairs off to the left, next to an industrial-sized garage door covered in glass panes. I squint as the natural light spills in through the windows. But as I turn to see the rest of the space, I’m surprised to see neatly arranged paintings, sculptures and pieces of artwork. The space is a local art gallery. It’s grungy but clean; grassroots but still professional.
We walk around inspecting the artwork and then walk toward the back of the warehouse where we pass parceled-out, makeshift studios and shops. The spaces are divided by two-by-fours and painted plywood walls, each having an open ceiling. Some have windows that allow you to see into the studios. Some have used, household doors. The spaces are occupied by artists, designers, photographers, sculptors, and other creatives. There’s even a studio filled with books for sale. My friend writes down the number of an available space for later.
I’m inspired as I look around at the various spaces. It’s a beautiful creation formed by a community of artists and creatives: People who love what they do and are willing to do whatever they can to create a world that’s more interesting and more beautiful than what it was when they first arrived.
And that’s the beauty of creativity: it creates. It takes something old and useless—such as an old warehouse—and modifies it into an art gallery, shared studio space, and a beautiful café. It takes something lifeless and breathes life back into it. It’s the type of creativity that transforms our spaces, our cities, and the world we exist in.
As we walk out of the café into the harsh, cold wind, I turn and see the sign in the window has been flipped around. It now reads: “Closed, But Still Awesome.”
Yes, Mason Jar Café, you are still awesome.
The Mason Jar Cafe
210 Water Street, Benton Harbor, MI 49022