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Crossing The Border For Coffee

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CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico -- One of my favorite things about being a reporter is discovering the unexpected.

A few Fridays ago my student intern and I were wandering the streets of downtown Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, Texas. Someone had told me a new coffee shop had opened on Avenida Juárez, the main street that flows into the international bridge.

Downtown Juárez is undergoing a costly and chaotic renovation. Construction workers crawled about like ants in fenced off sections where they'd torn open the streets into asphalt chasms. Drills shrieked and bulldozers blared above the din of frustrated motorists and careless bus drivers. All the ruckus made a simple downtown stroll unpleasant, to say the least.

So imagine my surprise when I found in the middle of this deconstructive circus a tidy new storefront bearing a the image of a steamy coffee cup on its window panes. Inside, customers stared into laptops and even actual books, oblivious to the outside commotion.

The space is small, fewer than a dozen tables, a closet-sized bathroom and an old-fashioned popcorn machine tucked into the corner by the entrance.

The two owners sat at one of the tables, sipping their own freshly brewed product while reading the newspaper. A set of portable speakers played some eclectic music from a phone or MP3 player. When we went up to introduce ourselves, the owners instantly lit up, obviously pleased at the idea of recruiting new customers.

"How is it that you decide to open a new business now, in this chaos?" I asked. "People can barely walk through the streets."

One of the owners, Ramon Galindo, responds with an amused smile.

"Why not?" he said.

There are no coffee shops like this in downtown Juárez, he said. People are hungry for a place where they can stop and breathe. Galindo and his co-owner Socorro Arredondo love their city and are willing to invest in its future.

The city is slowly recovering from an onslaught of drug-related violence that began about five years ago. Thousands fled the city and thousands more died violent deaths. Those who couldn't leave did their best shut themselves away. But that could only last so long.

Now people like Ramon and Socorro are reclaiming the city, one block at a time. They are the first to open a new business on this critical strip of downtown. They hope others will follow.

Every other Friday they plan to have live music (where they'll fit the musicians, I can't tell you). And they sell mostly Mexican-made products including their coffee, cheese and beef jerky.

Just three weeks from opening their doors, they already have their regulars. My intern returned that weekend and met an American writer and an American photographer working separately on projects about the border. They happen to love the place, she told me.

Now that I know it exists, just a quick walk across the international bridge, I hope to be a frequent customer as well. If you're interested, you can find Café 656 on Avenida Juárez near the corner with Avenida 16 de Septiembre. Don't forget your passport.