These days, the phrase “coffee shop” conjures up an image of Starbucks, with customers quietly talking with each other, reading books or working with electronic devices while sipping their favorite (and pricey) blends.
Yet, coffee shops were not always like this. Originally, they were establishments where one could conduct business or engage in raucous conversation and debate. Philosophical and political ideas were hammered out over strong caffeinated brew.
In the 1950s, the Beat Generation transformed coffee shops into locales where music, poetry and the meaning of life were heavily debated. It was in this vein that a new coffee shop opened its doors to the YSU community in 1968; however, its sponsorship came from a surprising source.
The Gates of Eden coffee shop was located on North Phelps Street (across the street from where the Williamson College of Business now exists). It was operated by a non-profit corporation called the Student Coffee House Ministry, a group of local clergymen.
The prime movers and shakers in this endeavor were the Rev. Burton Cantrell, a Methodist minister and YSU’s Protestant chaplain, and Father Raymond DeBlasio, the director of the Newman Center and the university’s Catholic chaplain. Both men were social activists.
Rev. Cantrell promoted various peace movements. Father DeBlasio provided counseling to draft-age men as the war in Indochina consumed increasing amounts of troops and treasure.
Though sponsored by men of the cloth, the Gates of Eden was not a church. The actual day-to-day operations were in the hands of a 12 member student board.
Together with their clergy partners, they created a place where students could hang out and talk without worry — an early “safe zone.” To encourage this atmosphere, alcohol and profanity were banned.
Open weekdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and later on weekends, students were encouraged to bring their lunches. Beverages available for purchase included coffee, cider, hot chocolate,
soft drinks and various flavors of tea. Pastries and ice cream were also on the bill of fare.
However, students usually dropped by the Gates for something more substantial than the menu: intellectual food. This took the form of lectures by YSU faculty, local activists and the university chaplains.
Free and open discussion followed, with audience participation. There were also musical performances, with students encouraged to participate with their own instruments.
On Saturday nights, Father DeBlasio and the Newman Club screened “underground” movies (independently produced films, usually of an artistically experimental or socially controversial nature).
In June 1970, Rev. Cantrell resigned as Protestant chaplain to become the regional director of SANE, an anti-nuclear peace organization.
Four months later, the Gates of Eden closed; its landlord banished the students out of Eden by not renewing the coffee shop’s lease. Other attempts were made to re-create the Gates experience (with Father DeBlasio’s help), but none lasted very long. Times were changing.
In 1972, Father DeBlasio left the Roman Catholic priesthood for Ohio State to pursue a doctoral degree in educational research and development.
Like its biblical namesake, the Gates of Eden were closed for good.