Tango Cafe fighting for its existence

Tango Cafe fighting for its existence

Leafing through old photos of art exhibits, poetry readings, concerts and the over 600 names on a petition, Tango Café owner Liliana Petruy knows her days at her current location at the corner of Forward and Murray Avenues are numbered — but her time in the United States could also be coming to an end.

Opened in December of 2003, the Tango Café has been much more than a place to get coffees, pastries or authentic Argentinean food — it has been a cultural learning center.

Signs hang from the café’s windows with the simple slogan, ‘Safe the Café.”

However, with it looking like the Forward Square project will have smooth sailing all the way into the construction phase, the Tango Café has less than a year left in existence.

“I was in shock,” said Petruy, when she heard the news of her café being torn down.

While some of the other businesses have the money and resources to relocate once their current space is demolished, Petruy has neither.

“In the first year the café was opened I put over $100,000 into,” she said. “I don’t have the money to do that all over again. I’ve spent it all.”

Like most small businesses, Petruy lived off her savings during the first year the café was opened. She knows that if she is forced to move locations, she doesn’t have the funds necessary to set up a new café.

“When we first opened I had to spend $25,000 just to get the building ready,” she said. “Then there was equipment that I constantly had to buy. It all just added up.”

Petruy’s lease ends April 30, 2009. With the impending destruction of the café she won’t renew the lease.

But, the news gets worse for Petruy. If she cannot find a new location for her café and has no business of her own — her visa is no longer valid. Petruy and her two daughters will be forced to leave the United States.

“If we don’t have a business anymore we have to leave the country,” she said. “If I can get some help for the move, I can continue. If I don’t get help I don’t have a choice.”

Just three people — Petruy, one of her daughters and volunteer employee Lisa Malley, run the café.

Since opening in 2003, the café has done so much more for the community then provide food and drink. Petruy has hosted art exhibits for local artists, let musicians come and play their new songs and been the home to constant poetry readings — all for free.

But it goes beyond just free entertainment. She also has teaches Spanish to those that are interested and hold weekly Spanish conversations for anyone to attend. In addition to teaching Spanish, she also has tango lessons done after hours right in the front of the café.

“We allow people to use the space here as a central meeting place, “Malley said. “The atmosphere here is always friendly.”

Customers are fighting hard for the café and to help keep it running.

“Don’t tear it down,” one customer said. “I’ve been coming here for a long time and it’s not because they have great coffee or food. It’s because this place means so much to not only me, but everyone. Don’t tear it down.”

Petruy is not against the Forward Square project. She wants what is best for the community. It’s help from the developers that she needs.

“I don’t want to stop this project,” she said. “It’s good for the community. It’s OK by me. They developers said they are going to help us. They never said how.”

City Council President Doug Shields said there are options available for the relocation of the café.

“I want to sit down and talk with her (Petruy) and let her know that she does have some options,” Shields said. “Certainly there is help available. I’ll do all that I can to show her she has options. There is the Regional Development Lending Corporation, which can give $40,000 or even more to local businesses in need. The café is one of the great little places of Squirrel Hill.”

Tom Chunchick of R.E. Crawford Construction was on vacation and was unable to answer questions, while Russell Mills, a partner-in-principle at Cambridge Venture Partners did not return a call left by the Chronicle.

Petruy appreciates the support from the community and is asking for help in any form.

“The people are fighting not only for me,” she said, “but because they found something here that they have connected to. I don’t want to close my business. I have made so many wonderful friends here.”

For now though she can only wait and hope for some good news to come her way. She will continue to stay open as long as possible.

“I will stay until the last day and the final minute,” she said. “We have no intention of closing early.”

However, for this one immigrant from Argentina, the American dream didn’t shape out the way she thought.

“They say America is the place of dreams. I cannot say that economically I have had that dream. I put forth the money and I haven’t made it back. But the dream I have had is the reward from the people who have spent time in my café.”

(Mike Zoller can be reached at mzoller@pittchron.com)

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