What USC’s beloved student-run coffee clubhouse taught me about creative freedom
These are just a few of the Wild Boys I spent four years making milkshakes with behind the bar at Ground Zero. There were twenty of us living together, running and operating a coffee shop/milkshake bar/music venue out of an abandoned cafeteria nestled within the south-side dorms at USC. Over the course of four decades, Ground Zero had evolved from a 90s business student’s thesis project into a cultural hub, creative co-op, and safe space that every student should be entitled to. We beat Starbucks to cold brew, crushed through the best of Homeboy’s pastries, and had the most *interesting* Open Mic east of the 405. But the true spirit of Ground Zero was enlivened by a philosophy that valued inclusion, creative expression, and community above all else.
Though typical challenges of college bureaucracy — further aggravated by the 2016 election — made student life socially and politically stressful, Ground Zero was the one space that was entirely ours. We raised it democratically, using our stage to debate the topics the school had shied away from, host the shows the events committees didn’t care about, and say the things that the newspaper would have censored. We evolved with the expanding voice of Millennial culture while sustaining the stories and rituals that made us uniquely us from the very beginning.
We had little to no experience within the realm of hospitality or food & beverage, but what we did have was an unparalleled love and respect for each other and this place where we found purpose and belonging — many of us for the first time. A chosen community that was aligned in intention, diverse in approach, and rooted in creative freedom had been so out of reach before it became our home.
Lopsided pleather couches, mostly burnt espresso, and questionable health code compliance was outshined by a sophisticated sound system, top-notch playlists, fully stocked OG candy varietals, and a real solid crew of some of the most colorful and talented misfits in school. No matter how many dorm room security guards you had to pass to use the restroom or how deformed our compostable lids were, we were loved and accepted by the entirety of the student body precisely for our unapologetic quirks and wholehearted expression. Creative freedom was knowing that when we were operating from love and the embodiment of our full identity, there was no wrong: no matter what forms and flavors of sugar we’d throw in the blender, milkshakes are always right.
Ground Zero was beyond a job, study spot, or where we found late-night refuge to get high and watch movies on the big screen. It was a cross-generational creative and professional network that had organically evolved in support of each other, our projects, and initiatives even beyond graduation. And yet, as our community expanded over time to extend beyond the space itself, things took an unexpected turn.
In response to the 2017 opening of Caruso’s University Village as a commercial extension of USC’s campus, various local businesses that relied on the student body were forced to close, and Ground Zero was shut down in the interest of capitalizing on new investments to build a concept deemed more profitable by the school. If only they knew how many students would have transferred if not for a community like ours. We spent the last few days mourning and the next few months fighting an administration, which, drowning to save its reputation amid a slew of sexual assault allegations, had little time or consideration to devote to preserving our little corner of the world. Meanwhile, we were losing power to the influx of investment from private developers with elaborate plans on transforming the neighborhood. We had petitions, testimonials, social media and crowd-funding campaigns circulating the campus, but we just couldn’t get our President to listen. It came as no surprise that he was asked to step down just a few weeks later.
Though losing it was one of the most difficult losses any of us had to swallow, it meant we had no choice but to realize that as much as we became Ground Zero, Ground Zero became us. We all had to set out to discover and nourish new communities; they may not always involve a mad scientist’s approach to flavor, but they’ll always be rooted in the sense of belonging and boundless creativity. So while we’re all off changing the world, here’s the first taste of our sugar-coated creative genius — some people wrote poems, others drew artwork, but we all made sense of the world through milkshakes.