When Café Rozella first opened in the heart of White Center, drug deals and prostitutes were common sights in the South Seattle neighborhood. Now the coffee house is a gathering place for the community, reflecting its artistic soul and vibrant diversity.

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Spanish sentences floated around as a bilingual group of writers met on the sidewalk patio of Café Rozella, in White Center on a recent weekend.

A poet from Cuba shyly recited his work. A Metro bus driver shared photographs of her baby alpaca. And a stay-at-home dad read his favorite poems as all shared the gourmet-style pizza he’d baked and brought from home.

What is bringing all these people together?

“There’s a sort of presence about the cafe,” said the bus driver, Ruth Asare, who also writes children’s books. “I like the idea that a cultural happening is going on in a place like White Center, because for many years White Center just seemed like a kind of a wasteland — a kind of place where it didn’t seem like much anything was going on of value.”

Long one of the Seattle area’s poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods, White Center in recent years has been the focus of intense public and private renewal efforts, and the intimate cafe fills a unique niche in that larger effort.

Where condoms and needles once could be found in the street, the coffee house offers up its writers group, musical performances and coffee at 17th Avenue Southwest and Delridge Way Southwest.

The coffee house has provided “a core to the neighborhood, in a way, just because there was nothing like that before,” said local artist Mike Leavitt. “There was no place to go to hang out except for the bars. And there’s plenty of bars.”

In 2007, two years after its opening, Mayor Greg Nickels named the cafe’s owner, Leticia Martinez, and her business and life partner Ricardo Guarnero, “a force of change” in the community.

The two say they have made their business a success by believing in the neighborhood, choosing it because they wanted a challenge and saw an opportunity for change.

Martinez has always had an entrepreneurial bent.

She designed swimwear when she was 17, owned her own jewelry store at 24, and later worked as a model in California. She moved to West Seattle in 1993 and met Guarnero in 2002. When he first suggested opening a coffee house, she suggested the White Center area.

“Ricardo wanted to open one in the U District, but I thought there’s too many there,” she said. “I took kick-boxing classes in White Center and I saw that it needed one.”

Now, they relish being a part of the community.

“A lot of people embraced us and loved us,” Martinez said.

People from all over

Café Rozella’s walls reflect its patrons’ diversity. Black-and-white photos of John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe share wall space with Che Guevara, Alice Walker and Amy Tan.

White Center is one of the few Seattle neighborhoods with immigrants from nearly every continent, and customers from all over the world walk into the cafe.

“There is a kind of magic in the place to make people feel comfortable,” said Eduardo Mendonça, a Brazilian-American musician who occasionally performs at the coffee house. “They’ve really made White Center a place that people aren’t afraid to go to.”

Overcoming a big blow

After the 2006 slaying of King County sheriff’s Deputy Steve Cox, who many say tirelessly helped make White Center a safer place, some residents lost hope that their neighborhood could overcome its negative image, Guarnero said.

Leaders inside and outside the neighborhood, on the other hand, have not lost their commitment to White Center, ushering in early-childhood education programs, improved housing and preservation of a wetland, among other efforts.

One project would bring a cultural center to the neighborhood, giving families a place to congregate and share their cultures, said Aileen Balahadia, executive director of the White Center Community Development Association.

“We’re also interested in revitalizing the business district,” she said. “Café Rozella has helped with that.”

Justin Cline, who owns the recently opened Full-Tilt Ice Cream shop with his wife, is part of that revitalization. His ice-cream parlor is a hit, constantly selling out of its homemade concoctions.

Cline sees White Center slowly changing as more people realize there’s not as much crime as purported and it’s not such a terrifying neighborhood. It’s becoming more family friendly, he said. “It’s really fun to see our friends and families out here and their friends and families out here, eating ice cream.”

Cline goes to Café Rozella more for the people than the coffee, and says Guarnero and Martinez took a risk by opening a cafe in White Center.

“There’s always been tattoo parlors down here, there’s always been porn shops and bars,” he said. “But there’s never been a coffee house.”

Arla Shephard: 206-515-5632 or ashephard@seattletimes.com