United States Marine Corps and Army veteran Michael Miller believes the military gave him the strength to stand up to gentrification of his beloved hometown, Chester, Pennsylvania. The combat veteran has seen money from outside investors start to come into Chester, and he’s afraid for the members of his community who could be displaced.
While many may not think of the community as desirable, considering Chester possess one of the highest violent crime rates per capita in the state, Miller, who owns Open Mike’s Internet Cafe, defends his city. He says that he’s been approached by investors since opening the cafe in June of 2014. They suggested he raise his prices, but Miller didn’t want to shut out the poorer members of his community. “Being in the Marine Corps is probably one of the bigger reasons why I would rather work with what I have. They teach you how to do more with less,” said Miller.
The cafe is located on a commercial corridor on the Avenue of the States. In the evenings comedy shows, musical acts, and poetry slams take the stage. There are a few general stores around, and another entertainment venue and restaurant across the street, but there are as many empty storefronts.
For no commission, Miller sells and displays paintings and photographs on the cafe’s walls, and on a hot summer day, he lets young men from the city sell smoothies in front. On Sundays, a church undergoing renovations holds services at the cafe.
On the last Friday night of May 2016, there’s a line in front of Open Mike’s before doors open up to a showcase of local talent, including Miller. He starting writing poetry in fourth grade. He loves to write about relationships, and his time in the service, but he admits on stage to the audience that there’s stigma to being a veteran. “Even when I came back from Afghanistan, my daughter was like, ‘Oh, my friends said you gonna be crazy now.'” Miller blames the media for portraying vets, “flipping out and taking KFC hostage.”
Since returning from deployment he’s not performed his service poems often, but he’s now starting to, especially since he performed at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center as part of acclaimed jazz pianist Vijay Ayer’s “Holding it Down: The Veteran’s Dream Project,” a production that aimed to create understanding of minority veterans returning from the Iraq and Afighanistan wars. So at his own cafe in front of his community, he begins:
“It’s 3. a.m.I sit alone in darkness looking out of my bedroom window.It’s happened again.Every time I close my eyes horrifying nightmares begin.All over again I find myself losing my friends.Gunfire. Explosions. You see I’ve tried praying for my sins.Sanity’s taken for granted …”
On Sept. 22, 2011, Miller was driving a mission from Forward Operating Base Lightning in Paktia province, to F.O.B. Shank Logar province, when an improvised explosive device catapulted the vehicle into the air. Miller smashed his head on the driver vision enhancer, or D.V.E.
“I got a little bit of a brain injury,” said Miller. “You come back with your little issues. You may have PTSD, anxiety, a little bit of depression. But I can say that I’m thankful that I’m still here because I’ve got friends that aren’t still here, and the same thing happened to them. It’s wild. I think when you come home, you try to do stuff. Good stuff.”
Lakesha Logan, or “Lady Essence”, is a singer and friend of Miller who performs at Open Mike’s. “He’s always looking out for everyone else, he’s always looking out for our community. He’s very passionate about the community and about the arts,” she said.
RoGene Northern has known Miller since he was 10 years old. Northern is a veteran of the Marine Corps, and says he was inspired by Miller’s service to join the military, and he now bartends part-time at Open Mike’s, and works for XFINITY. He deployed to Iraq in September 2005, and returned home in March of 2006, and he struggled to work some of the jobs he’s held after that time. He said Mike makes it easy to work for him, because of their shared experience. “He’s very positive. He keeps things together, and tries to help out everybody,” said Northern.
Beneath the Commodore Barry Bridge on a pier jutting out into the Delaware River in Chester, Mike looks at the Talen Energy Stadium, home to the Philadelphia Union soccer team, opened in 2010, as a sign of changes coming to the city, and hopes his community will see some benefits.
“I’m never going to get rich here,” Miller said. “When Open Mike’s is a success, I’ll be in a different neighborhood, just like this one, doing Open Mike’s 2.”