An antidote to the loneliness epidemic

Meet FRIEDA, where an intergenerational community (re)connects over food, arts, and culture

5 minute read
In the crowded gallery, Wong, holding papers, looks down smiling at Steinborn, who sits on the floor and looks up.

Petite and propulsively energetic, Coco Gang is a self-described “anthropologist … bohemian and non-conformist.” She emigrated from Seoul to New York City in 2004 and moved to Philadelphia in 2019. Whenever she asked locals where she could meet interesting people here, the answer was always “FRIEDA.” But a Google search led her astray, to a South Philly cantina.

Then, riding her bike up Walnut Street, Gang noticed a swarm of blue butterflies hovering outside a storefront. Instantly intrigued, she stopped and followed their path inside to a bright, high-ceilinged space with an open kitchen, airy shelves stocked with teas and jams, and the hum of people at café tables under a kaleidoscope of wings. The insects were paper, she quickly learned, made by volunteers who were also customers and members of a polyglot, informal family. Gang knew she had found the community she longed for.

A very Philly startup

The café, shop, and gallery are all facets of FRIEDA, the brainchild of German-born Thomas Steinborn and Tahiti native David Wong. The pair arrived in Philadelphia in 2014, burned out from careers in advertising and finance, respectively. They shared a vision of creating a welcoming space for people of all ages and backgrounds, brought together by activities and events that they would curate, focusing on food, art, and culture.

Steinborn and Wong began by incubating their food business at the Hamilton Center for Culinary Enterprises in West Philadelphia, where they invited members of senior centers and churches to come make jam, cookies, and muffins with recipes from Steinborn’s grandmother, the titular Frieda. Area art students helped create a graphic identity and package design.

When they looked for an affordable place to rent in late 2015, friends advised against taking 320 Walnut Street, saying it lacked foot traffic. But both men liked the raw space directly across from Independence National Historical Park. Steinborn describes it as a blank white canvas “where everything can happen.” He continues, “Whenever you go, you will see something different that could be interesting and challenging.”

Today, FRIEDA comprises a European-influenced café and catering business, a small shop carrying self-branded teas and jams plus whimsical work by local artists and artisans, and a fluid space that can accommodate events designed to cultivate deep connection. These include the Tuesday breakfast club, Wednesday happy hours, movie nights, community suppers, spoken word gatherings, and gallery shows with artists’ talks followed by dinner at long communal tables. Staffers also organize cultural excursions to other cities.

At two long tables lit by large windows, a diverse group of a few dozen people eat dinner with festive flowers & candles.
A FRIEDAcommunity supper. (Photo by Polina Bulman.)

To participate, you can join FRIEDAcommunity for an annual donation, attend only specific events, or simply pop in on a whim Tuesdays through Sundays. Their not-for-profit membership model allows them to give 100% of gallery and shop proceeds to the artists while exceeding minimum wage for every worker.

Come to talk, not tap

Wong, a Paris-trained chef who steers the café’s offerings, observes that FRIEDA attracts “many transplants, people who just recently moved here, and they always tell the same story: ‘Somebody told me to come here so I could meet people.'” Another common refrain is, “It’s a home away from home, a safe, welcoming space.” Given that Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has declared a loneliness epidemic in the US, this might be FRIEDA’s most important contribution.

Bucking the digital norm, FRIEDA does not offer wi-fi. In fact, computers are not allowed in the main café. “We want people to talk to each other, not hang on their laptops,” says Steinborn. They have had trouble listing FRIEDA with online venues like Facebook and Yelp because it doesn’t fit any of their neatly defined categories.

In a white gallery, an Asian man moderates a panel discussion with 4 Indigenous speakers of different ages & styles.
Last October, FRIEDA presented a “Truth & Justice” panel discussion featuring (from left) moderator David Wong, Nachi Conde-Farley, Katherine Bahena Benitez, Mabel Negrete, and Eugene Black Crow Sr. (Photo by Nadine Kopp.)

Not only do visitors readily engage with each other, they often come back to see a film or art opening, practice conversational French, or volunteer to make butterflies or pompoms. On a recent Saturday afternoon, the place hummed with yuccies (young urban creatives), moms with toddlers, and retirees enjoying a brunch menu that ranges from a decadent-looking Croque Monsieur to Bircher Muesli Bowl.

Banned plastic bags become POMBAA

On the blustery first Friday of March, FRIEDA premiered POMBAA, a two-month installation of more than 1,000 scarlet pompoms that Steinborn and Gang have sculpted into sheep. Depending on the lighting, the piece evokes an Iris Apfel pastoral or—when illuminated only by twinkle lights—Studio 54 on Valentine’s Day. During café hours, the flock floats overhead.

On opening night, attendees received hot pink sheep masks at check-in, and the space was packed. Gang, giddy in a red tunic and mask, eagerly offered hugs and refreshments. Steinborn and Wong circulated front- and back-of-house, greeting everyone like family and sharing the pompom origin story.

In a white gallery with a brown floor, large red & purple sheep figures are suspended over a meadow of multicolored pompoms.
‘POMBAA’ is on view at FRIEDA through April 30, 2024. (Photo by Arekusn.)

Steinborn had the idea to use red plastic bags as raw material for participatory art when several boxfuls showed up at FRIEDA shortly after Philadelphia banned single-use plastic. For two years, scores of volunteers, most with no particular art background, cut bags into strips and bound those into pompoms. Many came for coffee and stayed to participate. When plans for an exterior installation didn’t work out, POMBAA (a portmanteau evoking the bright spheres and sounds of sheep) moved inside. The concept evolved over time, with Gang serving as “pompom architect.”

FRIEDA says POMBAA “stands for spring, renewal, and hope. [It] reaffirms the idea that coming together as a group provides resilience, strength, mutual care, and lots of shared laughter.” The opening-night crowd reflected the tagline stenciled on the front door: (re)Connecting Generations.

The thinking, not the answer

Wong observes that beyond connection, “What's really interesting for us is to expose people to artwork that they may not otherwise see. Whether it's Nancy Hellebrand (renowned American photographer who showed nudes of women over age 65 at FRIEDA in 2022) or Manuel Hernandez (Mexican painter who exhibited art and led a panel discussion on Indigenous People's Day Philly in 2023), we want to provoke people to think. We don't want to bring the answer, but we want people to think about it.”

At top: FRIEDA cofounders David Wong (left) and Thomas Steinborn. (Photo by Nadine Kopp.)

What, When, Where

POMBAA. Through April 30, 2024, at FRIEDA, 320 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Free. or (215) 600-1291.


FRIEDA is a wheelchair-accessible venue on the ground floor.

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