Laura’s Coffee Shop – one of the last industrial coffee shops in the city

This is an updated version of my original post on Laura’s Coffee Shop published last December.  Recently, a reader named Peter Lee contacted me via my Mount Pleasant Stories campaign and told me that his parents owned and operated Laura’s from 1977 to 1999. He generously shared his own family story of Laura’s Coffee Shop with me. This information has been incorporated into the revised post below.

Last summer I led a historical walking tour for the Vancouver Heritage Foundation called “Lower Mount Pleasant: industry, immigrants and institutions”. One of the stops on the tour was at Laura’s Coffee Shop – one of the last industrial coffee shops in the city.

Laura’s Coffee Shop is at 1945 Manitoba Street on the corner of W4th and Manitoba. It’s in a building that started as a house in 1905 and was later was converted into a commercial space (ca. 1926).

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Laura’s Cafe exterior & interior (2018). Photos: C.Hagemoen

According to the 1905 City Directories, the first resident at 1943 Manitoba Street was Robert E. Thompson a storeman at Wood, Vallance and Leggatt, Ltd. (they sold heavy and shelf hardware). In 1904, a building permit for a frame building was issued under his name for this property. Since the value of the building was only for $100, it is likely that this permit was for an outbuilding or a shed. Therefore, it is possible that the house was built after or before 1904. (There is a gap in the historic building permits for Vancouver from 1905-1908 – the records have been lost.) Thompson didn’t live there long, because the City Directory for the following year lists Walter Lofting, a butterman, the resident at 1943 Manitoba Street.

In 1926, new owner Thomas D. Knowles opens the Manitoba Confectionery at 1943 Manitoba St.  By 1927, Italian immigrants Domenico & Laura DeFilippo (sometimes spelled as DeFillipo) are now listed in the city directories as living at 1943 Manitoba and son Samuel DeFilippo, a longshoreman, is listed at 1945 Manitoba. It looks like the recently expanded retail space (with living quarters) has now been given its own street address.

Domenico operated the corner grocery store here for almost 10 years before he died suddenly in 1936 (he collapsed while out walking with his wife near 4th and Ontario).

Mrs. Laura DeFillipo took over at the helm at the corner store until her death in 1953. It was then that siblings Samuel (Sam or Sammy), previously working as a taxi driver, and Violet then took over the family store business.  Sammy was also an avid bowler and he competed in many bowling tournaments in the 40s and 50s. He also ran Circle Bowling Alleys on Clark Drive at Kingsway which he opened in 1948 with partner Cyril Battistoni.

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Laura’s Cafe ca. 1978. This would have been when the Lees were running the Coffee Shop. Peter Lee believes that the man in the doorway could possibly be Laura’s Coffee shop regular, Fred. He worked for Nelson’s Laundry (now Alsco) as an engineer and was close friends with Sam DeFilippo before Sam passed away. Photo: COV Archives, CVA 786-23.10

By the start of the 1960s, the area had shifted from a residential neighbourhood to a predominately industrial/light industrial zone. In reaction to this change and motivated by the popularity of the sandwiches that they served to the local workers, in 1964 Sammy and Violet decided to convert the grocery store to a restaurant – named after their beloved mother Laura.

Laura’s Coffee Shop has been serving breakfast and lunch to the workers in the area ever since. It was Peter Lee who told me that Sam’s sister, Violet Clara Scott (1912-1983), also played an important role in the early days of Laura’s Coffee Shop. [I’m currently following a lead to find out more about Violet and the DeFillipos – hopefully, more to come.]

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Classified ad for a waitress at Laura’ Coffee Shop. Source: The Province July 3, 1965.

In 1977, Sam and Violet sold Laura’s Coffee Shop to Walter and Wai Ching Lee. Prior to purchasing Laura’s Cafe, Walter and Wai Ching worked together running George’s Grill at 2204 Broadway for 10 years. They operated Laura’s Coffee Shop for over 20 years until their retirement in 1999.

Peter told me that his parents kept the exact same menu and look of the cafe as the De Filippo’s. Describing the interior, he told me that Laura’s used to have a long counter with the traditional red button seats that spun around. He said that Violet’s grandaughter “remembered spinning around those seats as a kid as her nonna served her a milkshake”. The new owners, unfortunately, tore out the counter after his parents sold the business in 1999.  Peter also remembers that there used to be “an old fashioned Coca-Cola cooler for pop (in upright bottles back then), an Export ‘A’ Clock hanging at the back, and of course the Pepsi Cola sign outside”. Today only the faded Pepsi sign, the booths, and the wood paneling are all that’s left from the original interior.

Kam Sheung Cheung (Peter’s grandmother), Walter Lee, and Wai Ching Lee (Peter’s parents) in Laura’s Coffee Shop on the day of their retirement in 1999. Photo courtesy of Peter Lee.

I asked Peter if he ever worked or spent time at Laura’s Coffee Shop:

Me and my siblings (older sister Karen and older brother William) would work there over the summers growing up.  We would help by bussing–wiping off tables, doing dishes and serving guests.  My dad ran the front of the house and my grandma stayed in the back.  My mom would float between front and back.  Every Saturday morning the whole family would go to the coffee shop for bacon and eggs in the morning and then go to Chinatown in the afternoon to shop and attend Chinese school (which we all hated!).  They would be closed on Sundays.

I hated working there over the summers as a kid.  It was hard and dirty work.  But, of course, looking back, you can’t help being nostalgic about those days–and you gain an appreciation for how hard your parents worked.  Between 11:30am and 1pm the place would always be packed with the local workers, mainly from the Laundry next door (called Nelson’s Laundry at the time).  Everyone smoked like chimneys back then and there’d be a thick cloud of smoke hanging in the air.  

The food served there was completely foreign to me but I loved it!  Bacon and egg sandwiches, Clubhouse sandwiches, hamburger steaks, beef barley soup–everything home made.  They even had liver and onions back then!  The signature dishes were the Superburger (bacon/cheese/lettuce/tomato with fries), and the Fish and Chips (which was only served on Fridays).

Today, my favourite foods are inspired by what I ate there–bacon and eggs and fish and chips (I’d even order liver and onions if a menu had it there).  As a kid, my mom would only ever cook Chinese dishes at home like rice and steamed fish and pork so eating at the shop was always a treat!  Ironically, she disapproved of me eating at the shop because she felt the food there was unhealthy (with all that lard and gravy) or maybe because I was eating away all the profits!  Speaking of unhealthy–my Mom cooked the best homemade apple pie there!  Any unsold pie they’d bring home for me and my siblings to eat.  It’s now my favourite dessert to have and I’ve learned to make it myself the way she did (minus the lard of course).

The coffee at Laura’s was great too (although I didn’t really know it at the time as a kid).  The ground beans were from Neate’s coffee–a local east van coffee brewery.  I’m not sure about the exact history but I believe Neate’s was sold to a larger company and the son John Neate Jr. would later establish JJ Bean in the 90s.  I think I recall John delivering ground coffee to the shop weekly back in the 80s! – Peter Lee, 2020.

 

Laura’s Coffee Shop along 4th Ave. The side door leads to the kitchen and you can see the suite above the shop. Photo: C. Hagemoen

Since the DeFillipo’s left, there have been tenants living in the suite over the shop and in the attached bungalow. Peter told me that his family “never lived in the neighborhood and only worked there from 5:30am and went home to East Van at 5pm”, he went on to say that “the industrial area became pretty much a ghost town after all the workers went home around 4:30pm”. In recent years, Peter has noticed a change to the rhythm of the area, “nowadays there is a bit of a return to a stable neighborhood like in years past with growing foot traffic day and night with the number of multipurpose buildings going up”.

 

There are very few photos of Laura’s Coffee Shop in its early days (if you have one please contact me!) Even the Lee’s who owned the place for over 20 years only had one photo from their last day in 1999. However, Peter did tell me that many films were shot inside Laura’s.  He referred me to the 1984 made for TV movie, “The Three Wishes of Billy Grier” starring “Karate Kid”, Ralph Macchio.  This slightly odd movie is available on YouTube (curiously with Spanish subtitles)  the short scene that shows how the interior of Laura’s Coffee Shop looked like in the mid-80s starts at 1:13:25.

Screenshot from “The 3 Wishes of Billy Grier” shows the original counter.

Laura’s Coffee Shop is one of the few industrial coffee shops left in the city. In the 20th Century, these popular-priced eateries could be found in industrial areas, like lower Mount Pleasant, all over the city.  These coffee shops would be open early (for pre-work breakfast) and all through the working day, Monday to Friday. They were reliable, local establishments where single workers, who may or may not have kitchen facilities at home nor the inclination to cook could go and get two good hot meals a day. I can imagine workers from nearby businesses like Alsco (Nelson’s) Industrial Laundry or the Reliance Foundry, frequenting Laura’s during lunch and coffee breaks.

Grilled cheese, fries, and coffee from Laura’s in 2018.

Peter filled me in on what happened to Laura’s Coffee Shop after his parents retired at the end of the last century and gave some insight into the current situation:

Edwin and Nancy ran it for the longest during this period from about 2007 to 2019.  Currently, Emma and Fei are the new owners of the business.  There were a couple of other owners between my parents and Edwin.  While it was tough running the business during my parents’ time, it’s even tougher now with all the competition and change in demographics.  And with the current pandemic, people are working from home now and Laura’s has always depended on business from the local workers.

Laura’s Coffee shop. You can see the SW corner of the Alsco laundry building across the street. Photo: C. Hagemoen

Today, Laura’s Coffee Shop is still a family-run,  friendly place that is busy serving ‘greasy-spoon’ style meals to lower Mount Pleasant workers (now more tech-based and less factory-based) and beyond – they also deliver via Skip the Dishes! Laura’s is also open Saturdays.

I wish I could go back in time to visit Laura’s Cafe in the 80s. I’d sit down at the long counter on one of those spinning red button seat stools and order the Superburger, a cup of Neate’s coffee, and a slice of Peter’s mum’s homemade apple pie.

 

As part of the Vancouver Courier’s Vancouver Special neighbourhood series, Heritage Vancouver’s Anthony Norfolk discusses the residential, commercial and industrial heritage of Lower Mount Pleasant, while sitting down at Laura’s Coffee Shop in this video from 2013.

 

In 2008, Peter wrote a really interesting piece for the Vancouver Sun about the history of how his family immigrated to B.C. starting with his great-grandfather at the turn of the 20th C.

Seeking Mount Pleasant Stories

Did you grow up in Mount Pleasant? Maybe you attended the old Mount Pleasant School? Perhaps you once lived here as a young adult in the 70s, 80s, or 90s? Or, maybe you have family roots in Mount Pleasant? Did you, or someone you know, operate a business or work in Mount Pleasant back in the day? If you answered yes to any of these questions I’d love to hear from you! I’m collecting historical stories of individuals and families who lived and/or worked in Mount Pleasant during the last century.  I am very interested to hear your Mount Pleasant story.

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My grandfather Pete (r) and his brothers outside their Mount Pleasant home ca. 1928.

Bordered by Cambie Street to the west, Clark Drive to the east, 16th Avenue to the south, and False Creek/2nd Avenue to the north, Mount Pleasant is one of Vancouver’s oldest neigbourhoods and earliest suburbs. Early industries like brewing, slaughter-houses, and lumber mills starting appearing along the south shores of False Creek and along creeks like Brewery Creek in the 1860s. But Mount Pleasant really started to develop by the late 1880s, when the first residences appeared, giving birth to the City’s first neighbourhood south of False Creek.

Unlike other older Vancouver neighbourhoods – The West End, Strathcona, Marpole, Gastown – there is surprisingly very little documenting the history of Mount Pleasant, especially it’s historical past beyond the 1920s.  And what little documented history that exists is often out of date, is from a male perspective (his-story, anyone?), and primarily consists of a European settler narrative. I think it is time to change that, so together, let’s update the story of Mount Pleasant!

My grandmother and mother in 1944 in front of the family home at 53 E.6th. They lived here while my grandfather was serving overseas during WW2. Photo: Personal Collection C. Hagemoen

Mount Pleasant has been my home for the last 5 years, but it isn’t the first time I lived in the neighbourhood. The first time was in 1991-92 when I was a student and I shared the main floor of an older house with two friends. Those were heady days, and in hindsight, I wished I had paid more attention to my Mount Pleasant surroundings (especially with my camera). But my Mount Pleasant family roots go even deeper and date back to the 1920s.

From about 1927 to 1946, my Italian immigrant family lived in a house at 53 East 6th Avenue. My maternal great-grandparents, my grandfather and his siblings, in total 8 people, lived in a house that was originally built in 1909. Part of the first Italian diaspora, my great-grandfather Joe (Guiseppe) initially landed in the United States in 1893 at the age of 28. He traveled several times back and forth between North America and Italy before he finally immigrated to Canada in 1908 after marrying my great grandmother, Concetta, in Italy in 1907.  With little education his job prospects were limited. He was a shepherd in Calabria and again in Montana in the 1890s, but when he came to Canada he worked as a miner, trackman, and other labour jobs. In 1927, the time of the move to Mount Pleasant, my great-grandfather worked as a labourer at J. Coughlan’s shipyards on False Creek, he retired shortly thereafter. After the war, in 1946, the family moved to a new build, bottle-dash stucco house in Hastings Sunrise. Mount Pleasant was changing (for the worse) and the appeal of a brand new house in a predominately Italian neighbourhood was too much of a draw.

[Fun fact: my other maternal great-grandparents also lived in Mount Pleasant]

Nellie, Conchetta, Julia and Vic in front of 53 E 6th ca. 1928. Photo: Personal Collection C. Hagemoen

The more genealogical research I do, the more layers of my family history I peel back. For example, a couple of years ago I discovered that my grandmother once lived in the house directly across the street from the heritage Mount Pleasant building I currently call home. She was only there for about a year, just prior to her marriage to my maternal grandfather, but I still find it a fascinating coincidence. Like the coincidence of discovering a few years ago that from 1937 to 1959 my friend Jeffery’s family lived only 3 blocks from where my own family lived in Mount Pleasant – 4 blocks from where I am currently writing this. All of this “coincidence” made me want to learn more about my new (old) neighbourhood.

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My friend Jeffery’s family lived in Mount Pleasant at E. 3rd and Ontario. Photo: Courtesy of the Chong Family Archives.

Last summer (also slated to repeat this past April), I led a VHF walking tour called Lower Mount Pleasant: Industry, immigrants and institutions –

Mount Pleasant is one of Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhoods and earliest suburbs. Lower Mount Pleasant is the light industrial, mixed-use area north of Broadway, bounded by Fraser and Cambie Streets and False Creek. More than just home to several craft breweries, creative industries, and nondescript commercial buildings, this distinctive area has long been an integral part of the city’s history and is noted for its unique mix of residential, commercial, industrial, and social heritage. Modern buildings and businesses have long since replaced most of the early houses and industry, but fascinating pockets of the original neighbourhood hang on, including turn-of-the-century houses, brick apartment buildings, and factories. Join Christine on this walk where you will learn about the families, workers, legacy businesses, and social groups who once called this unique part of Mount Pleasant home.

On the tour, I was really excited to be able to highlight the stories of some of the families (like my own) and businesses that made their home in this area of Mount Pleasant. Here are a couple of examples:

At 2121 Columbia there was a home, formerly part of a grouping of 4 houses, I now refer to as the ‘Tailors’ House’. The home’s first occupant was a tailor named Herbert McLean. Later, tailor Isreal Baumgart and family lived at this address. Baumgart operated a tailor shop nearby, at 305 Cambie Street, for 38 years.  Born in Russia,  Baumgart fought in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05. He was taken prisoner in Japan and the Red Cross sent him to BC in 1905. Baumgart died in 1956, as did his wife, Bertha. They had two children Joanne and Morey, who died in 1941, at the age of 28. The Baumgart’s are buried in the Schara Tzedeck cemetery in New Westminster.

Inspired by the information I learned in the booklet  Fey-A-Byu: Japanese Canadian History in Fairview and Mount Pleasant published by the Nikkei National Museum, tour participants learned that Mount Pleasant/Fairview was the second-largest Japanese Canadian community outside of Powell Street’s Japantown. In Mount Pleasant, the community was centered around W 6th at Columbia where the Japanese Canadian United Church (aka Columbia United Church or Fairview United Church) was located. Some of the famous Asahi baseball team players, like Naggie Nishihara and Mike Maruno, lived and worked in this part of Mount Pleasant.

Pete and Tony in their baseball uniforms circa 1940. Does anyone recognize these team uniforms? Photo: Personal Collection C. Hagemoen

Which segues nicely into an aspect of my own family history in Mount Pleasant. My grandfather, Pete, and two of his brothers were also part of the Vancouver/Mount Pleasant baseball scene. Pete played on several Commercial League and Terminal League teams, often playing against the Asahi team. Apparently, he was a bit of a hothead, and he was called “pugnacious Pete Mauro” once or twice in the press. He also played softball and, after he was injured in the war, he was also an umpire.

My Grandfather, 6th from the right, on the Grant Gunn Fuel Oils Baseball team in 1934. Photo: COV Archives, 2014-045.1

I have many more stories that I could tell about my family and the other families featured on my walking tours but that isn’t the point of this post – I want to hear your stories. There are so many untold stories and further details known stories to discover.

My goal is to collect personal stories from a wide variety of people so that we can begin to tell the story of Mount Pleasant together. The ultimate goal is to take those stories write a book (or other publication), an updated history (emphasis on story, less on his) of this fascinating, but unrecognized as such, neighbourhood I (once again) call home.

If you are interested in participating, please use the contact form on my About Page here, or leave a comment on this post below. I’d love to hear from you!

Joe drinking wine on the front steps of 53 E. 6th. Maybe this is where I get my love of wine from? Photo: Personal Collection C. Hagemoen

 

Family and friends on East 6th Ave. ca. 1943/44. Photo: Personal Collection C. Hagemoen

The interesting thing that happens when we start sharing our stories is that we often realize how connected we all actually are.

Check out some of the “Mount Pleasant Stories” that I have already begun to tell:

William H.H. Johnson, Mount Pleasant’s first published author.

Rena Whitney and the Mount Pleasant Advocate.

Sarah Coulter and The Woman’s Bakery.

Laura’s Coffee Shop.

The Last Hidden Vestige of Old Mount Pleasant.

The Story of the Building at the Heart of Mount Pleasant.

You Should Know More About the Fascinating History of Lower Mount Pleasant.

Local History Advent Calendar 2019 – Day 23 – Japanese community in Lower Mount Pleasant

Last year I took on the challenge of the first-ever Local History Advent Calendar! For 24 days in a row, I presented random historical tidbits I’d collected over the previous year and presented them in the form of “treats” for my 2018 Local History Advent Calendar. This year, the “Heart of Mount Pleasant” was number 1 on Heritage Vancouver’s Top 10 Watch List for 2019.  So I decided to choose Mount Pleasant as the theme for the Vanalogue Local History Advent Calendar for 2019.  Each day you can “open” a new historical treat. Think of them as holiday cocktail party fodder – 24 facts about Mount Pleasant history that can be used as conversation starters at your next social event.

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Predominately residential Lower Mount Pleasant ca. 1913. Source: CoV Archives, PAN N161B

If you study the few remaining houses in Lower Mount Pleasant (the area north of Broadway) you will notice that they were all built prior to 1914. The pre-WW1 period was one of great growth in Mount Pleasant – its “Golden Age”. After the war, things began to shift. In the 20s and 30s, industrial uses crept southward from False Creek and original settler families (predominately British) moved out and were replaced by immigrant families (like my own Italian immigrant family). Over time, the area declined – buildings aged and were not maintained, and in the 1950s, property-owners successfully petitioned City Council to re-zone the neighbourhood for light industrial development.

Since then, most of the early houses have been replaced by commercial/industrial buildings, but fascinating pockets of the old neighbourhood hang on. This semi-industrial area is often ignored when people discuss the history and historic merit of Mount Pleasant. Few buildings in this area have made it onto the Heritage Register, and even fewer are designated. So, this area is still not on the radar for heritage retention and/or planning.

With the pressure of development of False Creek South, new density zoning, along with plans for a new Broadway subway, there is a lot of pressure for redevelopment and it is increasing at breakneck speed. It is just a matter of time until we see further erosion of heritage resources in the area. But it’s not just about built heritage, the area’s social and cultural history is also surprisingly very rich.

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Fire Insurance Plan, 1940. The arrows point to Japanese residences, cultural buildings, and businesses.

This area (see above) was at the centre of the Japanese-Canadian community in Mount Pleasant. The 1941 census revealed that the largest non-British ethnic group in Mount Pleasant and Fairview was Japanese at 1,400 people. In fact, Mount Pleasant/Fairview on the south shore of False Creek was the second-largest Japanese Canadian community outside of Japantown centered on Powell St.

Many Issei and Nisei came to work in the industries along the south shore of False Creek. During the housing shortage after WW1 cheap tenements and cabins were set up there to house the Japanese workers. (There were also many Indo-Canadians who lived and worked in this industrial part of lower Mount Pleasant.)

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The old Japanese Church at W6th & Columbia ca. 1970s. Source: CoV Archives, CVA 1135-32

Just down the street on 6th at Columbia (PHOTO) was the Japanese Canadian United Church aka Columbia United Church or Fairview United Church. The Japanese Kindergarten (starting in 1912) was also there. On the same block between Alberta and Columbia on 5th was the Japanese Language School and The Mikado Club was at 154 W 5th.

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233 West 6th in 2017. Photo: C. Hagemoen

This hold-out house at 233 West 6th Avenue was built ca. 1907 according to the water service records.  In 1910, a building application was placed for the house to be raised, at a cost of $500. Architecturally, it is unique in that it is constructed with hollow-cast concrete blocks; the blocks would be made on the site by the builder with a special block moulding machine.

From around 1937 to 1941, the Asano family lived there: Masao Asano who worked at Peace Cleaners on Fraser St. , his wife Umeko, mother Sugi (widow), and daughter Jean. Jean was a talented young artist as evidenced by the drawings she submitted to the Sun Newspaper’s “Sun Ray Club”(children’s section).

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Vancouver Sun, October 13, 1938. Drawing by Jean Asano age 13.

As a member of the Sun Ray club, you get your name mentioned in the newspaper for your birthday along with all the other Sun Rays who share the same birthday. This must have been an automatic yearly event because, curiously, Jean Asano’s name under her birthdate is included on this celebratory list until 1945. (I suppose the Sun Ray’s Uncle Ben didn’t realize he had an enemy alien on his list!)

In 1942 the Asano’s were either interned along with all the other Japanese Canadians living on the west coast or were forced to leave British Columbia. More research is needed to find out exactly what happened to the Asano family of Mount Pleasant.

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The last Asahi baseball team in 1941. Back (L-R): Yuki Uno, Eddie Nakamura, Naggie Nishihara, Koei Mitsui, Kaz Suga. Front (L-R): Mike Maruno, Ken Kutsukake, George Shishido, Roy Yamamura, Tom Sawayama, Frank Shiraishi. Centre: Kiyoshi Suga Nikkei National Museum, 2010-26-19

Many of the famous Asahi baseball team players also lived in Fairview/Mount Pleasant.

Asahi baseball player, Naggie Nishihara (see above) lived at 2109 Alberta St. and in 1938 he is listed as a helper at BC Fir. Another Asahi player, Mike Maruno (see above) also worked at BC Fir and he lived at 161 W 6th. Many other Asahi players lived in Fairview west of Cambie.

My Grandfather, Pete Mauro (53 E. 6th) was also a baseball player; he played on several Commercial League and Terminal League teams that took on the Asahi team. Apparently, he was a bit of a hothead, and he was called “pugnacious Pete Mauro” once or twice in the press. There is one newspaper report of him getting into fisticuffs once with Asahi star player, Kaz Suga.

TheNikkei Museum has produced a great booklet on the subject: FE-A-BYU: Japanese Canadian History in Fairview and Mount Pleasant. It’s a great resource to check out.