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A Sad Farewell to Beloved Cornelia Street Café

by Karen Rempel

On January 1, 2019, hundreds of patrons and performers from every decade of the Cornelia Street Café’s 41 years of creative explosion gathered for a final burst of celebration and communion.

Many took the stage on the final evening, including the luminary award-winning recording artist Suzanne Vega. She sang “Tom’s Diner,” which she wrote in 1981 and first performed at the CSC. The crowd sang along to “La Vie en rose,” and then the café’s co-founder Robin Hirsch gave an emotional speech about the defining essence of the café, lauding “the tangible physical community of being in the same space, of participating in the same communal event, that we participated in tonight and this afternoon. I am extremely grateful for all of you, and very proud of what we’ve collectively accomplished, and I hope that we will tiptoe off into some other physical space, but in the mean time, hold us in your hearts, and we will find each other.”

Author, ceaseless raconteur, and actor Robin Hirsch opened the cafe with actor Charles McKenna and artist Raphaela Pivetta on July 4, 1977. The rent was $450 per month. They ran the café together for about 20 years. Since then, Robin, the self-titled Minister of Culture, Wine Czar, and Dean of Faculty of the café, has been the cohesive glue and guiding force of nature of the café.

The café has been a part of every West Villager’s life, and every one of us has our own stories and memories of time well spent there, dining, drinking, and daring to descend into the pit of avant-garde weirdness going on in the basement. Personally, I’ve been there for jazz, experimental musical events, first dates, a job interview, a fashion photo shoot, coffee, meals, and a memorable brunch on the café’s last day. Friends poured in to say farewell to Robin and the staff. Seated on either side of me were a cabaret singer and a performer in Come from Away. There was an excitement in the air about being present for the final moments of this Village institution—the sense of expectation that anything could happen, mixed with sadness for the pending loss. Crowds lined up in the street hours in advance of the 3 PM show.

From its modest beginning, with a fabled toaster oven and espresso machine, the café eventually expanded to the neighboring ground floor business, built two kitchens and two bars, and moved the performance space from the original front room down into the basement. Often the merriment spilled out onto the sidewalk tables and into the street, with music performances, stilt walkers, and an astonishing 2013 Guinness world-record-garnering event of the most keyboards playing a song at once. On this occasion, the entire block of Cornelia Street between Bleecker and W. 4th Street was filled with 175 keyboards and pianos. Musicians, students, and fans from all over New York played Pachelbel’s Canon in D and a special piece composed for the occasion by Jed Distler, called “Broken Record.” Yamaha donated the keyboards for the event, and afterwards the café and Make Music New York donated the pianos to local schools to start music programs.

Cornelia Street Café closes doors but not memories: Owner Robin Hirsch regrets the loss of his Café after 41 years of operation, seeks new site or reincarnation. Photo by Karen Rempel.

The café also had a world record for the longest ever solo piano performance, which occurred downstairs in the aforementioned pit, at Christmas, 2002. Jon Conte played almost 3,000,000 musical notes, more than 1,000 musical pieces, from Bach to the Beatles, and on the morning of the third day, triumphed. The café staff, friends, and page turners supported Jon to play for 52 hours to win the world record and a former girlfriend’s respect, if not love. (This record was since beaten several times, and is currently held by Mrityunjay Sharma of India, at 127 hours 8 minutes!). Robin quips that the CSC should also have a world record for being the café with the most world records.

The café has also won numerous awards for its food and entertainment, and received a mayoral proclamation from Ed Koch on the occasion of its 10th anniversary, in 1987. The mayor called the café “a culinary as well as a cultural landmark.” In the mayor’s letter of proclamation, he joked that the fabled toaster oven caused the New York City blackout of 1977.

During its four decade span, the café has launched and nurtured the careers of hundreds of songwriters, including Cliff Eberhardt and David Massengill (who also returned for the last concert), as well as musicians of and performers of every genre. Eve Ensler debuted several of her one-woman shows at the café, including the politically ground-breaking play “The Vagina Monologues.” The café has hosted poets speaking in 14 languages and renowned actors including members of Monty Python and the Royal Shakespeare Company. The café’s unique programming has included a Songwriters Exchange, which went on weekly for seven years, and an “Entertaining Science” evening that paired the science and humanities as the presenters and audience explored together subjects such as the science of smell. At one such event, the chief parfumier from Chanel created a fragrance with audience participation. A hint more rose, anyone?

Entertaining Science began in 2001, although the inaugural event was postponed several times due to 9/11. The author and neurologist Oliver Sacks joined Roald Hoffmann, a Nobel-laureate chemist, and K. C. Cole, a science writer, to launch her book A Hole in the Universe: How Scientists Peered Over the Edge of Emptiness and Found Everything. The evening of readings and talks about “the concept of nothing, the void, the Buddhist idea of emptiness, in art, science, physics,” was so wildly popular that the café’s Entertaining Science monthly program was born, with Hoffmann as its guiding light. The program continued until the café’s dying breath, with speakers including Benoit Mandelbrot (the mathematician who developed fractal theory; he received a lucrative award from the Emperor of Japan in 2003, a month after he spoke at the cafe), and more appearances by Oliver Sacks. The final session in December was on “Polyphonic Minds: Neuroscience and Cubist Jazz.”

Pat Duffy, one of the world’s leading experts on synesthesia, author, Adjunct Assistant Professor at NYU, and trainer in the UN’s Language and Communications Programme, recalls bringing her students to the café to attend the Artists Salon. “I feel so bad about the Cornelia Street Café! It was a Village icon and we are losing too many of them. Over the years, I have gone there to friends’ poetry readings (even read in a couple of “open readings” myself). CSC was always up for artists to be who they were. Last summer, I took my Exploring NYC class to the Artists Salon where regular performers at the café get to try out new work for their peers and whoever else wanders in to listen. It was such a great experience for my students, newcomers to New York, to watch the poets, musicians, and also mix and chat with them. At the beginning, owner Robin even stopped the proceedings to welcome our group and explain how the Salon worked! I remember he also told everyone how he hoped the café could stay afloat as the rent had increased exponentially since the CSC had first opened. At the time I thought, of course the café will go on, as I just couldn’t imagine the Village without it! I still can’t!”

Pat recalled another occasion that shows the wonderful casual quality the CSC had. “There was the time I went to see the late great author Oliver Sacks at the café. He gave a wonderful presentation of his book A Leg to Stand On. Later, I went up to him and asked if I could purchase a copy of his book. He said he hadn’t brought any books with him to sell— but said, ‘You can take my copy, if you don’t mind all the notes I’ve written in it.’ I was thrilled to get a copy with Oliver Sacks’ handwritten notes! And of course I have it to this day.”

Hilarious comedian, author, podcaster (The Naked Novelist), and writing coach Nelsie Spencer recalls co-hosting the Imperfect Perfect Show at the café. “I had a show that showcased writers’ works in progress—we called it the Imperfect Perfect Show. Terry Moore, my co-producer, took the reins and called Cornelia. Robin said yes, almost immediately. I felt so lucky to be able to perform in this iconic, NYC venue! And introduce the charming and legendary place to others who might not have been aware of it. Robin was always there, always checking in on us. And always up for a drink after the show. MC-ing a show that supports emerging writers and performers to a full house at The Cornelia Street Cafe is something I’ll cherish. It’s heartbreaking that it’s gone. I kept thinking the cavalry would arrive and the café would somehow stay open. But alas, no cavalry can beat New York City landlords.” The Imperfect Perfect show continued with Terry Moore producing until the month the café closed.

The creative outpouring that occurred during the café’s history is too enormous to capture on this page, but the underlying force that made it possible was the creative genius of Robin himself, who made a space where all creative expression was welcome, in an atmosphere of community and belonging that is palpable to all who entered its doors. It’s the loss of this community that we will all mourn the deepest, as yet another piece of the cohesive fabric of our neighborhood is ripped out.

A week after the closing, Robin said “I’m exhausted, because in addition to the emotional toll, the last 5 days were spent cleaning out everything from the store, everything we’ve put in from 41 years, the intense sweat equity. The bars had to be destroyed, the kitchens had to be destroyed, the walk-in refrigerators had to be destroyed, everything had to go… I kept the tables. The tables were unique, hand-made from wine crates. And yes, if I open somewhere, that’s a signature. And my sign I saved. I have three signs. The very original sign, an intermediary sign, and the present sign.” He added that they were crying on the final day, but it’s been even harder since then, “As we’ve smashed the walls, throwing out two entire kitchens – people are weeping.”

Robin recalled, “Ten years ago, the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation gave a joint award to the restaurants on Cornelia Street, which was lovely, but in the last three years, six of us have now closed.” The cafe is closing due to the hostile actions of the landlords, who not only charged an enormous rent of $33,000/month, but who burdened the café with trumped-up lawsuits in an effort to drive the owner out. Robin finally gave up fighting the landlords, Mitchell Rothken and Mark Scharfman, after spending thousands of dollars in legal fees. “They have threatened to evict me five times in recent years on spurious grounds,” he told Tablet Magazine in December. According to an August 2018 Village Voice article about Scharfman, “Scharfman has earned headlines for bringing the Gap to St. Marks Place and doubling the rent on the Cornelia Street Café. He landed a spot on the New York Press’s ‘50 Most Loathsome New Yorkers’ in 2003 for his ‘Dickensian tales of tenant abuse.’” The Housing Rights Initiative filed a class action suit against the Scharfman Organization in October 2018 for allegedly defrauding tenants. Rothken is even worse, and was jailed in 2001 for embezzling 2.6 million from his clients’ escrow accounts to dazzle a stripper he was infatuated with. Ironically, he also brought a new business to St. Marks Place—a gift to his inamorata—the now bankrupt bar Siren.

It is appalling that the aliveness-suppressing forces of greed won out against the forces of creative expression, growth, positivity, and community. Perhaps the café’s particular expression has lived out its full lifespan, or perhaps it will find a new incarnation at a new location. Robin is exploring other potential locations, and considering opening a performance space with the more humble fare of the café’s early days, with a bar and bar food. He sought to rent the site of former Home Restaurant, across the street at 20 Cornelia, which closed in 2017, both to save the café’s name and to make a move and reopening simpler, but this did not pan out. Another possible option Robin considered is the space occupied by the Integral Yoga Natural Foods store on W. 13th St., which is also closing, after 45 years in the Village. Cornelia Street Café’s neighbor restaurant, Po, co-founded by Mario Butali and Steven Crane in 1993, closed in 2017.

The café’s former space at 29 Cornelia Street is listed on LoopNet for $27,400 per month, which is considerably less than the $33,000 Robin was paying. The listing also states that the space has a kitchen and bar on both levels, but Robin was required to tear out the kitchens and bars. Now Number 29 is simply an empty space. Perhaps the landlords’ rapaciousness outran the market, and they had to lower the rent after forcing Robin to leave.

In closing, Robin said “I will spend some time coming to terms with this. I’m very proud of what we collectively accomplished over a very long period, of the number of people whose careers began here, of the number of people whose careers were nurtured here, and of the legends who came to call this place home.” Much more than bricks and mortar, wherever it might be located, it will always be the Cornelia Street Café. May the café’s extraordinary creative fire continue to inspire us even as we mourn this loss.

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