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A Look Back At Cornelia Street Cafe As It Turns 40

Robin Hirsch tilts back his head, lets out a long, playful laugh, then croons a drawn out "Nooo" in his British accent, still detectable after 50 years of living in the U.S. I've just asked whether, when he opened his now-historic venue Cornelia Street Cafe, he thought he'd still be here, in the same place, doing the same thing.

"The three of us who opened it were all artists," he tells me. "We opened a little one room cafe with a toaster oven. We signed a five year lease and all I thought was, 'How are we ever going to do this for five years?'" And now on July 4th, 2017, the Cafe will celebrate 40 years at 29 Cornelia Street in the West Village.

It took Hirsch and his business partners at the time, Charles McKenna and Raphaela Pivetta, two months to make the "depressing" space fit for human occupancy back in 1977. Con Ed had turned off the power, so they were forced to work in darkness, and local landlords had been using the space to drink Thunderbird and let their dogs run wild.

When they first opened, there wasn't a concrete plan to turn the space into the legitimate venue it's known as today. "What I imagined was, 'We'll open and see what happens,'" Hirsch says. Because the trio were all artists, other artists started to congregate at the space, too. Philippe Petit occasionally strung up a wire outside and would juggle for the crowd. Songwriters—including Suzanne Vega, who got her start at the Cafe—gathered on Monday nights to perform compositions they'd written that week. It was a place for communion and celebrating creativity.

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The expansion in 1982 (Cornelia Street Cafe/Flickr)

The Cafe would later expand first into an adjacent space next door—where they were finally able to install a proper kitchen—and eventually it would take over the unit behind the original cafe, too. But it wasn't until an opportunity for Siv Cedering and Eugene McCarthy—the Presidential hopeful and longtime Congressman from Minnesota-turned poet—to perform at Cornelia in the early 1980s that the downstairs space began to take shape as a venue.

"It was stacked with boxes and stuff. It wasn't a space ready to accept this illustrious political figure, or anyone else," explains Sam Mattingly, who runs publicity for the Cafe. Hirsch recalls it as a "hideous mess."

"I said, 'We're going to have to go 'clean for Gene!" Hirsch remembers, a reference to the 1968 movement by college students and McCarthy supporters who shaved their beards and cut their hair to support the then-Presidential candidate's run for the Democratic nomination against Lyndon Johnson.

"We rounded up every folding chair we could find," Hirsch says. "We still had water dripping down the walls. We still had a sink in the back into which all the pipes from the building emptied. When there was rain, all the drains baked up into that sink and then it would overflow."

Despite the rough state of space, the night was a great success, and an initial step towards transforming the basement (check out an early photo here) into the legendary performance space it is today. In the nearly 40 years since, that stage has attracted both up-and-coming as well as established performers. Eve Ensler first performed The Vagina Monologues on the stage in 1993, Daily Show-era John Oliver stopped by for a set, and author and neurologist Oliver Sacks made regular appearances up until his death in 2015.

"People think of us as a jazz space, but it's really so much more than that," Mattingly offers, pointing to poetry nights featuring poems in 14 different languages; comedy, science and philosophy series; and dozens of other live performances that still unfold nightly in what's now being dubbed "Cornelia Street Underground."

Despite the enduring legacy, however, the future isn't as set in stone.

In 1977, when the Cafe first opened, rent was $450 a month, a figure Hirsch says has increased 77 times in the intervening years. "It's impossible," Hirsch laments.

"It's a really hard environment for small business owners and the city has not yet been able to convince Albany to pass laws that support and protect small business owners from greedy landlord," Mattingly says. "It's a simple as that."

The building that houses the Cafe has changed hands a few times since Hirsch moved in; currently, the building is owned by Mark Scharfman, who is a "frequent fixture on various 'Worst Landlord' lists." Hirsch was able to negotiate a 10-year lease extension with Scharfman that includes a yearly 3.5% annual increase for the next five years until the lease expires. After that...

To help with the current situation, visual artists including Ted Berkowitz—who has been live-sketching performances at the Cafe for many years—have donated photographs, paintings and sketches to not only decorate the walls, but also serve as a fundraising element if they are sold. Proceeds from those sales go directly to support the downstairs venue.

Hirsch seems to have a story for each piece, like how a surprise encounter with composer Philip Glass helped a Cornelia Street encampment of 175 set the Guinness World Record for most people playing Pachelbel's Canon in D simultaneously on keyboard. (Glass's contemplative mug adorns the back wall of the dining room.)

Many of these longtime friends and supporters—including composer David Amram and jazz singer Sheila Jordan, among others—will be on hand performing and mingling during the Cafe's 40th anniversary celebrations, which takeover the sleepy Cornelia Street block between Bleecker and West 4th Streets on July 4th. All are welcome; maybe you'll see some stilt walkers.

"David Amram, to his enormous credit, looks on us as carrying that flame that was the Greenwich Village coffee house for 40 years, which was longer than when he was playing with Jack Kerouac or Charlie Mingus. He says that this place still has that aura of the West Village free spirit," Hirsch says. "When I think of the Greenwich Village coffee house, I think of it as reflecting the 18th century English coffee house. It was a mixture of politics and literature."

"Here we are by happenstance carrying that flame forward into the 21st century, 300 years later."

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Robin Hirsch in Cornelia Street Cafe 2017 (Nell Casey/Gothamist)

It's late afternoon on a summer weekday and the tables outside are nearly full with tourists drinking cappuccinos and an older couple savoring a few glasses of wine. Inside, Hirsch flits around the bar area with his signature energy that's both in control but with a twinge of urgency. He approaches a young man reading notes from a binder to ask whether he's part of that night's reading; he samples a few nuts from a new mix debuting at the bar; he shakes hands with the couple outside, because he's known them for years or they're just meeting for the first time would be impossible to tell.

Hirsch can wave away the endurance of the Cafe to luck, but to those paying attention, it's clear why the place has doggedly stuck around as long as it has. If the artists are the blood that keep Cornelia Street Cafe alive, Hirsch is the heart that keeps pumping, year after year, decade after decade.

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