Places that Matter

Cornelia Street Café

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Downstairs performance space, photo by Cornelia Street Cafe
Downstairs performance space, photo by Cornelia Street Cafe
Oil painting of cafe by Stephen Magsig
Oliver Sacks in performance downstairs, photo by Cornelia Street Cafe
Legendary eatery and performance venue
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Place Matters Profile

Written by Rebecca Faulkner

In May 1977, three artists stumbled across a tiny storefront in the heart of Greenwich Village and thought it the perfect place to open a café. For two months they scraped and sanded, plumbed and plastered, and did the intricate dance one does with the authorities who live beyond the Village, and on the weekend of July 4, 1977, perpetually 201 years behind the US, they opened the Cornelia Street Café.

For almost 40 years, the Cornelia Street Café, in addition to providing food for the body (not to mention drink), has attempted to provide food for the soul. From humble beginnings, the Café has produced perhaps the widest variety of performance in New York:  from science to stilt walking, from Latin jazz to Russian poetry, from Eve Ensler and The Vagina Monologues to Suzanne Vega, who sang her first songs in front of the cappuccino machine when the Café was still one room. Attorney-activist William Kunstler read the poetry of some of his famous clients (Dylan Thomas, for one) after the Café expanded into the side room; in the mid-80’s the Café went “clean for Gene," turning the basement into a viable performance space for Senator and presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy to read his own poetry. This is where neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks read the first drafts of several of his autobiographies, where members of Monty Python & the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as comedians Amy Schumer, John Oliver, and Hannibal Buress have also performed.

The downstairs performance space, newly renamed "Cornelia Street Underground," continues to host more than 700 shows a year, including a Science Series curated by Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffmann; a philosophy series, curated by Joseph Biehl, President of the Gotham Philosophical Society; poetry and prose in more than a dozen languages; music in every conceivable genre from Jazz in all its forms to Classical, Avant-garde, Opera, Brazilian and Gypsy Music, and Southern Indian Carnatic Drumming; there is a freewheeling series featuring David Amram, who invented Jazz and Spoken Word with Jack Kerouac in the ‘50’s and was Leonard Bernstein’s first composer-in-residence at the NY Philharmonic in the ‘60s. Upstairs in the two dining rooms there is a new art opening every month, showcasing artists in different kinds of visual media. 

In addition, this award-winning West Village landmark is listed consistently among the 100 Greatest Jazz Clubs in the World by Downbeat Magazine, Jazz Venue of the Year by the New York City Jazz Record, one of the Top 100 Restaurants by Time Out NY, and the recipient of the Waterford Crystal Award of Distinction for Best Wines-By-The-Glass Program. In 1987, on its 10th anniversary, Mayor Koch named the Café "a culinary as well as  cultural landmark," adding "thanks to you, the Greenwich Village coffeehouse is alive and well." Sadly, almost thirty years later, it is perhaps the last of its kind. 

If you look around the neighborhood where the Café is located, one thing is very noticeable – the high cost of doing business in New York has claimed many local establishments.  Soaring rent is changing the character and landscape of the Greenwich Village community, and the Café is not immune: its rent now 77 times what it was when it opened back in the summer of 1977.  As a result, the Café’s management has sought and received not-for-profit fiscal sponsorship from Fractured Atlas. As the Café's 40th anniversary approaches - July 2017 - friends hope to raise awareness that the Café is in need of help and support.