Archival Notes: The Cornelia Street Café by Robin Hirsch

“A Culinary as well as a Cultural Landmark” — Former New York Mayor Ed Koch, 1987

Dear Archivists,

In May 1977, three artists stumbled across a tiny storefront in the heart of Greenwich Village where they later decided to open a café. After two months of scraping, sanding, plumbing, and plastering (not to mention the intricate dance required to appease New York City zoning authorities), the Cornelia Street Café opened July 4, 1977 — the same day the United States turned 201 years old.

Cornelia Street began as a single room with a toaster oven, an espresso machine, and a refrigerated display case. But by the time the café closed on January 1, 2019, it had expanded to two full-service kitchens, two dining rooms (one with a working fireplace), a downstairs performance space, and two bars, each boasting menus with more than 35 wines by the glass.

For three seasons a year, Cornelia Street also had one of Greenwich Village’s loveliest sidewalk cafés. Over its nearly 42 years of operation, it won numerous awards for its food and drink — including Time Out’s Top One Hundred Restaurants, the Village Voice’s Best Of New York Food, and the Wine Spectator's Best Wine By the Glass Program.

But, at its heart, Cornelia Street remained an artists' cafe.

Perhaps it was the street. Or, the fact that all three founders — an Irish-American actor, Charles McKenna; an Italian-Canadian-Argentinean visual artist, Raphaela Pivetta; and an Anglo-German-Jewish director-performer-writer, moi — were artists.

From the very beginning the café hosted poetry readings and musical performances. It soon became a gathering space for fiction writers and journalists; for programs of bawdy and Inuit poetry; for puppeteers and flute players and classical guitarists; for a living portrait of James Joyce; for mime shows and dances and stilt-walking on the street outside; for recorder, oud, and concertina music; for comedians; for shows of paper and air; for storytellers who told fairytales; for Punch and Judy shows.

On Monday nights beginning in December 1977, our first year, and every Monday night thereafter for seven years, the café hosted the Songwriters Exchange: songwriters, singing only what they’d written that week, gave birth to thousands of new songs, jumpstarting the careers of dozens of artists. In 1980, for example, STASH Records released an award-winning album, Cornelia Street: The Songwriters Exchange, which contains more than a dozen songs first sung at the Songwriters Exchange during the ’70s. (The album was recorded live in Mike Lobel’s New Jersey studio during one crazy 21-hour day in 1979.)

The café held on average more than seven hundred shows a year.

Singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega started with the Songwriters Exchange when Cornelia Street was only one room. Eve Ensler performed her Vagina Monologues (among several other one-woman shows) in the early days of the downstairs performance space. Eugene McCarthy, United States senator and presidential candidate, read his poetry; Dr. Oliver Sacks, his prose. Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffman oversaw our monthly Science Series for sixteen years. Members of Monty Python and the Royal Shakespeare Company intermittentl performed.

The café presented poetry in fourteen languages (not all at the same time), music in as many genres, everything from philosophy to belly dancing, from ventriloquism to opera, from the entire Iliad to celebrations of Shakespeare, Milton, Lorca, and (in person) Yevtushenko. It went on to be recognized by the Poetry Calendar (Best NYC Poetry Series), All About Jazz (Best NYC Jazz Venue, nine years in a row), Downbeat Magazine (Top 100 Jazz Clubs Of The World, ten years in a row), The Greenwich Village Historical Society (Village Arts Award), Zagat Nightlife (Award Of Distinction), Where Magazine (Visitors Choice Award for Best Neighborhood Ambiance), and Trip Advisor (Certificate Of Excellence).

Every business has its ups and downs. For the two most stable businesses in America, namely the arts and the restaurant business, a 42-year streak is nothing to be sneezed at.

Every business has its ups and downs. For the most stable businesses in America, especially those operating somewhere between art and restauranteering, a 42-year streak is nothing to be sneezed at.

Cornelia Street’s demise was not intentional. It was the result of sociological factors that one might summarize as Seamless and Netflix, on the one hand, and gentrification, on the other. If, for example, you are new to the city and paying preposterous rent for a tiny cubicle, why eat out? Why pay money to see live performances by people whom you’ve never heard of when you can see anything you want from your laptop or smartphone?

Other factors that are changing cities, certainly New York didn’t help: no rent stabilization for commercial tenants, tax benefits for commercial landlords whose stores remain empty, exorbitant and still-rising rent, etc. For Cornelia Street, there was the added charm of two notorious landlords (think strip clubs, embezzlement, Rikers Island, disbarment) who bought the building in 2002 and could be heard rubbing their hands when the end of our original 30-year lease — eminently fair, negotiated at every early expansion — hovered into view. After declining anything beyond a five-year extension and refusing anything less than a 50 percent rent increase, our new landlords were extracting 84 times our original rent. Sure, you might say, but that was more than 40 years ago. Oh yes, I would respond, if you flipped it, Cornelia Street would be charging $84 for a croissant. Seems a bit steep, no?

So, life for Cornelia Street became tough, eventually unsupportable. After the 2008 Great Recession, we managed — in 2012 — to secure another ten-year lease. But the “Good Guy Clause,” which normally allows tenants to give three to six months notice if they can no longer sustain business, in this case required giving one year’s notice. In the meantime, our lovely landlords tried to evict us on six separate occasions, using all kinds of specious grounds (the rent arrived a day late, a completely bogus $40,000 water bill the café supposedly failed to pay). If the landlords had succeeded, they could have sued me for the balance of the rent (more than $1 million). In the end, I ran up enormous legal and accounting bills, and eventually had to call it quits; they kept almost $100,000 of my security deposit.

As you might imagine, our departure was not entirely orderly. Among other humiliations, the landlords required that we destroy everything we had built — including the two beautiful bars, the two kitchens, two walk-in refrigerators, the temperature-controlled wine room, a full cabaret with lighting, a stage, and some sound equipment. Some items we managed to sell at a ridiculous trade auction. I managed to sell some of our beautiful, handmade tables to some longtime customers. The rest I brought home, where they wait in my basement for another life.

That basement also holds boxes of records, memorabilia, bills, seven years of guest checks (that New York State requires businesses to save), paintings, photographs, menus, manuscripts, and handwritten notes from our earliest days up until our departure.

And, of course, the eviction notices . . .

Archivists face several obvious challenges. At Cornelia Street, we started long before the internet. In the digital age, it has perhaps become easier. For two separate two-year periods, under the umbrella of two different media companies, our shows were livestreamed and recorded. The first company went bankrupt, then vanished; the second switched its focus from recording to producing. For some time, these recordings were available online. But they, too, are now floating somewhere in the ether.

It is possible that these recordings are recoverable. However, to assemble them would require ethereal research and hard-nosed determination. There are some film and video records, for example, available online through platforms such as YouTube, as well as hundreds of reviews, articles, photographs, radio and TV shows.

So, dear Archivists, we are ready to begin!

The most significant and persistent attempt at archiving our materials was over a seven-year, on-again-off-again flirtation with the Fales Library at NYU. Seven or eight years ago, our music and spoken word curators, one of our filmmakers, Gordon Skinner, and I met with three Fales archivist-librarians. Fales has archives from La Mama, CBGB’s, and various other significant Greenwich Village arts institutions. It seemed to be the obvious choice for both parties. However, there is flirtation and then, one hopes, something more serious. Despite reaching out to them regularly over the years, that something never panned out. “We have no money” (!); “We’re undergoing renovation”; “One of our archivists is sick”; “One of our archivists is expecting a baby,” etc. From an institution as large and endowed as NYU, these excuses seemed trivial.

I have also reached out to the New School, to Adelphi University (they have a campus on Canal Street and did a series of readings at the café), and more tentatively to the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. That branch of the public library has the archives of Caffe Cino, which had its short but significant Off Off Broadway reign next door to where Cornelia Street opened ten years later.

So far, no takers . . .

I will resume the search, after the endless paperwork involved in closing a business comes nearer to an end. In the meantime, my basement is full. I think I forgot to mention hundreds of hours of film . . . plus plus plus


Robin Hirsch
Minister of Culture, Wine Czar, Dean of Faculty
The Cornelia Street Café
29 Cornelia Street
Greenwich Village, NY 10014


some links:

Gordon Skinner's 30th Anniversary Video

Sharon Kaufman's 35th Anniversary Video

Daniel Cainer's Farewell Song Delivered on Cornelia Street's Last Afternoon

Bill Lattanzi's Farewell video from Cornelia Street’s Closing Night