In July 1977, when Robin Hirsch and two other "starving artists" rented a tiny storefront on Cornelia St. and opened a coffeehouse, their friends thought they were nuts. After signing a five-year lease?the rent was $450 a month?they spruced up the place, bought a cappuccino-maker and a toaster oven and were in business.
"I could not have imagined this spontaneous decision would define the course of my life," Hirsch laughs.
It was the Summer of Sam and the big NYC blackout occurred nine days after they opened. Hirsch recalls cycling back from his college teaching gig that dark night. As he turned his bike onto Cornelia St., "I saw a little glow in front of the cafe. Neighbors had brought candles and we were giving away perishable food. Everybody had guitars and other instruments. From that day on, the place was filled with music."
Fast-forward to 2002 as the Cornelia Street Cafe celebrates its 25th anniversary. Over the years, the one room expanded into three dining areas, and they created a performance space downstairs. They opened a kitchen and became a real restaurant that gets glowing reviews?a far cry from steaming eggs on the cappuccino-maker. Despite these changes, the cozy atmosphere remains Greenwich Village of the 60s and 70s: brick walls, fireplace in the winter, sidewalk cafe in the summer, no obnoxious attitude.
"An artists' sensibility governs the place," Hirsch says. "The founders were artists and almost everybody who works here is, too. We had poetry and music from day one, an organic outgrowth of who we were. A burst of activity was contained in a very small space. As to why we're still around, I think the key is to try and maintain the balance of this enterprise. We're not just a restaurant and we are not just a jazz cellar."
Having a long-term lease has been a blessing, although they've not been able to buy the building. Hirsch believes the cafe's location on a tiny side street has helped it weather the many waves of gentrification. "It's like a little backwater that has not been touched."
The cafe is now marking its quarter-century with a month-long birthday celebration, a retrospective with different performances every night. "In the early days people were more adventurous and came down because they did not know what was going to happen," says Hirsch. "Today people come for a specific event." Years ago, Suzanne Vega, Shawn Colvin and the Roches tried new songs; more recently, Eve Ensler debuted The Vagina Monologues.
"In an intimate space, you can say and do intimate things," says Hirsch, noting they don't have runs, but regularly present new material, arranged by various curators. So there's a night called "Entertaining Science," run by Roald Hoffmann, a Nobel laureate in chemistry. "To me this place has always been about the human voice?an extension of a conversation," notes Hirsch, "like the original 18th-century coffeehouses."
Like Addison and Steele, I venture, recalling my English-teacher roots.
"Yes, very good," Hirsch replies.
Two of the cafe's founders were foreigners, which allowed a European sensibility. The son of German Jews who fled to England, Hirsch grew up in London and came here on a Fulbright in literature and theater. His original partners were Charles McKenna, an Irish-American actor, and Raphaela Pivetta, an Argentinean-Italian-Canadian visual artist. (Hirsch's current partners are Bob Siegler and Judith Kallas.) Much of this is recounted in Hirsch's memoir in progress, The Whole World Passes Through: Stories from the Cornelia Street Cafe, which describes the early years and certain special transcendent moments in the cafe's long history.
"Greenwich Village is quintessentially American bohemia," Hirsch says, "but it is also very welcoming. Europeans who visit feel this is a literary cafe, like in Paris or Vienna or Berlin. And while the flavor is certainly American, it is also 1920s Berlin."
Like many long-term Village residents, I recall lost places that used to enliven the immediate neighborhood: O. Henry's, La Groceria, Folk City, Caffe Cino. Just around the corner today exists the now-horrid scene on 6th Ave. off W. 4th St.?tattoo parlors, porn shops, junk food, chain stores. I'm grateful the Cornelia Street Cafe, a piece of the past, is still around, and hope it will last another 25 years.
"Truthfully, our survival has been a triumph of ignorance," Hirsch reflects, recalling a dragged-out battle to get a sidewalk cafe license. "If we had the vaguest idea of what it would be like to do business in the city, we never would have done this."