NEW YORK, NEW YORK: Rents are soaring, so what’s a small artists’ café to do? If you’re the Cornelia Street Café and Underground performance space in New York City, you put your mind to it and get your hustle on.
Cornelia Street Café owner Robin Hirsch said in a recent telephone interview, “I used to introduce acts by saying ‘we are a not-for not-for-profit organization.’”
But high and increasing rents make profits harder to net.
Hirsch said that when he approached his lawyer to discuss a not-for-profit plan, the attorney was surprised that Cornelia Street Café was not already operating as one, given its range of performers.
The Cornelia Street Café first opened in July 1977. It’s part of a beloved legacy of downtown New York artist cafes, like La Mama Experimental Theatre Club (founded in 1961) and Caffé Cino (founded 1958 and closed in 1968). It’s also been around nearly as long as The Nuyorican Poets Café (founded in 1973 and known as the birthplace of the Poetry Slam.) La Mama and Nuyorican are both 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations, and Cornelia Street is now taking steps to split its restaurant and cabaret businesses, so that the performance stage, or Underground portion of the performance space, operates separately as a not-for-profit.
Hirsch put it this way: “The restaurant is our bread and butter, but the downstairs is our soul. I would like for (Cornelia Street Café) to be sustained, for the legacy of the Greenwich Village coffeehouse to be preserved.”
Hirsch decided to pursue partnership with Fractured Atlas, a service organization that allows non-commercial art-related projects to be supported through grants and tax-deductible donations. Having this opportunity without needing to maintain CSC’s own 501(c)(3) status is crucial to Cornelia Street keeping its Arts enterprise solvent.
The Rent Is Too Damn High
The problem of rising rents is not a unique New York problem. According to an April 2016 report published by the Institute for Self-Reliance, the cost of leasing commercial space is soaring in many US cities. The reports’ author, Olivia LaVecchia, delineates how rapid growth in unaffordable commercial rents, thanks to soaring real estate prices and the increasing popularity of cities, have caused demand for small storefront space to skyrocket. She notes, “the rise in rents often significantly outpac(es) sales growth.”
Hirsch is no stranger to this trend. “Small businesses are being squeezed out,” he said, “and there aren’t many performance cafes left.”
Hirsch came from England to New York City in 1967 – the same year Joseph Papp founded the New York Shakespeare Festival – to research avant-garde theatre. Even after forty years in New Yawk, Hirsch’s speaking voice retains its native British rhoticity, softened just a smidge by his American immersion.
According to the Real Estate Board of New York’s Fall 2016 Retail Report, the average asking rent range for available retail space in New York City’s downtown West Village was $325 – $655 per square foot, with the median being $475 per square foot. Cornelia Street, a one-block street between Bleecker and West 4th street, is in that West Village zone. By the way, Cornelia Street is named for a Colonist’s grand-daughter.
Prices Get Flakey
Last summer, Hirsch laid out his complaint about the rent increases in an essay in The Huffington Post, “The Croissant Clause.” Hirsch argues, in his plea for commercial rent stabilization, that if he correlated rent increase to the cost of a croissant, he’d have to charge $77 for a croissant to keep pace!
Hirsch also said in the Huff-Po article that when he began his venture on Cornelia Street, the entire rent was “$450 a month.”
Hirsch said he and his partners also had the good fortune to sign “a lease that was long and fair. It was tied to the Consumer Price Index and it expired 30 years after our original signing.”
Once that long-term contract expired, a new lease was negotiated for Cornelia Street Cafe, and now, according to Hirsch, “our rent is 77 times what it was when we first opened. That’s just unsustainable, and it’s not going to change in the current climate.”
What will change, however, is Cornelia Street’s move toward making its downstairs artist performance space a non-profit venture.
The Show Must Go On
“At this point, we’re doing 700 shows a year. Quite a lot of stuff,” said Hirsch. He explained, “Fractured Atlas is a sponsoring fiscal organization. This means they are a conduit for donations. Tax deductible donations come to us through Fractured Atlas, and they take a small percentage. My goal,” said Hirsch, “is (for the underground performance space) to become its own 501(c)(3). This partnership with Fractured Atlas allows us to begin, to take baby steps.”
According to its web page, Adam Huttler is Fractured Atlas’s founder and Executive Director. Since forming Fractured Atlas in 1998, Huttler has grown the organization “from a one-man-band housed in an East Harlem studio apartment” to a broad-based national service organization and nonprofit technology company with an annual budget of $25 million and a constituency of over 400,000 artists and organizations.
When asked if partnering with FA will change anything in terms of the Cornelia Street Underground’s decision-making when booking acts, Hirsch said it will not.
This summer marks the 40th Anniversary of the Cornelia Street Café’s opening. Hirsch said that plans are in the works for an anniversary celebration. “We also participate in Make Music New York,” he said. That is a free, citywide music festival held on June 21 each year.
Upcoming literary events include:
- 1/23 Bennington Writers – Fiction, co-hosted by V. Hansmann an Oona Patrick
- 1/25 Jim Story and Laura Spence-Ash reading from their recent fiction
- 1/26 Literary Portraits, hosted by Erica Abeel
- 2/14 New York Story Exchange, hosted by Michele Carlo
- 3/30 Fiction Aloud will feature David Ebenbach, Stephen O’Connor, and Sarah Van Arsdale
A.E. Weisgerber is Assistant Fiction Editor at Pithead Chapel, and a Reynolds Journalism Fellow at Kent State University. Her recent fiction has/will appear in SmokeLong Quarterly, Structo Magazine, The Collapsar, DIAGRAM, and Gravel. Recent non-fiction in The Alaska Star, Alternating Current, and The Review Review. She’s a current nominee for Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, and The Pushcart Prize. She keeps information current at http://anneweisgerber.com
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