At $33,000 a month, will the show go on at Cornelia St. Café?

Owner Robin Hirsch holds up a photo of an album cover for “Cornelia Street: The Songwriters Exchange.” The cafe’s downstairs performance space has been a nurturing scene for musicians, poets, writers, interpretive tap dancers and more. Photos by Dusica Sue Malesevic

BY DUSICA SUE MALESEVIC | Robin Hirsch is a storyteller. The longtime owner of the Cornelia Street Café in the Village can pontificate about everything from coffee to avant-garde theater to enumerating the artists the cafe has boosted and hosted to chronicling the history of his almost 40-year-old business.

But now Hirsch is caught up in a narrative that some small business owners say is bedeviling them: The (commercial) rent is too damn high.

“We opened a little one-room cafe with a toaster oven and rent was $450 a month. This was in 1977,” Hirsch, 74, told The Villager recently at the cafe, at 29 Cornelia St. Now, he said, his rent is $29,000 plus change, and including his share of real estate taxes for the building, it comes to $33,000 a month.

For 30 years, the cafe had a lease that tied the rent to the consumer price index, so that in certain years, “the building benefited and in other years we benefited,” Hirsch said. The property’s ownership has changed hands many times, with Hirsch and his two former business partners having mulled buying the building twice.

The original landlord asked the three artists if they wanted to buy it about six months after the cafe opened, Hirsch recalled.

“If we could have come up with $45,000…we would not be having this interview,” he said. “That was an inconceivable amount of money for three starving artists.” Hirsch said they opened the cafe “by each of us rustling up $2,500 apiece.”

Sometime around the early 1990s, the trio came up with a $100,000 deposit for the building but somebody else beat them to the punch. Mark Scharfman purchased the property around 15 years ago, Hirsch said.

Cornelia Street Cafe’s downstairs performance space.

“Our original lease expired 10 years ago and you could hear him salivating in Westchester,” Hirsch said. “And at that point, we were at market rent. What the brilliant thing about this original lease was, as I said, some years it benefited the landlord, some years it benefited us. And we were exactly at market rate.”

Hirsch said they had been paying $12,000 a month, but after the lease renewal, the rent jumped to $18,000 in 2007.

“I knew when this was coming up for renewal, there was going to be some increase,” he said, adding that, through an attorney, he made an offer for a 15 percent increase for a 10-year lease but was denied. Instead, the lease was renewed for five years with a whopping 50 percent — or $9,000 — increase.

Landlord Scharfman said, “No comment, thank you,” and hung up before this newspaper could even ask him a question.

“Rent’s certainly not going to go down in the foreseeable future,” Hirsch said, “unless the city says this is something that really does need protection.”

(The Villager has reported extensively on the proposed Small Business Jobs Survival Act, and other pieces of legislation that address the issue of commercial rent increases.)

 

Robin Hirsch, longtime owner of the Cornelia St. Café. Since 2012, the cafe has its own label of pinot noir and chardonnay.

On Wed., May 10, the office of City Councilmember Corey Johnson convened a meeting that included the city’s Department of Small Business Services, the Greenwich Village-Chelsea Chamber of Commerce, Manhattan Chamber of Commerce and Hirsch “to come up with a plan for how New York City government and the community can help the Cornelia Street Café survive and thrive,” Erik Bottcher, Johnson’s chief of staff, said in an e-mail.

Hirsch and Sam Mattingly, who handles the cafe’s public relations, had approached Johnson and Mayor Bill de Blasio at a recent town hall. Mattingly said, at the May 10 meeting, they talked about the plight of small businesses and skyrocketing rents.

“The cafe has a history here and it should be protected. These are the places that tourists come to visit,” she said. “They don’t come to visit huge restaurants — they can stay home and do that. They come to visit what’s New York, and this is New York.

Other restaurants on Cornelia St. have also been squeezed out due to high rent. Next door at 31 Cornelia St., Italian restaurant Po, which Hirsch said was closing the day The Villager visited, had a rent increase of 120 percent, according to an April 27 Eater article. Home, another restaurant across the street from the cafe, closed last year.

Cornelia Street Cafe hosts an art exhibition every month. The latest installment is portraits of women who have undergone or are about to undergo surgery to repair obstetric fistula. The Kupona Foundation sent artist Jac Saorsa to Tanzania to paint the portraits, cafe owner Robin Hirsch said.

Hirsch noted that the restaurant row at one point won a collective award.

“This restaurant row of which we are the grandfathers — it’s shriveling in front of our eyes,” he lamented.

The cafe has always been more than a restaurant. Its downstairs — dubbed the Cornelia Street Underground — is a performance space that hosts poetry, literature, science talks, musicians, puppets, singers and actors, among other things.

David Amram, 86, the legendary musician and composer, has been playing at the cafe for about 12 years.

“It remains a wonderful experience to be there,” he told The Villager in a telephone interview. “People coming into Cornelia Street get an image of what the Village was and still is in spite of the colossal rents.”

Amram lived in the Village for decades before eventually relocating to Beacon, N.Y. He plays piano, French horn, flute, and sings, and does what he called “spontaneous scat.”

“The Cornelia Street Café today is a reflection of that amazing community sense that was all over the Village,” he said.

“The rent that Robin is being charged is so outrageous,” he said, “it would be just about impossible to stay in business unless you were a multi-zillionaire.”

Since October, Hirsch said, the performance space has been “under the umbrella” of Fractured Atlas; people can make donations to the nonprofit — which takes a small percentage — for the Cornelia Street Underground. Hirsch is working on getting the cafe’s performance aspect its own nonprofit status.

“The arts programming that we do is so large and varied that it would deserve to become its own not-for-profit,” he said. “That would be one way of helping to pay the rent.”

Meanwhile, the cafe’s 40th birthday, which Hirsch said they celebrate on July 4, is coming up. He said that, through the decades, the cafe has “sustained” him.

“The three of us who started it — it enabled us to pursue our art,” he said. “I’ve written two books, both of which began here. It’s been a symbiotic relationship. We have championed all kinds of arts, and, in the same breath, it has enabled me to do my own stuff.”

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