Alexandra Brook Lynn
Storefront of Cornelia Street Cafe, Greenwich Village, New York Alexandra Brook Lynn
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And Then They Came for Cornelia

A final evening of talk and tipple with the owner of a Greenwich Village institution driven out of business by rising rents, before another bit of old New York bites the dust

Alex Brook Lynn
December 18, 2018
Alexandra Brook Lynn
Storefront of Cornelia Street Cafe, Greenwich Village, New York Alexandra Brook Lynn

On the night the news broke about the Cornelia Street Cafe, its owner, Robin Hirsch, sat sipping wine and commiserating with his friends and patrons in the front bar room of the Greenwich Village establishment. Cornelia Street Cafe opened in 1977 and since then has been a warm home to the West Village’s Jazz Musicians, poets, writers, and performers. Soon it will be shutting its doors for good.

There were a few empty wine bottles on the table where Hirsch sat with an artist, a bookseller, and a piano man. They had chosen the table directly in front of the door so Hirsch could greet the teary-eyed regulars as they came in. Old Village fixtures and a few newcomers with an interest in the neighborhood’s history came to sit shiva with Hirsch on the night he publicly announced the shuttering.

It was a place “three starving artists,” had created, he told me.

“We weren’t just of Greenwich village, we were Greenwich Village.”

With a sigh, he invited me to sit at his table. Channel 11 news had been there earlier, but that was before he was tipsy and in a sentimental mood.

“OOOO Tablet,” Hirsch exclaimed when I told him who I was writing for. “You’re in luck, I’m Jewish; are you?”

I’ve broken many a heart with the answer. “Half,” I said, “on my dad’s side.”

I know Cornelia Street Cafe from childhood. My father lived on Cornelia Street when he met my mom who lived around the corner on Bleecker. When I was a kid in the 1980s there were many mid-century establishments still thriving in the area. Most of them had been havens for artists and the diverse personalities that called the Village home: old school Italians who had been here for generations, eccentric artists raising babies in fourth floor walk-ups like my mom, or guys like my dad, the neighborhood marijuana trafficker who had followed the words of beat poets leading him from the Jewish tenements on Ave J in Brooklyn to the bohemian playground of downtown Manhattan.

Robin Hirsch was born in London during the blitz. His Jewish Parents “had escaped from Hitler,” he told me as he recounted the family’s beginnings.

“My father was old enough to have fought in World War One, on the German side, as a Jew. He won the same medal as Hitler, the Iron Cross Second Class, and twenty years later found himself fleeing his own country.”

Other family members were killed. His uncle escaped to Amsterdam where he and his wife were caught in hiding and sent to the concentration camps. “They were one of the only couples to survive the camps intact as a couple,” Hirsch said. His entire family was scattered around Europe, fleeing countries, escaping concentration camps, getting caught and disappearing.

“I had a very very good education,” Hirsch boasted. “I’ve been an academic, an actor, a director…” In 1967 he left London and moved to Pennsylvania to complete his Ph.D. in theater. There, he felt the pull of the real avant-garde action in New York City.

He had heard of the established hangouts like La MaMa on the east side and, on Cornelia Street, Cino’s place, owned by Joe Cino who “committed suicide the year I came to America,” Hirsch said. That was 1967. Joe Cino had hosted performances of all kinds in his little storefront at 31 Cornelia since 1959. He didn’t charge admission and constructed sets from found objects in the Village. Cino is remembered these days for starting the off-off broadway scene in NYC. Hirsch said that he had always felt “in a way,” like he had picked up the torch from Joe Cino for the love of art, theater, and Greenwich Village. Cornelia Street Cafe opened 10 years after Cino’s death.

In December of 1969, Hirsch moved to New York City and joined a theater company, where he met Charles McKenna and Raphaella Pivetta, the original co-owners of The Cornelia Street Cafe.

Hirsch was acting in an experimental play called ‘The Journey’ by Lawrence Sacharow, a well-known figure in the city’s theater scene. “We rehearsed for two years,” Hirsch said. The play was about Isaac, Ishmael, and Abraham. The Irish American actor Charles McKenna played the “father of Judaism,” while Hirsch played Ishmael. A great friendship was born in New York’s experimental theater demimonde of the early 1970s.

“I crawled on my belly through the desert for two years with this guy, he became my brother,” Hirsch said of McKenna.

Later McKenna would convince Hirsch to go in on a little gallery, cafe-storefront with him and his girlfriend at the time, Rafaella. ”I went over there to talk him out of it and at the end, I had had some sort of lunatic spasm and ended up saying OK I’ll go in on it with you.” The Cafe started out as just the little front room with a toaster oven and some wall space to hang art. Eventually, over the years it expanded out in all directions taking over the back, the basement, and the shop next door.

The original landlord, an old-school neighborhood guy named Gil de Luca offered to sell the entire property to the trio only six months after they moved in for “40 thousand dollars,” Hirsch claimed. But the three friends couldn’t come up with the money and didn’t know anything about managing apartments, let alone the 28 units that were in the building. And so it was the plumber for the building who purchased the property. He and his son gave Hirsch a “very fair lease for thirty years.” Fifteen years ago the building was purchased by Mark Scharfman, a very different sort of landlord.

“Cuomo Lets Scofflaw Landlords Make Good—by Raising Rents,” read the headline last August above an article in the Village Voice where the name Scharfman appeared 13 times.

Scharfman owns Beach Lane Management a company he runs with the assistance of Mitchell Rothken, another gentleman of ill repute in the city’s housing trade. Starting Jan 8th, 2019, it’s Rothken whose been listed as the broker for the Cornelia Street space.”A lot of these guys hired Mitch to get an edge on someone in a contract negotiation, even if it meant flirting with the ethical line,” was how real-estate lawyer Andrew Albstein described Rothken’s business practices in a New York Magazine profile from 2002. “He was their hired gun, often used to screw other people, and if he did it well, there’d be high fives all around.”

Another Village institution, Caffe Vivaldi, just around the corner from Cornelia closed earlier this year. Their landlord was a felon and a strong-armer who owns more than 140 buildings in New York. Despite that, Vivaldi had “ survived an attempt to quadruple its rent…and had to deal with legal disputes over use of the basement space that the cafe has seen as a form of harassment to wear them down into closing,” before it finally succumbed earlier this year. Caffe Vivaldi opened about 10 years after Cornelia Street Cafe and quickly became a fixture in the neighborhood, hosting Jazz, Poetry, old wood chairs, a fireplace, a baby grand piano, and offering a home to young writers like me. Ishrat Ansari, who owned Caffe Vivaldi, was a family man and that extended to the neighborhood. After two strokes he could not keep fighting the man whom he called his “tormentor,” Steven Croman. Croman, also a convicted felon for mortgage and tax fraud, was serving time while his tenants in lower Manhattan told The Villager that he was “even worse from behind bars.”

“These are two of the most notorious landlords in the city,” Hirsch said. And Everybody knows. The thuggish practices of Mark Scharfman, Mitchell Rothken are Steven Croman well documented in the city’s newspapers, all of them. For all the good it’s done.

In 1977 Hirsch paid $450 a month, now the property goes for $33,000 a month. A year ago Hirsch called in his “good guy clause,” which allows a tenant in good standing to give a years notice to get out of a lease without penalty. At the request of his wife, Hirsch gave his notification on Dec. 7th of 2017. If landlords can get an “eviction for cause,” often times they can sue for the remainder of the rent until the end of the lease. In Hirsch’s case that would be millions. “They have threatened to evict me five times in recent years on spurious grounds,” he said.

The Village used to be a place where a young widow with a baby like my mom would get a few hundred dollars knocked off of her rent just because the neighborhood felt it was the right thing to do. It used to be a place where, according to Hirsch, a tenant could count on a “Croissant Clause” (His landlord would only raise the rents in line with how much a croissant cost in the cafe).

On its 10th Anniversary, Mayor Ed Koch wrote that the Cornelia Street Cafe was a “Landmark cultural institution.” A nice honor as far as it went but the city doesn’t give the coveted landmark status to renters, even “cultural landmarks,” if they don’t own a physical space. The Vagina Monologues started at Cornelia. So did Man on a Wire; Philippe Petit practiced his balance on a rope tied between the two trees out front. Suzanne Vega sang her first few songs in the back. Poets like Robert Laguardia built followings here. Every fourth of July the cafe celebrates its birthday by closing the street and filling it with jazz music, allowing people to promenade unmolested by traffic for the night.

It would take a miracle to keep Cornelia Cafe open at this point. When I ask Hirsch what kind it would take, he said: “My understanding of miracles is that you never really know which kind they’re going to be.”

I’d like to say that the City Council could finally pass the The Small Business Jobs Survival Act, or New York’s Lawmakers could close some of the loopholes that have allowed predatory landlord practices to strip our city neighborhoods of their history, culture, and community.

That’s what I was thinking as the piano man who flanked Hirsch stood up from the table.

“Miracles don’t often come from Albany,” he said, putting on his overcoat.