A Call in a Café’s Closing

Why the Arts and Small Businesses Matter to Well-Being – and What We Can Do to Protect Them

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The downstairs performance space at the Cornelia Street Café during its last show. Photo by Noah Lawrence

For the final show at the decades-old, arts-centric Cornelia Street Café, in New York City’s Greenwich Village on New Year’s Day, people came early. I got to the café around showtime, along with musicians (and fiancées) Jason Yeager and Julie Benko, and, even with a reservation, we could barely find spots to stand — even though often, arts events run late. When I shared this observation with my friends, Yeager said that the source of the arts world’s loose timing is an “ethos”: that you have “all the time in the world.” And then you don’t.

Cornelia was too long buffeted by today’s socio-economic winds. Its closing epitomizes how much of culture and well-being in America those winds have demolished, and will yet demolish, unless we act.

Inside Cornelia’s Doors

Inside Cornelia’s red-framed glass doors, you encountered old brick walls, colorfully offbeat artwork, and genuine smiles. Downstairs, two columns of candlelit tables led to a stage just big enough for a band’s members standing close together. Behind it hung a vaudevillian red curtain.

There, you experienced varied kinds of live art, from jazz to poetry, by upstarts and legends. Then-young comedian John Oliver told jokes there. The equality-boosting, now-classic The Vagina Monologues debuted there. Fabled musician David Amram for years performed there as a monthly tradition.

For Cornelia’s last day, special menus were printed, emblazoned, “With All Of Our Love.” The day comprised two shows: a 3 pm singers and songwriters show featuring “[t]oo many wonderful friends to name!” and a 7 pm “Artist Salon” featuring “EVERYONE ON EARTH WHO HAS EVER PERFORMED HERE!” (per the menus and the café Web site respectively).

Cornelia’s monthly rent had soared from 1977’s $450, now worth roughly $2000, to most recently $33,000.

The Trend

Cornelia’s vanishing exemplifies a broader phenomenon. New York City is “losing 1,100 to 1,200 mom-and-pop businesses a month,” Steven Barrison, executive vice president of New York City’s Small Business Congress, told Gothamist. Cornelia’s closure continues the historic bohemian Village’s erosion as a neighborhood. 

Moreover, neighborhoods’ rising cost of living wreaks destruction for poor people and people of color. Socio-ethnic gentrification and local businesses’ being priced out are distinct, yet akin. They represent how the loss of ordinary people’s well-being has become the bottom line’s price.

New York City, too, is part of a broader trend. The Kansas City Star recently printed the editorial headline, “Stop the Denverization of Kansas City.” Thereafter, “[b]efuddled readers in Denver realized their city was now a synonym for gentrification,” New York Times analysis commented, “at least, among cities not yet expensive enough to worry about San Francisco-ization.”

Well-Being at Stake

The core question is: What kind of society do we want to live in?

Do we actually want to live in a society ever-more-dominated by bland chain stores and luxury condos, by landlords’ self-interest and markets’ highest bidders? 

Do we recognize beloved places, small-business initiative-taking, jobs, art, and community as essential sources of well-being — either one’s own or someone else’s? Are we willing to act to protect their presences in our lives?

I write these words precisely not as a professional artist or arts critic. For me, Cornelia was the stuff of ordinary life: nights out with friends, dates, conversations with strangers, new music discovered, favorite music cherished. Culture is for everyone. Its purpose is to enrich every person. 

The arts enliven our spirits with “an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep,” as Kurt Vonnegut wrote. They make us feel understood, and together. They inspire us to be better, and to reshape the world. Concert halls are not enough: there must be venues that are more affordable, more down-to-earth, more rooted in a place or ethos, and more open to upstart artists and innovative projects.

Treasured places and distinctive neighborhoods create vivid atmospheres, provide a sense of home, and foster human bonds. Through small businesses, we can know the people whose vision we are realizing.

These experiences recharge us, readying us to work again. More importantly, they are marvelously worthwhile in and of themselves. They are essential to Henry James’ great call: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to.”

What We Can Do

Well-being can be intangible and abstract. It needs concrete, practical defenses. 

For this kind of well-being, one essential defense is commercial rent control.

And right now, the Ramon Murphy Jobs Survival Act is on the table in New York City’s City Council. Previously entitled the Small Business Jobs Survival Act and renamed to honor the recently-deceased founder of the Bodega Association of the United States, the bill would give lease-compliant commercial tenants a 10-year lease renewal, and arbitration if tenant and landlord cannot agree.

The 10-year period bars frequent rent hikes. It gives tenants time either to garner investment, or to sell to someone who can preserve the business’ life. And the bill prevents landlords from ordering under-the-table pay in exchange for a renewed lease, a practice particularly widespread against immigrants, according to Barrison.

The bill would be a large step in the right direction, and should be passed — with an amendment to prevent advantage-taking by businesses that need no protection, e.g. by establishing eligibility criteria, or by having establishments apply to enjoy the act’s provisions.

No U.S. city currently has commercial rent control. Thus, not only would this bill help New York City; it would offer a model for the nation.

A moment comes when we realize that regarding culture, well-being, or anything we value, if we want it protected, we must protect it. Out of Cornelia’s closure, we must make such a moment.

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