NEW YORK—What started as a casual, salon-style gathering of friends and like-minded artists in 1973 is about to enter a new era of change.
The Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe, on East Third Street in Manhattan, is a cave-like, windowless performance space with brick walls and a wooden bar. But the East Village institution, which functions as a nonprofit for the performing arts community, just got an infusion of cash that will no doubt dramatically change its future.
The cafe was allotted $5.3 million in capital funding from the city, which along with an additional $1 million in funding built up since 2011, will be used to transform the space from bohemian to modern and mainstream.
But one thing that likely won’t change is the Nuyorican’s free-spirited approach to giving artists a place to perform and students a place to explore.
“It’s become a very strong community,” said Nisha Asnani, who created, curates, and hosts the cafe’s Monday night hip-hop open mic, which she founded two years ago. Asnani, who is a singer/songwriter/recording artist and is originally from Lagos, Nigeria, thinks of the cafe as a destination for artists to be heard, without judgment. “We’re achieving some kind of weird utopia.”
If the diverse crowd at Monday night’s open mic is any indication, the Nuyorican is a place for a broad range of people. Susan Steltzer, district manager for Manhattan Community Board 1, said it has an undeniable position of importance in the neighborhood.
“It’s a very valuable local arts group,” said Steltzer. “They’re considered highly valuable to the fabric of the lower East Village.”
Beyond open mics, the Nuyorican’s calendar is packed with performances and activities almost every night of the week, as well as school groups that come to experiment with stage performance. The space is typically not open to the public during the day.
Though the arts space has managed to flourish, the new infusion of millions of dollars from City Council and the Mayor’s Office Department of Cultural Affairs will help them transform into a multilevel, multifaceted facility that can serve arts and cultural needs for an even larger community.
Part of that transformation will be to take the ramshackle state of the more than 100-year-old former tenement building and transform its three upper levels and outdoor backyard area. Though solid plans will have to be worked out with the city, and construction will likely take anywhere from one to three years even to begin, staff already has ideas of where to begin.
Last week, on an expedition through decades of old stage props, costumes, scripts, and random memorabilia on the second, third, and fourth levels (which are closed to the public), Nuyorican’s Executive Director Daniel Gallant described what he hopes the space will become. Part of the plan is simply to make room for the demand, which already exists.
“We’ve greatly grown the cafe’s offerings to the point that we can’t accommodate all of [the people who want in],” said Gallant. So the idea is to take the currently unused levels and create space for something different, then connect everything with an elevator.
On level one, which was once a favored hangout for the likes of Allen Ginsburg, and is filled to the brim with everything from roller skates to picture frames, the Nuyorican now envisions classroom, rehearsal, and multimedia spaces.
On level two, which is now home to scores of archives of all kinds, there will likely be new office spaces—a far cry from the cozy digs now used in the basement that can only accommodate about five people.
Level three, full of all kinds of odds and ends, including old stage costumes and mirrors, will be extended out onto what is now the roof, and become a performance space. The grassy backyard area will likely be used for even more performance space.
The building has seen its share of wear and tear. The basement flooded during both hurricanes Irene and Sandy, and has been repaired and refurbished, but the century-old crumbling brick fireplaces on the upper levels, as Gallant puts it, are both “a source of historical interest but also a source of trepidation.”
Despite the current ramshackle condition of the building’s upper levels, the institution is regularly approached by developers because it’s zoned for residential space from its days as a tenement. But Nuyorican isn’t selling.
“There’s never a danger that we’re going to sell,” said Gallant, who added that now the institution’s future in the community is stronger than ever. “Thankfully with the city money we’ll be able to stay.”