This week, we present a series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.
The entrance to the Nuyorican Poets Café dissolves into a mural of faceless men standing in line, all dressed in white-hat-and-suit ensembles, hands stuffed into their pockets. The painting is based on a black and white photograph from the 1980s of spectators waiting outside the Café. To the right of the entrance is a detailed portrait of the Rev. Pedro Pietri, one of the Nuyorican’s founding poets. The murals replicate the artistry of what goes on inside the walls.
In the 35 years since the Nuyorican Poets Café moved to 236 East 3rd Street, it has become not only a space for art and culture, performance and sociopolitical commentary, but a celebration of the people, contributions and histories of African-American and Latino communities of the Lower East Side and beyond. Choreographer Alvin Ailey, visual artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, actress Rosario Dawson, rapper RZA, hip-hop group The Roots, writer and activist Amiri Baraka, author and grand poetry slam champion Paul Beatty, all frequented or performed on the cafe stage that’s raised just inches from the ground.
But the building wasn’t always so spirited. Before it became a sanctuary for artistic people of color, and low-income communities of the Lower East Side, it held many of those same people hostage to cheap rent and even poorer living conditions. The building functioned as a crowded tenement for its first 80 years.
From its earliest days since the building was erected in 1877, it has been a bastion of culture, attracting artists and the immigrant communities who crammed the area as they fled persecution and poverty in Eastern Europe. Many arrived from Poland, like resident William Koseck. He played in several prominent orchestras, and was considered one of the country’s foremost violinists by The New York Times and yet remained a starving artist for most of his career and life. Aging was not kind to Koseck and he battled both sickness and loss of eyesight. He continued to perform with the Ellis Orchestra, his last place of employment, though they likely kept him on out of pity. At age 78, the orchestra discharged him “in absolute want,” the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, and he was forced to put down his bow.
A couple days later on Thursday, June 2, 1898, the building’s residents heard the heavy and mournful notes of Chopin’s “Funeral March.” Toward the end of the piece, the music fades in intensity and volume, as if to suggest a heart’s final beat. The neighbors heard Koseck’s sobbing as it replaced the sorrowful sounds.
The building’s children looked into his apartment to see tears flowing down his cheeks as he embraced his beloved instrument. He came out of his room, violin in hand, and descended the building staircase. Two hours later, he returned without the instrument. Back in his room, he hung himself with the violin’s G string. On the table next to his body, he had placed an empty milk container, a few crumbs of bread and the pawnbroker’s ticket for a violin, minus one string.
Five years later, 236 East 3rd had become home to Abraham Finfer, an 18-year-old member of the Monk Eastman Juniors, a gang that terrorized the neighborhood from its headquarters in the cellar of 163 East Broadway. Robberies were a specialty and gang members were known for being unafraid of standoffs with police. On October 3, 1903, Finfer fired on police officers as they attempted to arrest one of his fellow gangbangers, Harry Smith. The pair was arraigned two days later and Finfer was held on $1,500 bail.
The building endured fires and was being funneled through owners until 1942, the year it was sold to Samuel Braun. Department of Housing and Buildings records show he began renovating the building shortly after purchase but not to the benefit of its tenants.
In May of 1942, city officials cited Braun for not providing enough bathrooms for the five-story apartment building. In 1960, he was the owner of record for several New York buildings and became a familiar figure in housing court with no fewer than 13 health code violations against his properties. In March of that year, Braun was fined $400 for not providing adequate heat and for a defective gas range at 236 East 3rd Street. On June 4, 1960, Braun pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 90 days in jail for filing false and illegal rent increase applications with the State Rent Commission.
Four years later, the Fire Department ordered tenants to vacate 236 East 3rd Street because of what Thomas Burke, the Borough Superintendent described as “rubbish accumulation and inadequate fire protection.”
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After World War II, the Lower East Side’s ethnic make-up became more Puerto Rican than Polish, rents stayed low, and artists of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities were able to move and create there.
In June of 1971, La MaMa, a fairly new experimental theater company, founded by Ellen Stewart, acquired 236 East 3rd and other abandoned buildings on the Lower East Side to turn them into art spaces. No. 236 was used primarily for community workshops, in an effort to engage and produce art that was reflective and representative of the surrounding neighborhood. The children’s workshops spearheaded by Charles W. Shaw were some of the most ambitious. “We are concerned with providing the children of this absolutely destitute area with an awakening to their own creative potentials,” read the synopsis from the La MaMa archives. In order to meet the needs of the community, many of the workshops were bilingual, posters were printed in English and Spanish and Latino artists were brought in to lead. A letter to Ellen Stewart in 1973 indicates that the end goal of the space and programming was to establish a Hispanic theater center.
But Ozzie Rodriguez, director of the La MaMa Archives, said it was an experimental and volatile time. On May 15, 1977, over $6,500 worth of equipment was stolen, computable to $26,416 today. Guest artists were concerned and frustrated. In addition, Rodriguez said the community was not receptive to the workshops because of how dire their economic realities were. It became “untenable, it was not a healthy situation for anyone,” he said. Financial constraints forced La Mama to vacate the facility in 1978.
Outside of 236 East 3rd, the 1970s brought significant innovation and collaboration among the neighborhood’s artists. The Nuyorican Poets Café began as an informal salon for artists in 1973, and for members of predominantly Puerto Rican and African-American heritage to gather and generate art that spoke to their daily lives. This was still an aspect many of the artists felt was underrepresented in content and demographic of the mainstream poetry circuit. Daniel Gallant, the current executive director of the Nuyorican Poets Café, told me, “the salons that were part of the Café’s history were as much support groups as they were workshops.”
The Café’s founder, Miguel Algarin, was at the forefront of a budding Nuyorican movement in New York City. Original meetings of the Café took place in Algarin’s apartment and then moved to a bar on 6th Street (now a gay bar called Eastern Bloc.) But neither space could accommodate the growing demand for the cultural and artistic performances the Café was hosting. In 1981, 236 East 3rd was on the market and Algarin bought the place for less than $8,000. The wooden bar that’s still inside today was taken from the original bar on 505 East 6th Street, cut up, put onto roller-skates and pushed down the three blocks to 236 East 3rd.
It became a place where punk rockers mashed with hip-hop and jazz artists, visual artists mixed with choreographers and artists of all stripes collaborated within the Café’s walls. From its very beginnings, the Nuyorican Poets Café welcomed such interaction, encouraging interdisciplinary and multicultural art and performance, and relevance to the Lower East Side’s low income and residents of color.
It was accessible to the community, too, unlike the high ticket prices and audience etiquette expected in other city venues. The artists that populated and performed at the Café sought to speak directly to the audience. The barely elevated stage is a natural facilitator of conversation between performer and audience. The original brick walls reflect the building’s history but also give the space warmth and character, and enable powerful acoustic reach. The space radiates intimacy.
Miguel Piñero, a well-known Latino playwright, actor and poet, was also a founding member of the Café and he bridged the gap between the Lower East Side’s Puerto Rican community and their untapped artistic power. He often played drug dealers, thieves and other stereotypical roles on television to fund his more groundbreaking work. His best-known play, “Short Eyes,” was written while he was in prison and was first performed at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in 1972. Joseph Papp helped revive it under the Cafe’s auspices in 1974. The play was nominated for six Tonys and won an Obie Award for “best play of the year,” making Piñero the first Puerto Rican playwright to have his work so honored.
The Café closed down for renovations in 1982. Gallant said the building, by then a century old, “had a lot of potential, but was not habitable or usable for performances.” It was not equipped for extreme temperature nor big crowds and so artists, volunteers and the city government worked together to cultivate the space. The floors and ceilings were reinforced with wooden joists, the second floor was turned into a mezzanine, a sound booth and theater lighting were installed, as well as additional bathrooms, a heating/cooling system and a full bar. The Café reopened in 1989 to the success of their most popular event: Friday Night Poetry Slams.
There have been many trailblazing performances since. The Amsterdam News covered a 1992 gay and lesbian literary series, titled “Outspoken,” at the Café. One of the featured acts was Lloyd Vega who read from his book A Warm December, which challenged the one-dimensional and even harmful portrayals of black gay men.
That same year, Wesley Brown’s “Life During War Times” premiered at the Café. It was inspired by the story of Michael Stewart, a 23-year-old black graffiti artist who fell into a coma and died after being brutally beaten and arrested by the police in 1983.
Ishmael Reed created a play that debuted in 1994 at the Café juxtaposing a president, a minister and a rap star. Reed told The New York Times, “In this play we take on the hypocrisy of those who criticize rap for its misogyny and sexism when they belong to institutions that practice the same things themselves.” He surveyed similar themes in some of his other plays that premiered at the Café. In “Hubba City,” Reed depicted the many agents and institutions that profit from the drug trade beyond the local kingpin, including the other culpable stakeholders: the corrupt landlord, the banker, the drug importer, the local policeman, and the government.
In 1995, the Café presented a series called “Art Against Death: Art and Writings Against the Death Penalty.” The event selected the works of over 100 political prisoners and collected the profits for the defense fund of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a political activist and journalist who spent 30 years on death row before his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
A 1998 revival of “Julius Caesar in Africa,” which had premiered eight years earlier, transformed Shakespeare’s backdrop of Ancient Rome into Mali in A.D. 1242. In similar fashion, the Café hosted the New York City Hip-Hop Theater Festival in 2002 as a counterweight to the lack of attention the art form was receiving on major stages. “America’s theaters are still scared of us,” the program read. Modes of artistic expression continued to collide with theater in the Café space throughout the ‘90s and 2000s.
While the Café is in no real danger of being priced out of its home (it just received a major grant for $10.9 million from the city for renovations), Gallant acknowledges that its audiences now have to come from farther away. The Friday night poetry slams are still among the Café’s most popular nights. The queues often wrap around the corner and would-be guests even have to be turned away. And the Nuyorican Poets Café is committed to maintaining the artistic and cultural traditions that were born in the Lower East Side, even if nothing else around them stays the same.