A Brief History of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe
Tucked away in New York City’s Lower East Side neighborhood is a venue that has been celebrating the work of a Puerto Rican and multicultural community since 1973. The Nuyorican Poets Cafe is a nonprofit performance venue that offers a platform to poets, playwrights, musicians, comedians and other artists.
“The Cafe from its earliest moments was founded to celebrate outsider voices and champion the work of intellectuals who otherwise might not have the access to professional level resources,” Daniel Gallant, executive director of the Cafe, told La Respuesta.
The independent organization began with Miguel Algarín, a college professor, who set up a salon space at his home.
“It started out meeting in the living room of Professor Algarín’s apartment, also in Alphabet City. And that original collection of artists included Tato Laviera, as well as a number of other artists of Latino and African American heritage,” Gallant explained.
“These artists would come together in Miguel Algarín’s apartment and they would read poetry which often expressed Diaspora themes that spoke the experience of the daily lives of Puerto Rican New Yorkers and African American New Yorkers… But in the 1970s it was relatively difficult for the Latino and African American community who didn’t come from a family that already was established in academia to really find their niche.”
When the project grew too big for small salon space, they moved to an Irish bar called, The Sunshine Cafe. This is where the Nuyorican Poets Cafe was born, and shortly after history repeated itself and the growing audience and artist base proved they once again needed a larger venue.
In 1981, the organization purchased a building at 236 East 3rd Street, and til this day it remains a venue for weekly poetry slams, hip hop and literary events. The expansive theater program has won 30 Audelco Awards and the Fifth Night Series has produced more than 40 films.
Gallant remarked on the evolution of the neighborhood over the years.
“It’s interesting to see how the desirability of that neighborhood has changed. When the Cafe moved in, in the early ‘80s, a lot of the lots nearby were empty, there were burned out buildings… A lot of people that have come from our poetry and music events in these intervening decades from 1981 until now, people have said that their first time coming to Alphabet City, the first time they had a reason or felt comfortable was coming to one of our events.”
Looking to the future
The Nuyorican Poets Cafe has big plans for the coming decades. They recently secured a $6.3 million grant from the city of New York to upgrade the Cafe’s top floors. In two to five years there will be additional performance and office space. The renovations will also allow the Cafe to build a new theater. The organization has a strong tradition of producing great theatrical performances. Such plays like “Short Eyes” and “In The Heights” that made it to Broadway got their start on the Cafe stage.
On Tato Laviera
One of the original founding members passed away November 1. Gallant also remarked on the iconic figure:
“Tato is one of the artists who most eloquently captures the sort of wisdom and activity in street life and the minds of those who have a heightened sense of individual’s roles in society… in his writing and performances he manages to incorporate the nuance of English and Spanish in such a way that a spectator or a reader even, if that person was familiar with only one of those languages, can gain insight and wisdom from how those work.”
Read our Tato Laviera tribute articles, here.