Cornelia Street Cafe, NYC Landmark, Facing Monthly Rent of $33K

Greenwich Village's Cornelia Street Cafe has served New York for 40 years as a restaurant and all-around art gallery and performance space. Its bright red facade was a large visual presence steps away from the heart of the West Village. Now, with its rent at $33,000 per month, the founding owner is hoping to turn Cornelia Street into a non-profit, making it eligible for grants and tax-deductible contributions.

My best experience at Cornelia Street was when my wife and I had lunch there with the late Dave Van Ronk, the legendary folk and blues singer who sheltered Bob Dylan when the Minnesotan first arrived in town, and who knew absolutely everybody in bohemian New York. I was, of course, interested in any story Dave wanted to tell. Always one to recognize the value of a good legend, Dave said to me in his gravelly voice, "Do you want them to be true?" 

Cornelia Street Cafe Struggling With High Rent After 40 Years In Village

Flipnotics reaches the end of the road

Flips was a wonderful combination of music venue and cafe. It opened early in the morning to offer coffee and breakfast taco’s, along with bagels, muffins, etc. Given Austin’s warm clime, Flips large, multi-leveled outdoor deck generally saw more patrons than the tiny interior space. At night, however, that small space (44-person capacity) hosted a steady stream of local musicians.

I never learned exactly why Flips closed. It's in a tiny building and sits on a street that’s been slowly giving way to large condos and apartment buildings. Everyone's assuming that, eventually, its lot will host one of those monstrosities, But as of now, eight months after it served its last cup, Flip sits there dark and shuttered, a silent reminder of one more Austin loss.

Flipnotics Closing - Austin Chronicle

“Packed all the time,” but JP’s Java still closes

Can an emphasis on coffee keep a nice place afloat? JP’s had good coffee, a patio, and both a big, bright main space and a cozy back room. Still, says its owner, the  average tab was about 4 bucks, with patrons occupying their tables for hours. I was one of those people. Though I usually had a light meal plus coffee, and spent closer to $10 on my visits, I too would sit at my table for three to four hours. I wrote a great deal of Cactus Burning there, while occasionally visiting with friends. Still, guests could usually find an empty chair. In my many visits to JP's, I never walked out for want of a seat, nor observed anyone doing so.

So, if table squatting didn’t shut down JP’s, what did? While Austin still has a lot of coffeehouses, I’ve seen many close over the years. Starbucks, by contrast, seems to expand constantly. Have costs risen so high that a neighborhood coffee place can’t make an adequate profit? Must you have the scale of a Starbucks to survive in the cafe business?

Owner JP Hogan, and a few Austin commentators, offer some thoughts here.


Growth: the right way, the wrong way

A Facebook posting by a North Carolina friend called my attention to this 2/28/14 column in the Chapel Hill News, by Linda Haac. Titled Tale of Two Towns, it's a brief comparison of the different approaches to growth taken by Chapel Hill, NC and the neighboring town of Carrboro. 

Haac sums up the differing approaches succinctly:  

"It’s true nothing stays the same, change is always in the air and 'so-called progress' needs to be made, but there are ways of doing things and ways ending in generic, often unpleasant results. Carrboro appears to be honoring our past as it moves forward, keeping true to our identity and soul, while Chapel Hill appears on a different track."

San Francisco's Eagle and Tales of the Lonesome Pine

When I first went online seeking tales of treasured community businesses or non-profits, I didn’t find the archive I was seeking but I did hear a couple of interesting stories.

One of my correspondents reported from San Francisco, where I lived for many years. He told me of ongoing efforts to save the Eagle Tavern, a 30-year-old gay bar of significance to the local LGBT community. The Eagle’s impending demise apparently boiled down to dollars and cents, in a city where gentrification and rising rents have been problems for years. Preservationists worked through social media and more-traditional organizing tools to rouse community members and sympathetic public officials. Their efforts opened a path for new buyers, who seemed able to whether the costs and insisted they'd preserve the bar’s historic community role. Today, the Eagle lives on. From my outsiders's perspective, however, I'm uncertain whether the result is satisfactory to those who rose initially to the bar's defense. Sometimes, change means that some see preservation, while others see destruction. I'll try to learn more about the Eagle.

From southwest Virginia, near the USA’s other coast, I heard from Wendy Welch. Wendy and her husband, Jack, are the founding proprietors of Tales of the Lonesome Pine Used Books. Her own book, The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, documents their successful struggle to make their store a good and valued local citizen, in the face of the commercial challenges facing all bookstores. Her book’s subtitle sums up her story as well as any few words can: “a memoir of friendship, community, and the uncommon pleasure of a good book.” You can find Wendy and her wonderful book right here.

Culture Burning

I participated in Austin's struggle to save the Cactus Cafe and I've spent almost four years researching and writing Cactus Burning. From these efforts, I've developed a particular interest in exploring the meaning of special community places - those enterprises that make communities distinctive. In particular, I'm interested in efforts to save such places and in the repercussions that flow from their loss. In the summer of 2012, I posted an inquiry on several message boards and listservs, asking if readers knew of any archive, website, or discussion forum, "devoted to the loss of local businesses or cultural institutions, and the resulting community impact?"

"We've all heard," I went on, "of the impact of big-box stores, and we know that independent bookstores and record/CD stores are dropping like mad. Communities might also suffer when they lose the local butcher, hardware store, or cinema, each of which might help create community identity. I'm looking for discussions or collections related to such community dislocation."

I received a handful of replies, which talked about some special places in my correspondents' communities, but I never learned of the archive or forum that I was seeking. I never learned of a place were people could collect such stories, so that communities might learn from one another how best to address, or cope with, their own losses. I hope that this space, Culture Burning, can become that place.

This is not going to be a blog in the usual sense. I'm not necessarily going to jot down my own thoughts on any particular schedule. From time to time, I'll tell stories about losses or struggles that come to my attention. But I hope that Culture Burning can live largely through reader contributions. I urge people to use this website's contact page to tell me of stories in their communities, or to alert me to pertinent articles, books, or films. I'll pass that info on or, with permission, reprint my correspondents' own words. I'd like this to become the archive that I couldn't find - a place where we collect stories about the sacred spaces that make our individual communities unique. I'd love to hear from you.