Caffe, No More
Rents are rising all across the country. In cities like Seattle & Portland, tenants both young and old are having to sacrifice space & amenities in order to remain part of neighborhoods where they’ve based their lives. In New York City, the rising rents of commercial spaces have begun to severely impact the pocketbooks of us all, in everything from the price of a glass of seltzer water at restaurants ($5???), to the closure of legendary music spots around the city.
I’ll use anecdotes from two NYC meccas for live music: Caffe Vivaldi (West Village), and Hank’s Saloon (Brooklyn). One is a tale of a menacing landlord, who even spent time in prison, torturing a long-standing italian style music venue & caffe, and even while its owner was in physical ill-health. Another is simply the more-common re-shuffling of the cityscape, from small apartment buildings, from dive bars, filling stations, and convenience marts, to hi-rise apartment buildings that bring in far more rent.
Caffe Vivaldi was a springboard for many young songwriters, jazz musicians, world musicians, and folk singers and pianists in NYC. Although the performers were paid entirely in tips, the location of the room always assured walk-in traffic to the venue, and its owners took great care to design a menu that could cater to the low-income artist, or sophisticated gourmand (amazing poached salmon with rice & german riesling, or an affordable panini with coffee). Then, a few years ago, new landlords took over, as illustrated in this excerpt from the Caffe’s blog:
“In 2011, my tormentor, Steven Croman, became the new owner of the building where Caffe Vivaldi resides. From the beginning, his conduct has been belligerent and illegal, unilaterally breaking the renewed lease, which commenced on January 1, 2012, that I signed with him for the Caffe Vivaldi space, and treating me with dismissive contempt.
My emotional distress reached its most damaging state as Mr. Croman’s conduct towards me rose further and further above the law. The menace that Mr. Croman continues to pose threatens to destroy 35 years of history nurtured by Caffe Vivaldi in the West Village.”
Clearly every landlord isn’t this menacing. However, this does illustrate the principle that money=power, and powerful landlords will continue to abuse their power until something can be done to stop them.
Hank’s Saloon in Brooklyn is a Honky-Tonk paradise, the place to go if you hate modern fancy cocktail bars and love loud live music for free. I only set foot in Hank’s for the first time this past week, during a gig. On this particular block on 3rd avenue close to Barclay’s center, every other corner of the block has been completely re-developed to play host to hi-rise hi-cost housing. And soon Hank’s will be razed to make room for the same. The owners knew when they were sold to a developer that it wouldn’t be long before they had to move, but the developers waited several years before beginning building, giving time to Hank’s to consider its future:
“We knew it was only a matter of time before we got the news that we would have to close Hank’s and move along,” [owner Julie Ipcar] said. “But surprisingly enough, the new landlord was kind enough to let us remain open for the past five years, and keep that corner lit until he was ready to build.” - Brooklyn Paper
Although musicians will likely find other gigs, and patrons other bars, the owner has this to say:
“I’m more sad about the actual physical space than the idea of Hank’s the bar — there’s so much history there and it’s really such a meeting place,” Ipcar said. “It’s a local spot and I don’t know where everyone’s going to go, because there’s no place like it really around anymore.”
Hanks, clearly had much to appreciate about its situation: due notice, friendly landlords. But the outcome was the same: pay high rent, or move out. And since there’s no comparison on profit to building a hi-rise (how did our current president make his name, again?), it seems that small live music venues, saloons, irish pubs, casual jazz clubs, and cafes/open mics, will start to go the way of the dinosaur.
For me personally, I can recall easily a time when the only gigs I could get were coffee shop gigs. Small gigs in cafes and bars are a way of steeping yourself in the craft of performing. If I never made it out of the small club circuit, I would still appreciate the beauty of performing in the midst of a beloved local haunt.
The music business is always evolving. Never in history have I heard of so many new bands all at the same time. The artistic ecosystems that these rooms have cultivated won’t cease to exist, however, there are consequences. Artistic and musical organizations are not bonuses to a thriving economic city. They are the backbone of the culture. We musicians and artists will always fight for a creative space. Our spirit is not lost because one room melts back into the primordial city soup from whence it came. It is the cities of America and their citizens who will see consequences from the abandonment of small-scale family-owned restaurants, venues, and other such havens.