On a recent Friday at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the audience filled up the brick-walled space and ordered drinks as a DJ played hip-hop, soca and dancehall. Upcoming poets were scattered about inside as the host worked the crowd before the main event.
It was almost like any other Friday Night Slam at what has become a Lower East Side cultural institution — but with more urgency: At the end of the month, the entire cafe is set to shut down for three years while $24 million in renovation work is done.
“We’re only gonna be able to do this two more times. You’re among the last audience to be in the original space, you’re at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe,” host Jive Poetic said. “This is history right here.”
When it reopens, the cafe on East 3rd Street between Avenues A and B, its home for five decades, will be totally redone.
There will be new elevators, a new first-floor performance space, a green room and changing area in the basement, and more offices and performance spaces on the second, third, and fourth floors, according to a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, which is partially funding the renovation along with the CIty Council and borough president’s office. The electrical and mechanical systems will also be completely overhauled.
“It’s the birthplace of a cultural movement, it’s something very meaningful to Puerto Ricans from Loisaida, from the Bronx, from everyone from that diaspora,” said local Councilmember Carlina Rivera, who helped secure funds for the renovation and grew up in the neighborhood attending slams and shows at the cafe.
Caridad De La Luz, the cafe’s executive director and a prominent poet who performs as La Bruja, said the work is much needed.
“It’s an old building,” she told THE CITY. “It leaks. We can’t plug too many things in, it may blow the grid.”
The space at 236 East 3rd Street was an abandoned tenement building, built more than 100 years ago, when it was purchased in 1971 by the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. The Poets Cafe founders bought it in 1981 after starting off in an East Village living room eight years earlier.
The cafe owns the building, but has had a restrictive covenant on its deed since 2013, which is a requirement for all city-funded capital projects on private property.
This major renovation is a decade in the making, De La Luz said, after damage from Hurricane Sandy and other plans for fixes. While it’s closed, their events — from open mics to poetry slams — will move around other places in New York City, she said.
“The pandemic taught us a lot on how to survive without the venue, so we have that under our belts as well,” De La Luz said.
To celebrate its closure and the cafe’s 50th anniversary, they’re throwing a costume ball on Oct. 31 — as both a fundraiser to supplement their continued programming and a sort of reunion for everyone who’s ever walked through the space, she said.
“All these wonderful places are inviting us to bring the work, so it’s really not an ending at all. It’s the beginning of something totally new.”
‘I Never Looked Back’
The Nuyorican Poets Cafe started 50 years ago in poet Miguel Algarin’s apartment, alongside co-founders Lucky CienFuegos, Bimbo Rivas, Pedro Pietri and Miguel Piñero.
The specific Nuyorican poetry movement was defined by “new, intensely cathartic poetry that was born on New York City streets,” the New York Times wrote in 1976. At that time, their headquarters was a small storefront on East 6th Street, having outgrown Algarin’s apartment.
De La Luz first came to the cafe nearly 30 years ago with childhood friends from Soundview, The Bronx, who she used to share poetry with. It was her best friend’s brother who finally told her, “‘Yo, that stuff is good — you need to go to the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe,’” she recalled.
“He brought me, and I got on the open mic, I got a standing ovation — and I never looked back,” she said. “That was it, it was on.”
In the years since she’s had a career as a poet, actor, singer, and community activist. But her appointment as the cafe’s executive director in January of 2022 was a real homecoming, she said, especially as it coincided with this much-needed renovation.
“I feel like my whole life has come to prepare me for this,” she said. As she’s traveled throughout her career, she’s always maintained that connection to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, she said.
At the recent Friday night slam, the poets all paid tribute to the space and its legacy.
“This is hallowed ground,” spoken word artist Cyrus Aaron, who opened up the event, said.
Among the attendees who came through for a last look was Maja Morsing, 29, who first visited on a trip to New York from her home in Sweden in February 2020.
“It was such a great event that really inspired me for a long time after that,” she said, noting there was nothing like it back home. She and her husband now live in Brooklyn and she brought him along for his first poetry slam.
“I remembered this place because it was so cool,” she said.
The event felt like a “throwback,” said Stinson Parks III, 38, who first came 14 years ago and visited one last time after hearing about the renovation.
“Each poet spoke their truth, which is the ultimate art,” he said.
Felicia Cade, 35, moved to Brooklyn from California two years ago for poetry and found a community at the cafe.
“As soon as I got here all of my friends in L.A. they’re like – you gotta go to the cafe, you gotta go to the cafe,” she said. “I won my first slam here. It’s been a huge blessing.”
She’s worked the Friday night slams and said while she’ll miss the physical space, she believes the work is important for its survival.
“In the long run if we want this place to keep going for the next 50 years it needs so much,” she said. “Pour some love back into the space for all it’s given to us and to prepare it for the next 50 years.”