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Nuyorican Cafe Launches $7 Million Renovation

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The exterior of the Nuyorican on E. 3rd Street. Photo courtesy of the Nuyorican.

Editor’s Note: This story was published in our October, 2012 magazine issue.

At a time in which many downtown performance venues are closing, it’s refreshing to see one of the neighborhood’s most-loved establishments, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, actually flourishing.  After recently being awarded $1 million from the city, the organization is embarking on the much needed renovation of its building on East 3rd Street  The project, which is expected to cost around $7 million, coincides with the Nuyorican’s 40th anniversary this spring.

“[The renovation] is probably going to go forward in stages because, as anyone trying to raise money for a capital project can tell you, it’s not easy to bring in $7 million dollars at one time,” executive director Daniel Gallant said, “but we have managed to accrue [enough] from the city to start the process of renovation and move forward.”

Started in Miguel Algarin’s living room in 1973 by a group of like-minded writers and poets, the cafe became famous for its popular evenings of spoken word, poetry slams and early hip-hop freestyle battles. The programming grew to include theater, live music, comedy, video and visual arts, and always sought to support underrepresented artists. Such talents as Miguel Piñero, Ntozake Shange, Sarah Jones, Rosie Perez and Rosario Dawson have graced its stage.

The building was purchased in 1981 for $8,000.  “Back then, that was a lot of money to buy an abandoned tenement around here,” Gallant said.  Not much has been done since then; there was no certificate of occupancy for the upper floors, where Gallant said, there are some structural hazards.

Gallant came to the Nuyorican four years ago, when the Board of Directors decided it was time to bring someone in who could focus, full-time, on helping the organization expand.  Until then, the cafe was operated by a team of volunteers, who balanced other day jobs with their passion for keeping the Nuyorican going.  Galant galvanized the cafe’s youthful audience base through social media, building on the popular Friday Night Poetry Slam.

The Nuyorican has since doubled the number of shows it holds each year.  Online ticket sales are up and web traffic has increased greatly.  Gallant says the Nuyorican’s programs are at capacity, unable to answer the demand from performers and audiences alike, particularly now that the Bowery Poetry Club has closed.

As the cafe continues to raise money, the plan is to transform at least one floor into a second stage, or black box theater, within the next two years. “Having the additional performance space is the most important immediate goal–it will boost everything we do,” Gallant said.

So far, the funds raised have come from the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs and the City Council. Gallant said he’s hoping corporate funders and private foundations will begin to chip in, as well. “We received our first NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) grant ever, about a year and a half ago, and we received [New York State] support for the first time in years, just this past year, so we’re getting there. “

As for what the future holds for the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe, Gallant is extremely optimistic.  “So far we feel good about the progress we’ve made and the renovations, as well as the additional programming that we’ve done recently,” he said. “People really want to see the organization grow and succeed and flourish.”


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