Volume 76, Number 44 | March 28 - April 3, 2007

Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel

From left: Frank Camino; Councilmember Rosie Mendez; Life Cafe co-owners Scott Greenwald and Kathleen Kirkpatrick; and Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh with a proclamation from Mayor Bloomberg declaring March 24, 2007, Life Café Day.

Life Café is still alive and kicking in E. Village

By Brooke Edwards

Alphabet City has seen as much change in 25 years as some neighborhoods see in 100. From the 1980s, with lines of down-on-their-luck addicts waiting to get their fix, to today, with lines of young professionals waiting to get into the latest cool lounge, few businesses have managed to weather the changing demographics and soaring rents that have accompanied the gentrification of the neighborhood.

But Life Café, on the corner of E. 10th St. and Avenue B, has not only survived these changes, it has flourished, welcoming crowds of regulars and newcomers alike, and even spawning a sister restaurant across the East River.

Last Saturday, a small crowd of loyal patrons, including Councilmember Rosie Mendez and Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, gathered to celebrate Life Café’s survival and to honor the 25th anniversary of the restaurant that has become a community institution.

“You are witnessing something momentous,” said Frank Camino, co-chairperson of the E. 10th St. Block Association and patron of Life Café since its opening, during Saturday’s gathering. “Twenty-five years in New York City, and especially in the East Village, is amazing for a restaurant.”

Camino discussed how much the cafe has seen in its quarter century, in an area once so distant from the cosmopolitan lifestyle of Manhattan and so devoid of, as an audience member called out, “civilized life.”

One man eating at the cafe was offended by this description, interrupting Camino’s speech to say, “I’ve lived right around the corner since then and I’m civilized.”

Kavanagh, pointed out that exchange is what’s great about the East Village, saying, “There is room for different opinions about how it was, how it is and how it ought to be.”

Mendez said, “I’m here almost every night,” and that she enjoys the drink specials and “hosting” dinner parties and business meetings that cannot fit in her tiny nearby apartment. Mendez also frequents the cafe because, she laughed, “I don’t cook.”

Her favorite Life Cafe dish is the southern fried chicken, though these days she asks for the rich bourbon sauce on the side she said, patting her waistline with a smile.

Mendez shared her fondest memory of Life Café. It happened in September 2005, when she was sitting at the outdoor sidewalk cafe, having a drink and waiting for that week’s edition of The Villager to get delivered. As soon as it came, she grabbed one and read The Villager’s endorsement of her candidacy for City Council. Mendez said she and her friends may have disturbed the peace a bit that night, before returning to their drinks at Life Café with even more cause to celebrate. “It really is my other home,” she said.

Camino presented the cafe’s founder, Kathy Kirkpatrick, with an official proclamation by Mayor Bloomberg, declaring Life Café Day.

Kirkpatrick teared up and pressed her hand to her chest, as her husband kissed her on the cheek.

“I’m gobsmacked,” she said, a word her British husband had taught her to mean “utterly astonished.”

“It’s nice to be recognized, because there ain’t much recognition out there,” Kirkpatrick said, as she reminisced over 25 years of life and Life in the East Village.

Kirkpatrick founded Life Café in 1982 with her then-husband, David. The couple had moved from Lansing, Mich., and planned to open an antique shop and a place where David could work on his art.

When they found the site that would become Life Café, it was in bad shape. The couple got rent credit in exchange for agreeing to fix it up. They cleaned the space, replaced the caved-in floor, covered the dilapidated storefront with pages from old Life magazines and opened their antique shop.

Locals started hanging out in the shop — not to buy antiques, but to get warm and to have some company. Kirkpatrick set up her Mr. Coffee machine, bought pastries from a nearby shop on E. Ninth St. and cooked up pots of vegetarian chili, which she sold for 50 cents.

And so Life Café was born.

The early Life was also a space for live performances, with frequent poetry readings, comedy and fashion shows featuring local artists.

“I would see the waves of humanity come through here,” Kirkpatrick said, “and I would try to make connections among all of these diverse voices.”

Camino remembers well those early days of Life. He came in off the street one cold day looking for a cup of coffee, but uncertain if he could afford it. He was greeted by David and, he said, immediately made to feel welcome. He was shocked when David only wanted 35 cents for the coffee, and left that day wondering, “How are those guys ever going to make it?” Still, Camino said, “It was one of my first memories of feeling at home in New York City.”

In 1985, David left Life Café to found the Jivamukti Yoga Center, which is also still in operation.

Kirkpatrick then took over sole ownership.

“It’s been really difficult,” she said, “especially as a woman in the man’s restaurant business.”

In August 1988, Life Café had a front-row seat on the Tompkins Square riots, as anarchists and homeless individuals protested against police who were trying to clear the park.

“I remember hearing they were marching up Avenue B,” Kirkpatrick said. “Everyone was scared and panicked. They were yelling, ‘Pull the gates down!’ So we did. But you know, they didn’t bother us because we weren’t the enemy.” In fact, she said a group of the rioters recently dropped off a picture of them having coffee in the cafe after the marches.

“There was a vitality and an energy that came with the danger of the neighborhood then,” recalled Bob Arihood, a longtime East Villager.

Arihood, a photographer, has chronicled the area’s transformation and he said, “Life has endured it all.”

Kirkpatrick said, “There was always a threatening undercurrent that kept a lot of people who didn’t live here away and we suffered tremendously.” But she said she never felt threatened because her restaurant was part of the community.

“During those Wild, Wild East times, it was a safe haven,” she said.

This haven for the diverse East Village crowds led to the greatest highlight in the cafe’s history, with its inseparable ties to the hit Broadway musical “RENT.” Jonathan Larson wrote most of the work in Life Café, sipping coffee as he watched the inspiration for his memorable characters come and go. Larson even set one of the play’s most famous scenes in Life Café — when the characters dance on tabletops as they sing “La Vie Boheme.” Dedicated fans, known as “Rentheads,” now make pilgrimages to visit the birthplace of the Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical.

With so much history to share, Kirkpatrick started writing a book called “How Life Began, The Real Story of Life Café, New York City.” Though it’s been on hold for the past few years, Kirkpatrick plans to begin work on it again soon.

In 2002, Kirkpatrick opened a second Life Café in Bushwick, Brooklyn, after she moved to the neighborhood and noticed something eerily familiar about the young artists roving the streets, looking for a place to eat. She admitted, “It was a struggle for the first three years,” serving the poor artist and student population. “But now,” she said, “it is doing really well.”

The East Village location has proven more challenging in the past few years. Usually businesses are granted a 10-year lease. But in 2005, Life Café was granted only a five-year lease, and their rent doubled.

“Our biggest threat today is rent,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s becoming almost impossible to be a community-based business, offering reasonable prices.”

Other financial threats, Kirkpatrick said, are skyrocketing license fees for sidewalk cafes and insurance costs since 9/11. She also said the past few years have seen more stringent enforcement of regulations and codes affecting businesses, resulting in occasional fines.

As if to highlight these financial challenges, Mendez noted that the E. Ninth St. pastry shop run by two eccentric men where Kirkpatrick used to by her desserts just lost their lease.

Out of a sense of necessity then, Kirkpatrick took on partners in 2005. She was joined by father-and-son team Joe and Scott Greenwald. Joe has had more than 50 years experience in the restaurant business, having been the owner of Stage Deli and Harry’s.

The younger Greenwald was nervous when his father first suggested joining his field, picturing white tablecloths and stuffy clientele. He found nothing of the sort at Life Café.

“It’s the kind of place where you can speak loudly, you can laugh and you can drop your fork on the ground without getting embarrassed,” he said.

But not everyone gets the cafe’s “authentic East Village” charm. Greenwald said one customer recently left a comment card asking, “Why don’t you fix your floor?” not realizing that the floor is one piece of Life Café’s history.

Kirkpatrick continues to build that history. She married her current husband, John Sunderland, an international designer, in Life’s garden last spring. During Saturday’s celebration, Sunderland smiled as he said in his lovely Yorkshire accent, “I’m so proud of my wife.”

Sunderland contributes to his wife’s business by creating the “chalk talk” picture puzzles that decorate the cafe’s walls. The puzzles are clues to items on the menu, and Life offers a free bottle of champagne for anyone who solves them. Sunderland loves the symbolism of using chalk, which gets wiped clean each week.

“Life should always be changing,” he said.

So what is Kirkpatrick’s secret to a quarter century of success in an ever-changing Life?

“What has driven me to run this place,” Kirkpatrick said, “is my commitment to the community and the people that live here, more than to making a profit.”

One patron summed up the cafe’s place in the East Village community when he called out between Saturday’s speeches, “Life live long and long live Life!” 

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