The day I visited the Nuyorican Poets Cafe the front door was being replaced. The door was old and for security purposes had to go. Still, staff were adamant that they wouldn’t be getting rid of the old one, after all “there’s a lot of history in that door”. For an institution as notorious and embedded as the Nuyorican, even seemingly irrelevant parts of architecture have stories to tell. However, if there’s a lot of history in the front door that is nothing compared to what can be found inside.
The Nuyorican has not always been at its current location on East 3rd Street. It was initially set up in 1974 on East 6th Street in the apartment of Miguel Algarín, one of the cafe’s founding members. Popularity soon forced it to expand into an Irish Pub on the same street and in 1981 to where it currently stands. The cafe closed a year later but re-opened in 1988 and since then the top three floors of the building have been given over to its archival collections. It was these collections that were the purpose of my visit but I arrived with no concept of their size. Executive Director Daniel Gallant had told me that there was a lot to see; he was not wrong.
What the collections might lack in organization they more than make up for in content. The walls are decorated with banners from previous performances and coat rails are jammed with costumes. There are countless boxes of recorded material as well as signed photographs and DIY posters from the 1980s. The material spans the entire history of the Nuyorican, from the early days of Miguel Piñero, Pedro Pietri, through Amiri Baraka and Rome Neal, and into the current crop of new artists making their name at the cafe. In essence the Nuyorican holds an almost complete cultural and material history of the late 20th Century East Village.
Yet the location of the Nuyorican archives has caused problems of its own. Twice the material has been storm damaged
and there is always a concern that this could happen again. The Nuyorican is not opposed to the material being archived elsewhere but this is often easier said than done. First this would require one of the many archival sites in New York to come forward to accept the material. However, Daniel Gallant explained to me that in order for the vast collection to be properly understood it would need the input of someone familiar with the history and current work of the cafe and this is constrained by both time and money. I would be surprised if numerous other non-profit institutions in New York do not also encounter the same problem.
I have often found it interesting that we make such clear distinctions between hoarding and collecting, often only allowing the former to become the latter when practiced by someone of notoriety. Yet if there is a distinction to be made it is surely in terms of organization. Any individual or institution may keep hold of material from their past but it is when that is transformed into something accessible and understandable that it becomes a recognizable collection. The case of the Nuyorican shows how difficult this can be. The East 3rd Street building will soon be renovated and the top floors will becomes artistic and theatrical studios. When this happens the material will have to move; it would be a tragedy if it did not find the home it deserves.