HOW LIFE CAFE BEGAN
While writing his Pulitzer-Prize-winning musical Rent, Jonathan Larson
visited Life Cafe. If you’ve seen the show you knoqw the scene where the
characters danced on the tables of Life Cafe and sang La Vie Boheme. Why did
Jonathan choose this East Village institution to be in his play of love, life and
The basis of the story behind RENT is akin to Life’s story, which is also a
story of love, life and hope – and about rent, or rather, trying to pay it. The
tiny coffee house opened in 1981 almost by accident in the front section
of the storefront that a young married couple, Kathy and David, rented to
live their life and make art. The Cafe became an anchor and the heart of
the neighborhood serving inexpensive food and drink while hosting poetry
readings, performance, musical and visual art shows in the midst of the
culturally explosive1980s East Village rock ‘n roll art scene.
For years visitors to the Cafe were always asking Kathy Life, “How’d this place
get started anyway? The answer became the inspiration for the book How Life
Began; the Search for Love, Hope and Huevos Rancheros at the Life Café in New
York City by Life’s co-founder Kathleen Kirkpatrick. Briefly, it goes like this:
Tired of the offerings in Lansing, Michigan, in 1976 Kathy Kirkpatrick and her husband David packed up their rusty old Chevy Suburban and a tent trailer with art supplies, a load of dried grains and beans (the staple of their vegetarian diet) their three greyhounds and $40, all the money they had “to find a city to live in.” They headed to the American West, going with the flow, camping in the mountains, plains and deserts as well as in friends’ driveways eventually crisscrossing dozens of states west of the Mississippi. David exhausted the destinations on his list and the couple headed back to Michigan. While there an old high school friend invited the couple to sublet his tiny Greenwich Village apartment on MacDougal Street in New York City for three months. Did they want to stay there? the friend asked. Yes, David told him without hesitation. It was his last chance to find the artistic camaraderie he sought. Once there, Kathy decided to help support this latest adventure by seriously pursuing a career in business management, something she always wanted to do. They arrived in Greenwich Village in the winter of 1980.
After a diligent search, they chose to live in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which offered cheap rents and had a rich and radical artistic history. They found a dilapidated storefront on the corner of 10th Street and Avenue B and made a deal with the landlord for rent credit in exchange for fixing it up. The storefront would be ideal for a combination antique store, artist studio and living space. They came up with a plan to sell out of half of the storefront the antiques and architectural salvage that Dave had stored in Michigan. That way, they hoped, David could earn enough income for him do his art in the other half. Meanwhile, Kathy found a job in Midtown Manhattan in corporate sales hoping to make enough money to cover living expenses and pay for fixing up the space while making her way up the ladder.
David used his creative skills to make the disintegrated space livable. The first
thing that had to be fixed was a caved-in floor but not until three feet of mud
and debris was removed from the basement first. After the living area was
suitable the antique store was set up. Once opened, however, they discovered
people weren’t coming to Alphabet City to buy antiques; they were coming
to score and use heroin. Street life on the Lower East Side was dangerous,
rough and drug-ridden; it was about survival and the street had its own rules.
Fortunately, locals befriended the couple. They were lucky to be mentored in
the game by these new friends, leading them to enjoy a relative quiet respect
and acceptance in the neighborhood.
While working on the space, a friend from Michigan arrived with a vanload
of more antiques that included a four-foot high stack of Life Magazines from
the 1940?s and 50?s. Hanging out one night, a neighborhood friend warned
them of the lack of security in the storefront; the outside walls were patched
with pieces of wood and tin carelessly nailed up. Late that night, with the
Life Magazines sitting before them, they came up with the idea to camouflage
the decrepit storefront by wheat pasting pages from the old Life Magazines
onto it. As the group worked on the collage, there was talk of a coffee house.
The name “Life Cafe” was born late that night. (And the camouflage worked
In the early 80?s, the streets of downtown Manhattan were continuously filled with discarded furniture and junk of every sort. David used all the antiques
that he had and added other street finds that he and a few friendly locals dropped off incorporating it all into a cafe setting. Kathy set up their Mr. Coffee machine, their one-burner Coleman camp stove and espresso coffee pot, which she took from her kitchen in the back. Then she bought pastries from the two old Jewish guys who ran the 9th Street Bakery. Shop was set up. Life Café was born!
Immediately, the locals began to hang out. A neighbor organized Tuesday night poetry readings where poets and writers came to read and rant. Hungry for a space to strut their stuff, other artists approached David to perform. Life Cafe became host to music, performance art, comedy, theater, art installations, and fashion shows. Among those who performed were David Murray, Ann Magnuson, Kembra Pfahler (of Karen Black fame), John Zorn, Bill Laswell, Frankie Lymon’s Nephew, and C Sharpe.
The couple developed a habit to exchange food for art to help the poor artists.
Kathy cooked up vegetarian chili and sold it for fifty-cents a bowl so that
the locals could afford it. Life Cafe became a space for artists to meet, talk,
exchange ideas and perform. On cold winter days, people came to keep warm
because their apartments were freezing cold. Actually, on the coldest winter
nights it wasn’t much warmer at Life Café either; it just felt warmer being
among friends. It was familiar and it felt safe. Any day of the week you would
find people writing their novel, short story, poem or play over a cup of coffee.
During the afternoons, a local musician who drove everyone mad repeatedly
worked out his musical score on an old donated piano. With a warm respect,
the locals began calling the couple David and Kathy Life.
At the same time, artist-run galleries popped up all around Life Cafe along
with bars, late-night clubs and music venues. Sidewalks swelled from the
traffic centered on the ever-constant art opening parties. Photographers from
the world over were seen everyday taking pictures of Life Cafe’s wild-looking
collaged storefront. The media couldn’t get enough of the East Village. Soon,
attracted by all the action, non-bohemians from around the world arrived.
For Life Cafe, there was no profit and little cash flow in selling pastries, fifty-
cent chili and charging a two-dollar door cover that the couple felt compelled
to give to the artists. Economic realities (like rent and utility bills) loomed
threateningly. Newcomers from outside the neighborhood were appearing
more and more often and they had to be catered to differently than the easy-
going locals. Kathy grew tired of supporting the effort with an unsatisfying
corporate job during the day and working nights and week-ends at the Cafe.
It was time for another change. So much had gone into and come out of Life.
Instead of closing down the Cafe, she decided to devote her energies full time
to make Life Cafe a restaurant.
Kathy stayed on at Life Café. David moved on in the late 80s and became a
yogi who co-founded and still runs Jivamukti Yoga Center. After she took
over sole ownership in 1985 and persevered through the ups and downs
of the neighborhood and city over the years, Kathy maintained the unique
quintessential East Village homespun style.
Life Café offered a full menu for breakfast, lunch, dinner and brunch with a
full bar. The sidewalk cafe offered the opportunity to people-watch and enjoy
Tompkins Square Park. Some of the original artists and regulars from the old
days would still stop by to say hello, but their numbers have diminished.
The original East Village café introduced a sister in Brooklyn in 2002,
Life Café 983. It serves moderately priced American comfort food that
includes the signature vegetarian and vegan fare in a relaxed and casual
setting. The distinctive atmosphere, friendly staff and social intermingling
among staff and visitors, reminiscent of the original days 25 years ago, sets
Kathy’s eateries apart from all others. Life Café 983 too is now the heart of a
burgeoning artist community of Bushwick.
Life Café’s East Village location was fortunate and grateful to be immortalized
in Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play RENT that played to sold-out
audiences on Broadway from 1996 to 2008. In 2005 it was made into a major
motion picture from Columbia Pictures directed by Chris Columbus. Jonathan
was one of those artists who found shelter at Life Cafe, sipping coffee while
writing his masterpiece. His is just one Life Cafe story.
On September 11, 2011, Kathy closed Life Café for good. She discovered the
buildings had serious structural degradation and when she reported it to the
landlords, they put up a scaffold around the entire restaurant and thus began
a two-year dispute over a $35,000 line item. The scaffolding and their dispute
ruined the business, forcing its closure.