Miguel Algarin’s Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe – 1977
Produced and Reported by Gail Pellett
Aired on: National Public Radio     Date: 1977

Before hip-hop, rap and poetry slams, there was the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe.  Co-founder, Miguel Algarin, poet, playwright and English literature professor at Rutgers University, speaks poignantly about how he insisted on poetry and theater being equal parts with music and dancing at this unusual establishment. “It’s a poets’ place – we often recite with drums, and there’s always theater here, too.”

The Cafe had opened in 1973 — an outgrowth of poets gathering in Algarin’s living room on the Lower East Side.  It exists on government grants, personal donations and from Algarin’s pocket.  It’s free to the public and on weekend nights all age groups can be seen listening to poetry, then dancing to live or recorded music.  It has become such a cultural success in this stressed neighborhood — the Lower East Side —  that city officials asked Algarin to create a similar center in the Bronx.

“I lived here as a child,” says Algarin, “and the neighborhood was functional, but now, past 1st Avenue going toward the river it’s in ruins — the physical shape of the neighborhood is at its worst.”  But culturally there is a lot of life here.  Traditionally a poor immigrant community, the Lower East Side was once home to new immigrants from Eastern Europe or Russia and Italians.  From the 1950s on those communities have been replaced by increasing numbers of Puerto Ricans.

Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Lower East Side, New York

The Cafe is only one of several progressive projects on the Lower East Side — home to the first urban solar heating experiment, and hydroponic gardens on roof-tops.  Also it is home to a robust sweat-equity housing project whereby young people can train as carpenters and builders, put in the labor on renovating old abandoned buildings and gain part ownership for their labors.

Miguel Pinero, award winning playwright, is another founder of the Cafe and uses it as a testing ground for new work. He along with the other poets and playwrights are creating with the new hybrid language that is emerging from the Nuyorican experience….merging Spanish and English, using english nouns as verbs and Spanish verbs as adjectives.   Algarin insists that in this back and forth cultural experience between New York and Puerto Rico, the ear has become the most developed organ.  Tado Lariviera who recites in the classical Spanish tradition is a regular at the Cafe.

Finally, Algarin feels victorious in holding his ground that the Cafe would embrace the spoken word and honor it.  Not give way to the recording machine and temptations to become a thumping salsa disco all the time.  There is time for the music, but first is the spoken word and the human voice.

 

Breaking News

More than thirty-five years later the Nuyorican Poets Cafe is still going strong. In 1995, my co-producer, Stanley Nelson, and I included Algarin in our documentary, Shattering the Silences, about minority professors in major universities. To see the reach of the "spoken word" and poetry movement don't miss To Be Heard a powerful documentary about teaching kids from stressed families in the Bronx how to transform their lives through poetry.

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