Life Café founder and co-owner Kathy Kirkpatrick smiles at the helm of her second establishment, which opened 21 years after the original Life in the East Village.
Before Life Café, Flushing Avenue wasn’t really on the map for dining and nightlife options. Same goes for Alphabet City.
Though she says it happened "almost by accident," Life Café founder and co-owner Kathy Kirkpatrick managed to build two neighborhood-defining havens for the creative on both sides of the East River within the last three decades. When the original establishment opened in 1981 on E. 10th Street it quickly became home to stranded artists, musicians, and writers in the unruly East Village, and now, after celebrating the seventh anniversary of Life Café 983 in Bushwick, Kathy seems to be doing it all over again.
From a seat at the bar, glass of white wine in hand, Kathy glanced over her small restaurant on Flushing Avenue and started talking to me about the book she is writing on her two restaurants. Tentatively titled How Life Began, she plans to tell the story of her life as the owner of the landmark restaurant, spanning from the early days in drug-ridden Manhattan to her new venture in industrial Brooklyn.
"We fed the artist community in the East Village, we gave them a place to meet and collaborate and we gave them some safety from the streets," she said. "Between the wild poetry readings and the everyday nonsense, Life became more than a café, and that was obvious."
The story began when Kathy and her former husband, a young couple from Michigan fresh off a two-year road trip, landed in New York City with empty pockets and a rusted Suburban stuffed with their possessions and salvaged antiques. After a quick search, they found a rundown storefront across the street from Tompkins Square Park and struck a deal with the landlord to fix up the place for rent credit.
Initially, the storefront was made into an antique shop/artist studio for her husband David and the couple took up residence in the back. The plan seemed ideal, but their merchandise wasn’t selling. They soon realized it was time for a change.
"No one was coming to buy antiques," she said. "The only people that came to the East Village back then were buying pot, heroin, and cocaine."
It was around the same time that an old friend rolled in from Michigan with a vanload of more antiques and a four-foot high stack of old Life magazines. They weren’t sure what to do with all the magazines, but a concerned neighbor had recently alerted Kathy and David to the fact that they were living in a place with dangerously flimsy exterior walls. The storefront was made of poorly patched pieces of wood and tin and the neighbor advised action before a burglar broke into their home. So a few nights later, the four of them came up with the idea to camouflage the frail storefront with Life pages. With the aid of some trusty wheat paste, they covered the exterior walls in the colorful vintage pages and began talking about converting the place into a café. Thus, Life Café was born… and the camouflage worked perfectly.
The antiques that were lying around were used to furnish and decorate the new business, and Kathy started buying pastries from "two old Jewish guys" at the 9th Street Bakery. Instantly, local artists filled the café and they began hosting Tuesday night poetry readings where writers could heckle and be heckled without limit. It became a safe haven for neighbors with nowhere else to congregate and the wide variety of events attracted some notable performers including David Murray, Ann Magnuson, Kembra Pfahler, John Zorn, Bill Laswell, Frankie Lymon’s Nephew and C Sharpe.
But there were also many hardships in running a café that could barely stay afloat. Kathy held an office job in midtown and all the work was straining her marriage. The couple split in 1984 and David wanted to sell the café. Kathy refused and resolved to run it by herself, just as New York City sank into the crack epidemic and the East Village swarmed with unpredictable junkies.
"It was hard for us working in a little neighborhood café, forced to do drug intervention, something we weren’t trained in or prepared for," she said. "We had people shooting up and OD-ing in our bathroom and things were getting pretty ugly."
Luckily, the dark days passed, Kathy slowly expanded the dinner menu with veggie burritos and wholesome soups, and Jonathan Larson visited the café while he was writing the now famous Rent, the musical that put Life Café in the spotlight. In the late ’90s, Kathy fled an overcrowded Manhattan for the blue skies of Bushwick.
Among forever-idling trucks and abandoned warehouses, a new chapter unfolded in 2001 when Kathy’s neighbor bought a building at 983 Flushing Avenue and asked her if she wanted to open another restaurant. At the time, aside from a couple of bodegas, there was no street-level retail or food in the immediate area — but that didn’t intimidate Kathy from opening Life Café 983 in 2002, and helping pioneer yet another "up-and-coming" neighborhood.
When it first opened, 983 was very different from what it is today. Food wasn’t even made to order: there was a steam table and customers helped themselves to a small buffet. Kathy, noticing the lack of grocery stores in the area, stocked the shelves with baguettes, onions, potatoes, butter, eggs, toilet paper and other essentials for people marooned in the desolate area.
"My initial idea was to serve the needs of the people in a neighborhood where they only had delis that sold three-week old limes, white bread, and junk food," she said.
Kathy thought she would be serving factory workers in the area, but more "arty types" started showing up than anyone else. She then realized it was happening all over again: she was creating a new haven for artists to meet up in a neighborhood that didn’t offer many alternatives. Since then, Bushwick’s Life has grown into the full-service bar and restaurant that it is today.
Now Kathy collaborates with her husband, John Sunderland, in all restaurant operations. John recently conceived the "Bushwick Bridge" to showcase the work of Bushwick artists on the walls of the Life Café in the East Village, making it easier for locals to get exposure in Manhattan. David moved on after their divorce and became a yogi who founded and still runs the Jivamukti Yoga Center near Union Square.
As our conversation wound down, Kathy walked me out the door while talking about her plans to publish the book in the next year or so. She gazed down Flushing Avenue on the drafty September night and once again confirmed her secret to success over all these years.
"I don’t have any kids, my customers are my kids, I guess," she said. "I’m like the aunt that will give you a sip of wine and not tell your parents when you’re smoking cigarettes in the backyard."