Volume 73, Number 32 | December 10 - 16, 2003

Folkies jam for Bottom Line in famous club’s swan song

By Lincoln Anderson
They were three onstage. Each with a guitar. There was John Hiatt, a grizzled veteran singer and songwriter; Suzanne Vega, probably the biggest star to emerge from the 1980s fast-folk movement; and Dar Williams, a relatively newer star in the folk firmament. They took turns singing their songs, telling stories and anecdotes, bantering with each other, joking with the audience, creating that special atmosphere as only folk music can do. It was a night of folk music in the best tradition.
Braving freezing weather, a capacity crowd of 400 turned out for Friday night’s benefit concert for the legendary Bottom Line at W. Fourth and Mercer Sts. They were a mix of young and old and they applauded and rocked and swayed; they pounded on tables and sang along to lyrics they knew and called out names of favorite songs they wanted to hear.
Vega, in her breathy, smoky voice sang her signature hit, “Luka,” about child abuse. Hiatt sang his “Seven Little Indians,” about his father dressing up in his Eskimo mukluks and dancing in front of his kids in front of the TV’s “blue firelight.” They spun story after story with their lyrics and guitars.
Yet, beneath the warm feelings flowed a current of uneasiness. The benefit was part of a last-ditch effort by the famous Greenwich Village music club to remain in its home of three decades. Two days earlier a Civil Court judge had ruled in favor of landlord New York University’s effort to collect back rent totaling more than $185,000 and to evict the legendary club.
Talking between songs at one point, Williams noted she’s been part of many “losing battles” that seemed hopeless, only to end up winning.
“What happens on this stage is all about music, and the personalities, the blossoming of musicians. It’s something N.Y.U. misses,” she said, as the crowd vehemently applauded her words. “It’s not a landmark because it’s living and breathing,” she said of the Bottom Line. “It’s somewhere between a landmark and a legend. It’s a breathing thing called Greenwich Village. You don’t get it everywhere. And if you lose it — you don’t get it again.”
Hiatt picked a fitting song to dedicate to Allan Pepper, the club’s co-founder and co-owner.
“This one’s for Allan Pep-pah,” said Hiatt in a Midwestern drawl, before launching into a soulful rendition of “Have a Little Faith in Me.”
As of last Friday night, Pepper needed faith, and then some. The eviction notice could have been posted in as soon as five days from the judge’s decision, or the end of business on Monday. Seventy-two hours after the notice’s posting, a marshal can seize the club’s assets for N.Y.U. to either keep or sell.
Yesterday morning, N.Y.U. announced in a press release that the club had not paid back the rent within the five-day grace period and will now be evicted. Josh Taylor, an N.Y.U. spokesperson, said the club could be evicted within one to three weeks, though the holidays might affect the timing.
According to N.Y.U. spokesperson John Beckman, on Monday the club had offered to pay 10 percent this week of the $1.5 million in renovation costs that the university had required to grant the lease, and another 10 percent next week, with negotiations to follow on payment of the rest. Councilmember Alan Gerson had tried to work as a mediator to get the university to accept the club’s 11th-hour offer, which N.Y.U. rejected.
Before the crowd left Friday night, Meg Griffin, the deejay who broadcasts performances from the club on Sirius Satellite Radio and who organized the show, reminded them to e-mail the four elected officials whose addresses were being handed out at the door — Senators Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer, Rep. Jerrold Nadler and Mayor Mike Bloomberg — about helping save the Bottom Line.
In September, Sirius had stepped in to pay the club’s full back rent, on condition N.Y.U. grant the club a 10-year lease. However, there were other terms in the lease N.Y.U. subsequently offered that the club found impossible to meet, including raising the $1.5 million for interior and exterior renovations and a significantly higher rent.
Not counting money from the benefits, with contributions from AT&T, Bruce Springsteen and others, the Bottom Line has raised more than $450,000 towards renovations, or one-third of what N.Y.U. is demanding.
N.Y.U. says the Bottom Line sealed its own fate. The Bottom Line never signed or returned the lease N.Y.U. sent the club in early October, feeling the rent and renovation costs were too high; however, N.Y.U. said the terms were what Mark Alonso, the Bottom Line’s lawyer, agreed to during negotiations outside the courtroom in September, though Alonso denies this.
On Nov. 21, Alonso sent N.Y.U. a counter proposal with terms the club felt were more reasonable, and sought to have a conference with university representatives in chambers with the judge on the case, Donna Recant. But N.Y.U. refused to accept the Bottom Line’s counteroffer or meet with the judge.
In a Dec. 3 statement, following the judge’s decision, Beckman said N.Y.U. was “saddened” by the situation, and that “N.Y.U. does not want to see the Bottom Line close, but it is simply not right to have a not-for-profit educational institution subsidizing a for-profit entertainment business.” Beckman said the Bottom Line’s counteroffer would “still have them paying [a rent] less than half of fair market value.”
Alonso and Pepper refused to divulge the counteroffer’s figures for the rent and renovations.
The Bottom Line’s strategy in court had been to argue that they didn’t have a valid lease with N.Y.U. since a lease renewal from the university a few years ago wasn’t signed by the club. But Judge Recant ruled that since the club never challenged the lease before and some months paid the full $11,000 rent, there was a tacit acceptance.
Despite the judge’s ruling to issue an eviction warrant, N.Y.U. had said it would still allow the club to stay, if it signed the lease N.Y.U. offered.
For his part, Pepper was still hoping last week that things could be worked out with the university and that the club would be able to stay.
“Even though a court has ruled, N.Y.U. can do what they want,” he noted.
Asked if he’d given thought to relocating the club, Pepper said, “It’s certainly been suggested. Right now, I’d like to stay here. If there’s a reality I can’t stay here, then I’ll think about it. This location means a lot to me.”
Pepper was surprised that N.Y.U., by not giving the club a lease, would be willing to forfeit the $185,000 from Sirius and also $10,000 scholarships Sirius planned to offer N.Y.U. students.
“You think my tables and chairs are worth $185,000?” he asked, referring to the extent of what will be left for marshals.
Despite the conciliatory tone he has strived to take thus far, Pepper tired of the “N.Y.U. as nonprofit subsidizing a for-profit business” refrain.
“Look at their real estate holdings,” Pepper said. “They’re certainly not a nonprofit. Look at their endowment. They shouldn’t be allowed to keep saying that.”
But N.Y.U.’s Taylor said the rent the university was offering the Bottom Line, $65 per sq. ft., was significantly below the $85 per sq. ft. realtors quoted as market rate for the space. Taylor said the high renovation cost the university demanded was necessary because “things had to be maintained.” N.Y.U. uses the rest of the space in the seven-story building, and Taylor noted that, for example, at one point water was leaking into an N.Y.U. classroom below the club. However, the university also expected Pepper to pay for renovating the club’s exterior, which Pepper and others felt was excessive given that N.Y.U. owns the building.
In response to Pepper’s saying N.Y.U. should stop calling itself nonprofit, Taylor said, “We’re clearly an educational institution. We’re in the business of educating students.” After uttering the quote, he asked to hear what he had said — apparently momentarily concerned by his use of the word “business” — but let it stand.
Pepper also said N.Y.U. representatives were misleading when they publicly stated that the university was only trying to collect rent arrears, not evict the club.
Michael Haberman, N.Y.U.’s director of government and community relations, told Greenwich Village’s Community Board 2 on Nov. 20, “Our action in court has nothing to do with evicting the Bottom Line.”
However, Pepper noted, the second sentence of Judge Recant’s decision states: “The action was initiated by a petition seeking Monetary Judgment for $190,171.89, representing accumulated rent arrears, as well as for Judgment of Possession and Warrant of Eviction.”
Speaking at a Greenwich Village Chelsea Chamber of Commerce lunch last month, John Sexton, N.Y.U.’s president, acknowledged the club’s place in Village lore, but wondered if the Bottom Line of today was the same club as before. He said the university had been “quite generous” towards the club, even while “starved for space.”
“If we agree to give it to them for below market-rate rent, we’re subsidizing them,” Sexton said. “This is coming out of financial aid and other things for the school…. What’s my prediction? They will mount as much pressure as they can, but they won’t do anything different, and they’ll be out.”
After the show last Friday, as Dar Williams, her guitar in hand and a warm hat on her head, was saying goodbye at the door before heading out into the cold and Pepper was sitting at a table giving a radio interview, Susan Goren spoke about her memories of seeing great acts at the club over the years.
“There was a Jerry Garcia and Pharaoh Saunders double bill,” she recalled. “I saw John Mayo on that stage, Edgar Winter on that stage. My life has been here. If they kill this, I will never, ever be able to forgive the institution. This is the last place of its kind.”
Goren, who grew up on Bleecker St., knows “the institution” well. Her father, Arnold, is N.Y.U.’s former vice chancellor and dean of admissions.
“There’s just no excuse for what they’ve done and what they’ve become,” she said, looking up at the high ceiling with its peeling paint and envisioning two floors of classrooms squeezed into the space. N.Y.U. says it plans to use the space for classrooms; Goren thinks the university wants classrooms there because it’s close to its Washington Sq. campus.
Pepper isn’t sure why N.Y.U. wants him out, but he doesn’t buy the classroom theory. Despite all the university’s complaints of subsidizing him, classrooms won’t bring any rent to the school. And since N.Y.U. is legally a nonprofit institution, the property taxes it pays on the building are extremely low, he noted, adding that three months’ rent from the Bottom Line probably pays the building’s annual property tax.
More curious to him is why N.Y.U. would want to want to look like the bad guy from evicting the internationally known music venue.
“Why go through the publicity and bad rap when you could be a hero, especially with the bad rap they’ve gotten in the Village?” Pepper asked. “They’re walking away from $185,000. Instead, they chose to be arrogant. It looks like they don’t care about public opinion and what people think.”
Pepper said it most forcefully when he noted: “There are certain things you can ride out. But there are other things that are a stain that you can never get off you.”
For the meantime, the club will move ahead with rehearsals for its fourth annual “Downtown Messiah,” a version of Handel’s classic oratorio done in funk, bluegrass and folk styles.
Asked his thoughts as he was forayaing out into the wintry night that he’d sung about in a rollicking ad-libbed “Winter Blues,” Hiatt said, “Allan sort of gave me my first shake up here. It’s an important place. It’ll be sad if it goes.”


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