Twenty-nine years ago, Brooklynite Nate Sheff went on his first date with a girl named Mimi. He took her to The Bottom Line Cabaret, a hip, intimate and affordable new venue for live music on the corner of West Fourth Street, in the then-desolate West Village. Folk-rocker Eric Anderson was headlining. There was no drink minimum.
A few weeks ago, Sheff took his and Mimi’s elder daughter Shana and her husband to the Bottom Line for a WFUV-FM listening party. Sheff spotted Bottom Line co-owner and Brooklyn native Allan Pepper at the door.
"I shook his hand and told him I was here when he opened, the second or third show, and now I’m bringing my daughter and her husband so many years later," Sheff recalled Monday. "He said ‘that’s nice,’ then escorted me to the center table, his personally reserved table."
This week Sheff was outraged to learn the club, co-owned by Pepper’s former Ocean Parkway running mate Stanley Snadowsky, is facing eviction for $185,000 in back rent owed to landlord New York University.
"It’s an abomination," Sheff, traffic manager for a New Jersey importing company said of NYU’s legal action. "The Bottom Line has been our Mecca over the years. By now they should have a historic landmark status."
For decades the club and the university had a nice informal relationship, as the Bottom Line became the address for eclectic music, from jazz artists like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie to singer-songwriters like Peter Himmelman, son-in-law of Bob Dylan, Cliff Eberhardt and Lucy Kaplansky, to Brill Building revues to Irish folk songs to new star Norah Jones.
Bruce Springsteen catapulted to stardom there, and Billy Joel did a legendary radio concert from the space.
In the early days NYU featured The Bottom Line in its marketing brochures.
But recently, a new NYU administration headed by President John Sexton, apparently like the new Pharaoh at the beginning of the Book of Exodus, knew the Bottom Line not.
Saying it needs the money and the space in an age of shrinking contributions and rising tuition, an NYU spokesman said it would use the building for classrooms. John Beckman says besides the back rent, the club has been paying below market rent, about $11,000 a month, and the university can no longer "subsidize" the club.
"The Bottom Line is paying a rent that is 50 percent of market rent," Beckman told The Jewish Week. "They are a for-profit business. And so NYU, which is a non-profit, educational institution, was effectively put into a position of subsidizing a for-profit entertainment business. Beckman added, "the university was not looking to close the Bottom Line to put classrooms in that space."
But Pepper told The Jewish Week that the traditionally warm relationship with NYU has recently frosted.
"The current administration talks about us as undervalued real estate," Pepper said Tuesday, on the eve of a court eviction hearing that could mean the end for his club.
"They used to take great pride having on us on campus and they saw us as important to the community," he said. "The truth is, one reason this neighborhood is so built up is because we brought people into this funky, depressed area," 30 years ago.
Since the news about the eviction broke last week, Pepper says he has received hundreds of letters and e-mails from around the world expressing support, including some from England, Spain and Ireland. Supporters include community residents who, he said, decry NYU’s continued takeover of property in the West Village.
"I was a little taken aback at the level of anger and hostility towards NYU by students, alumni and people who live in the area," Pepper said.
He said some supporters have told NYU they would stop making donations, and refuse to send their children to the university if it forces the club to close.
Pepper, who describes himself as a private man, said he was depressed over the last few months as negotiations with NYU for a new lease went nowhere.
He said he didn’t want this to become public, but now that it has, he has been heartened by the public support he has received.
"I read these amazing e-mails … it’s the thing that’s gotten me through the night." Supporters who believe the answer to save the club is to have some famous alumni like Springsteen write a check or throw a series of benefits, don’t realize the more complex problem, Pepper explains.
At issue, he says is that NYU won’t offer him a long-term lease. Without it, he cannot bring on new backers willing to help him pay off the debt. "It’s a Catch-22."
"I’m sure a lot of people would step forward," to play benefits, he says. "With all due respect [benefits] are a very quick fix, and we’re not looking for a quick fix. It’s really about the lease."
But Beckman counters that Pepper has never offered NYU a viable business plan, including an agreement to pay a market value rent which is a pre-condition for a new lease. He notes the back rent is due from 2000, before 9-11.
"We’ve been subsidizing these guys for years," Beckman says. "If they pay off the back rent and find a way to pay an appropriate rent going forwards, they can stay there."
But legendary New York radio personality Vin Scelza, who has a long business relationship with Pepper, wondered how NYU could take such action against a cultural landmark, especially when New York City is trying to invigorate businesses badly hurt by the terrorist attack and a slumping economy.
"To purposefully go after a long-standing downtown institution over a relatively minor amount of money and threaten to put that institution out of business over that is extremely short sighted: if not downright mean spirited," says the host of the WFUV’s "Idiot’s Delight" show.
"If you have pride in your arts and your film and drama schools, how can you destroy a historic place on your property," Scelza asked. "NYU should take off its landlord hat and put on its cultural educational hat and appreciate an ongoing outlet for free-form music."
Sheff who discovered some of his favorite performers at the club says, "sometimes it’s not about the money."
Bottom Line co-owner Allan Pepper: "[NYU] used to take great pride having us on campus. The truth is, one reason this neighborhood is so built up is because we brought people into this funky, depressed area" 30 years ago.