Pour yourself a glass of wine — this is a story that needs a little extra time set aside. It’s a twisty tale of three centuries, and how improbable connections made New York City into the city it is today, and how difficult it is to keep moving forward without destroying what lies behind.
Let’s begin then, with a Generation X couple dividing the Sunday paper on the morning of January 5, 1997, in a 14th-floor Lower East Side middle class kitchen. Eventually, 26-year-old Melissa Caruso hands the New York Times Metro Section to John Scott, her college sweetheart and fiancé, and asks him to read a curious article out loud. Available for lease at $4,950 a month is an abandoned 5,000 square foot, one-story retail space at 107 Norfolk St. — complete with a basement catacombs containing 28 abandoned jumbo wine casks.
The site, according to the Times reporter, once belonged to the country’s leading kosher wine corporation, Kedem, and might date to the turn of the 20th century.
Over more coffee, John reads on. The abandoned tiny retail shop is an urban relic, the casks in the basement unknown to property owner Bill Gottlieb until after the sale. According to The Times, Gottlieb had been on a Lower East Side buying spree, snatching up buildings; the crumbling neighborhood is rumored to be on the cusp of a revival.
Melissa and John call a friend in the know who tells them Gottlieb is a wealthy eccentric, a disheveled real estate magnate known for inadvertently preserving New York’s history by never fixing anything up before a sale. It is not unusual to see him wearing crumpled, stained clothes, or driving a car with broken glass windows.
Fixated on the casks, the breakfasters forge a screwy plan over their remaining rare hour together — John has to soon head north for his shift at grungy alt.coffee, one of the first Internet coffeehouses in New York City, where he and his fiancée are co-owners. They’ll loop in that hipster heiress they know who “maybe wants to invest in future projects.” They envision doing something more ambitious with her money, maybe an edgy performance art space connected to wine.
After hearing the initial pitch on the phone, the heiress sends her boyfriend to join the young entrepreneurs on their exploratory trip to Norfolk Street, a part of town best known in 1997 for crack deals. They meet with Michael, Gottlieb’s 30-ish no-nonsense Chinese-American assistant.
William Gottlieb Management has not spent a dime on staging the property. Decaying corks, wine bottles, and boxes of mid-century labels for sugary sweet Kedem Concord grape wine are everywhere.
The heiress’s boyfriend says nothing during the tour of the winery. Then, at the sound of rats scrabbling in the walls, he flees the scene. But Melissa and John are still drawn to the magical cooperage languishing in the basement — those 3,000- and 5,000-gallon casks that once held fermenting acidic grape mash balanced with sugar water.
John cannot see how they are going to swing it, but Melissa is determined. After all, her roots are here — she grew up in the Seward Park Houses on Grand Street. She was schooled at the now defunct East Side Hebrew Institute (alumni include executed Communist spy Julius Rosenberg and comedian Paul Reiser). Her parents met as teachers in a public school two blocks away.
John nods. An Air Force brat raised without religion, he does not share her indigenous pride, but he has just spent 12 months converting to Judaism for the love of his woman, who was raised Conservative. He dials a friend, Ted Reichman, alt.coffee’s part-time accordion player and music booker, and begs him to go down to the site to test the acoustics. Ted leaves the squeezebox at home, but meets his bosses outside the entryway to 107 Norfolk. The real estate assistant waits as Ted claps a few notes on both floors until he finds a sweet spot where a stage may go. He admits to his young employers that he’s surprised the acoustics are that amazing.
Melissa and John marry shortly thereafter, and delay their formal honeymoon to keep talking to the assistant. Can they find a way to borrow enough and make 107 Norfolk work? When it’s obvious the Scotts are serious, they are introduced to the mysterious Gottlieb: a stubby man with a roundish face and a potbelly — and yes, he’s wearing crumpled clothes.
The Scotts tell Gottlieb that whatever they will do, the old casks will have to be incorporated into a design. Eventually they tap into their savings, and in a 20-something tradition, max out their credit cards. Gottlieb takes a genuine interest in the couple and turns down a couple of other potential (and wealthier) renters because they want to remove the casks.