Heading straight into the blackness
Beyond the point of ever turning back
Slipping off the radar through a hole in space
Goes the passenger sitting backwards
And that’s it for City Winery. Before the Wallflowers played the penultimate show there on July 30th, Michael Dorf, the venue’s founder and president, delineated the inevitable: “In 24 hours, we’ll start boxing things up. The kitchen goes to Hudson Valley. The tables and chairs go off to Philadelphia. The rest goes to storage. We’ll use it in new venue. Hopefully it’ll be ready by early next year.”
Since opening at 155 Varick Street in 2008, the Winery has sprouted outposts in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Nashville, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Aditionally, as Mr. Dorf mentioned, another is about to take root in upstate New York. But this was the original. And now it’s relocating to Pier 57 at the end of West 15th Street.
The aroma was bittersweet and oddly indifferent. For a place that long offered impeccable sound and an intimate view of the stage, its pending loss might have inspired more emotion. But maybe the patrons preferred to drink their wine and finish their food instead. Perhaps they were assuaged by the good news about Pier 57. Or maybe, just maybe, I’d gotten the vibe of the Winery crowd wrong all these years. Perhaps I was too besotted by the magic that Living Colour, Bettye LaVette, Dan Bern, and Bob Mould once conjured here during their sets to notice that the music was always just decorative. To most people, maybe it wasn’t that essential to their night on the town.
In the beginning, though, the Wallflowers played high above the apathy, running through a splendid cycle that included “How Good It Can Get,” “Letters from the Wasteland,” and “6th Avenue Heartache.” But, afterward, Jakob Dylan was suddenly yanked from the cloud. When he realized a man at the table in front of him had been videoing the show from the start, Mr. Dylan barked, “Knock it off, I ain’t working for your website!” Strangely enough, he wasn’t removed, and the band rolled on with this Richard Thompson cover.
The man, however, refused to demur. He continued with his taping until Mr. Dylan rebuked him again: “I’ll play the same verse over and over the rest of the night! It doesn’t matter to me.” And the band kept repeating itself for about 30 seconds. Apparently he stopped, so the next song developed. But he wasn’t deterred; and, in between numbers, Mr. Dylan burned. I couldn’t hear him clearly, but he delivered an ultimatum: Either he goes or I do.
The man stood up. As a door to the side of the stage opened and sprayed light around the room, he waved a hand above his head. Mr. Dylan made for the lip of the stage. When he returned, he held the man’s camera and placed it on top of Rami Jaffee’s B3 Hammond Organ. “I’m keeping it,” he said, and kicked off the next song.
But too many in the audience kept eating. Too many were drinking. The self-centered man had little affect. Many kept texting. A couple behind me was arguing about sex. The band played on, but too many people were focused on something else.
And that really sucked. Soon all the music that ever emanated from the two-story Winery will be flattened under heaps of rubble and throngs of dust. In fact, the entire block contained by Varick, Spring, Hudson, and Vandam Streets is about to be demolished.
Back in July 2018, Trinity Church Real Estate–the $6 billion company which owns the land now marked “4 Hudson Square”–agreed to lease the site to the Walt Disney Company for 99 years. The price tag? $650 million. The perk? Development rights. Disney plans to replace the block with a 1.2 million square foot building designed to house its ABC Division. In addition to the Winery structure, three others are slated for the wrecking ball too.
Initially, Mr. Dorf was resigned to the Winery’s fate, telling 6sqft,
It is inevitable in a city like New York that 2-story buildings will eventually yield to taller ones. It is unfortunate to see historically significant 120-year-old brick and beam gems get swapped for 50-story generic glass towers.
His sentiment would change, though, when he learned he’d have to vacate the Winery sooner than promised.
The deception began a few years ago. According to documents filed with the New York County Clerk, Trinity first proposed leasing the empty second floor and rooftop space of the Winery building to Mr. Dorf in December 2016. It suggested he transform them into a “common area for the benefit of the Hudson Square Neighborhood businesses, their tenants, and Trinity.” However, wary of signing anything without being guaranteed at least three years to recoup his investment, Mr. Dorf asked to renegotiate the lease he held for the first floor and basement. Trinity agreed; and, in September 2017, his lease for the entire building was set to end on August 31, 2023.
That settled, Mr. Dorf launched renovations in December 2017. He’d expend over $2.3 million on the endeavor, most notably on part of the second floor that became the Loft, a small venue of 150 seats. However, before the club could make its debut in July 2018, Trinity’s deal with Disney became public. Disney became Mr. Dorf’s new landlord, and abruptly gave him until July 31, 2019–not August 31, 2023 as the terms with Trinity stated–to abandon the Winery. Writing in the Daily News two days before the Wallflowers played their show, he recalled:
When news about the Disney deal broke, I felt like a schmuck. I had just invested more than $2 million in a building that would soon be reduced to dust. Since Trinity had urged us to begin the work and then assured us that we could stay long enough to earn back our investment, I was sure it would find a way to make us whole — especially since it was raking in a staggering $650 million on the Disney deal. Clearly, $2 million is a lot of money to us, but not so much to a church with billions to its name.
No such luck. After a few weeks, Trinity curtly informed me that it was not our landlord anymore; all questions had to be directed to Disney…. My old friends at Trinity stopped coming by for lunch and wine and there were no more rounds of golf at their private club.
I checked my trail of communications to make sure I had not imagined their promises. It was all there in writing, so I took Trinity to court in January  to recoup our $2 million investment — the first time, in all my years in business, that I’ve ever sued anyone.
In response, Trinity filed a motion to dismiss the case, saying “The lawsuit is entirely without merit.” Mr. Dorf, though, vowed to keep fighting:
My legal bills are piling up, and I feel like David going after Goliath. But it seems important to not back down….
I’m not asking for pity. I am asking for people to open their eyes to what supercharged real estate values are doing to people across the city. If they can run roughshod over a guy like me, imagine what they do every day to people with far less money and power.
Good night, City Winery. Your presence on Varick will soon be missed.
Lyrics from “The Passenger” by The Wallflowers, 2005.
Photos by Rick Stachura. July 30, 2019.
(1) Jakob Dylan.
(2) City Winery from Varick Street.
(3) Jakob Dylan.