For legions of hungry New Yorkers, the name Gloria conjures images of steaming goat curry, jerk chicken, doubles, and callaloo. Located on Nostrand Avenue and Sterling Place in Crown Heights, Gloria’s Caribbean Cuisine has served up authentic Trinidadian dishes from a colorful corner shop for nearly two decades. The family-run restaurant was immortalized in the finale of No Reservations, as Anthony Bourdain found himself in an impromptu reunion of The Wire while feasting on oxtail.
Then last week, Gloria’s went dark. Overnight, the bright green facade and its fading palm tree signage vanished, exposing bare plywood underneath. The news prompted a rush of mourning online — “this one hurts,” read one representative tweet — and on the street beyond the shuttered gate.
“I loved the fish and the cabbage there,” said Marie D, a 68-year-old Crown Heights resident from Haiti. “The Caribbean people, we ate a lot from them. It’s good to have your food, your ethnic food.”
Despite appearances, Gloria’s is not another COVID casualty. The storefront has stayed open and busy in recent months, and sent free meals to frontline workers during the darkest days of the pandemic.
The actual impetus for the restaurant’s closure stems from a byzantine legal battle, spanning nearly 20 years and more than a dozen civil court judges, attempting to get to the bottom of a seemingly straightforward question: Who owns 764 Nostrand Avenue?
In February of this year, Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge Bruce Balter delivered his decision. Nicole Cumberbatch, the eldest daughter of the late restaurant founder Gloria Wilson, was found to have “unlawfully occupied” the building, under a convoluted deed theft scheme cooked up in 2001. In the view of Judge Balter, Gloria’s had successfully squatted for 19 years.
He ordered Cumberbatch to pay $50 million in damages — a sum that housing attorneys say is unheard of for such cases — and vacate the premises.
“I’ve never seen a judgment so harsh,” said Oda Friedheim, a supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society who specializes in deed theft litigation. “Even if they don’t get the $50 million, they can destroy her entire life.”
The future recipients of those hefty damages are Marty Riskin, a 92-year-old mortgage lender, and his controversial attorney, Ravi Batra. Nel-Del Realty, a real estate corporation set up by Riskin, and placed under Batra’s name, is now the rightful owner of Gloria’s.
“We own everything that Nicole Cumberbatch has, and that includes the name Gloria’s,” Batra told Gothamist. “All I have to do is say [the word] to the sheriff and he goes and seizes anything. The can of juice in her refrigerator, we own that.”
Gloria’s hasn’t yet been liquidated, and the defendant’s attorney is holding out hope for a new settlement agreement. But the stress of the court ruling has caused “the whole family to break down,” and left them no choice but to pack up the beloved shop, according to Gloria’s grandson, Bryan “BJ” Cumberbatch Jr.
“It’s cruelty. We can’t pay the money that Batra wants, so we’d rather walk away and let him keep his building,” BJ Cumberbatch said. While helping to run Gloria’s for the last ten years, the 39-year-old has lived above the restaurant with his wife and two daughters, paying rent to his aunt, Nicole Cumberbatch, he said.
On Saturday, as BJ Cumberbatch packed his family’s possessions into a van, he assured worried customers that the restaurant would return in a new form. A second Gloria’s, run by another family member and located near Empire Boulevard, is only closed for renovations, he said. But Cumberbatch admitted he wasn’t sure what would happen if the attorney followed through on his threat to seize all of the family’s assets.
“They’re trying to say my aunt stole a building?” he asked Gothamist, incredulously. “There’s just no way.”
“Don’t Worry About Anything, Ms. Cumberbatch”
Gloria Wilson arrived in Crown Heights from Trinidad amid a wave of West Indian immigration in the 1970s. She was renowned for her roti and saltfish recipes, relatives recalled, which quickly attracted attention from influential players in the neighborhood’s burgeoning Calypso and Soca music scene. In 1974, she opened the first Gloria’s on Nostrand Avenue near Empire Boulevard.
The success of that location prompted a second, since-shuttered outpost in Flatbush. The third and most successful Gloria’s — “by far,” according to BJ Cumberbatch — was established on Nostrand and Sterling in 2001, four years before Wilson’s death. The family maintains that the three-story corner building at 764 Nostrand Avenue was legally purchased for $315,000, as a gift from the eponymous matriarch to her daughter, Nicole Cumberbatch.
For Marty Riskin, news of the transaction came as a shock. Riskin, a private lender living on Long Island, had bought the building in a 1993 foreclosure sale. Fearful of the city’s rising crime rates, he hired a man named Ted Singer to help manage his Brooklyn real estate portfolio, including the 764 Nostrand address.
Riskin learned in December of 2000 that Singer had allegedly tried to sell the property in secret — a revelation communicated to Riskin by a man “whom Singer had previously pushed down a flight of stairs,” according to court papers — and set about obtaining a replacement deed (he’d lost the original). “What, how can [Singer] steal my building?” Riskin said, according to his attorney. “It’s my building!”
By that point, Singer had already made two attempts, in September and October, to sell the building to Wilson and Cumberbatch. While both deals were ultimately broken up by the title company, Singer was able to dupe a foreclosure referee by forming a new LLC called 764 Nostrand Avenue Realty Corp, according to court filings. Despite the lack of a proper closing, the NYC Register recorded Cumberbatch as the property’s owner in 2001.
Years later, during a tense deposition, Cumberbatch would say she had little awareness of the inner-workings of the deal. She recalled sitting in a Coney Island law office in late 2000, signing piles of documents at her mother’s instruction for what she believed to be the closure of the sale.
“I remember there was an attorney present. I’m thinking everything is okay. I’m not thinking what you’re asking me now on that day because there’s my mom, there’s the attorney,” she testified during the 2015 deposition. “I’m a young person. I’m waiting. Yes, this house is going to be a place, a business I could run Gloria’s from. That’s pretty much all I was thinking.”
Cumberbatch was not closely involved, she said, in the claim that was taken out in her and Singer’s name with Fidelity Title Insurance Fraud, which later paid out the full $315,000 price tag of the building, as a result of the first squashed transaction. That claim was devised by Singer through a “fraudulent ‘cut and paste’ assignment of mortgage,” according to Judge Balter.
In Cumberbatch’s telling, Singer had offered to delay the payments on her $215,000 purchase-money mortgage while he dealt with a separate legal matter. As the lawsuits between Singer and Riskin dragged on, Cumberbatch testified that she started to wonder if something was wrong. Between 2001 and 2015, she said, the family paid Singer $42,000 toward the original mortgage.
“I had your word and you had mine. I thought that was good enough,” she testified. “That’s the way I was raised.”
In 2003, less than two years after Gloria’s opened, a flood of legal papers began arriving in the mail. When the new business owner asked Singer what was happening, she recalled during the deposition, he responded: “Don’t worry about anything, Ms. Cumberbatch. You own the building.’”
“Unfortunately, Some People Have No Honor”
Deed theft, in its most common form, involves a con artist, hiding behind an inscrutable maze of LLCs to target a distressed homeowner, either by convincing them to sign away their rights or forging the materials outright. The victims are typically senior citizens or disabled adults, and often people of color. Brooklyn’s gentrifying neighborhoods have seen a worrisome increase in the practice in recent years.
The cases are challenging to prosecute and rarely result in criminal penalties. Since the city began keeping track of deed theft cases in 2014, there have been fewer than 50 arrests for the crime, according to NYC Sheriff Joseph Fucito. He pegged the total property values related to the arrests at $50 million.
In many ways, the tale of Gloria’s is an aberration. Deed theft cases rarely involve commercial storefronts and almost never result in high-value damage awards, according to Friedheim, the housing attorney. She noted that the extraordinary $50 million judgment was not aimed at a predatory deed thief hiding behind a shady corporation, but a Black woman business owner operating in plain sight.
In an interview, Robert Rambadadt, the attorney who’s represented Cumberbatch since 2017, maintained that his client was an unwitting actor made to look complicit in Singer’s scam. He said he was “shocked” by the damages. “They put everything on her. She was literally the last person standing.”
Earlier this year, a settlement was reached by the two parties for $4.75 million to be paid over 12 years, including proceeds from the sale of a Brownsville property owned by Cumberbatch. That deal was snapped back last month, after Cumberbatch was found to have attempted to transfer the Brownsville deed to her sister, Kim Wilson. “That was the only thing she had left,” said BJ Cumberbatch. “She was scared and trying to safeguard it.”
An order from Judge Balter last month named BJ Cumberbatch, Kim Wilson, and Nicole’s husband, Wayne Cox, as aiding and abetting in her attempt to transfer the title. The current judgement, including interest, is now $50,226,480.
Cumberbatch was hospitalized this month, a result of depression stemming from the case, according to family members and her attorney. Neither she nor Riskin spoke to Gothamist for this story.
In an interview, Batra said he was “running out of compassion” for Cumberbatch and her family. “It’s a fraud onion, one layer of fraud after another,” the attorney said. “Unfortunately some people have no honor.”
Batra himself has been the subject of ethics inquiries. In 2003, the Times published an investigation into the attorney’s alleged tendency to “blur, or even ignore, the boundaries between the bench and the bar” by cozying up to judges, some of whom he helped select.
On two occasions, the Times reported, Batra was awarded fees that state monitors found unusually high. In one of those instances, he personally received a $225,000 settlement after falling from a swivel chair (he’d sued the Brooklyn chair company for $80 million). Eight lawyers involved in that case who spoke to the Times said the Manhattan Supreme Court judge who presided over the suit never disclosed that she also provided Batra with valuable appointments.
(Gothamist found no evidence to suggest any prior relationship between Batra and Judge Balter.)
The lawsuits between Riskin and Singer — involving the Gloria’s property along with other financial matters — stretched across multiple courts for decades. Batra described Singer as a “litigation terrorist,” who attempted to run out the clock through dozens of frivolous lawsuits. After Singer died in 2019, Batra and Riskin ultimately settled with his family’s estate for just $1. With that matter behind them, the mortgage lender and his attorney were free to focus on Cumberbatch.
“She had 20 years of due process. Finally the court system vomited,” Batra told Gothamist. “The law may grind slowly, but it grinds finely.”
Additional reporting by Scott Heins.