Commentary Magazine


New York's Lower East Side Today:
Notes and Impressions

Since the war, New York’s famous Lower East Side has undergone a series of accelerating changes, and Dan Wakefield here gives us some impressions of the emerging new community. 

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The Garden Cafeteria, across from Seward Park on the Lower East Side of New York, is a crowded, noisy, American-style beanery where customers shove their trays down a chromium counter and are hurriedly dipped out the specials of the day. The Garden is hardly different in outward appearance from a thousand cafeterias from Maine to California, and it is certainly not what Michael Gold had in mind when he closed his classic Jews without Money in 1930 by declaring: “O Workers’ Revolution. . . You are the true Messiah. You will destroy the East Side when you come, and build there a garden for the human spirit.”

Much of the old East Side Gold wrote about is indeed destroyed, though not by the revolution he had in mind, and the “Garden” across from Seward Park is a refuge not for the human spirit, but rather for much of what remains of the spirit of the old East Side. By default and the chance of location—it is on the same block with the two surviving Jewish daily newspapers, the Day-Journal and the Forward—the Garden Cafeteria is where the remaining writers, actors, and intelligentsia of the Yiddish cultural world come to talk through the long afternoons and early evenings. The fabled Café Royal, at 12th Street and Second Avenue, has gone for six years now, and gone are the old Russian-Jewish cafés of East Canal Street, described by Hutchins Hapgood in The Spirit of the Ghetto as places “where excellent tea and coffee are sold, where everything is clean and good, and where the conversation is often the best.” All these amenities have shrunk to several tables at the front of the Garden Cafeteria, and the coffee and tea can claim no distinction from the brews of the Automat.

Though the character and spirit of the Lower East Side have been watered down, like the coffee in the cafeteria, much remains and much has been added. There has never been a neighborhood (or, more strictly speaking, constellation of neighborhoods) in America richer in diversity, poorer in cash, quicker and more dramatic in change and flux, more tempting to describe and more impossible to capture in description than the Lower East Side. This is still the feeling of the observer today, in spite of the fact that the area has less than half the population it had in its most crowded time. This southeastern tip of Manhattan island, bounded by 14th Street on the north, Broadway on the west, and the East River on the south and east, has been the traditional point of entry for almost every new racial, ethnic, and national group of newcomers to New York City. Into its streets washed the first great tides of immigration: the Irish and Germans in the mid-19th century; the Jews, the Italians, Russians, Hungarians, Greeks, Poles, and Turks from 1880 until restrictive immigration laws were enacted in the 1920′s. The area has often been called the “Great Melting Pot,” and yet the new groups most often were gathered in ghettos—”Little Italy,” Chinatown, “Little Rumania,” and largest of all, what Jacob Riis called “Jewtown,” and Henry James, in search of delicacy, referred to as “The New Jerusalem.” These were walled off by mutual fear, distrust, and hostility, and the real “melting” did not take place until the families had saved enough to move on to other, more “Americanized” neighborhoods in city and suburb.

The greatest of all the ghettos of the Lower East Side was the Jewish. Between 1881 and 1910, 1,562,000 Jews came to America, mostly from Russia and Eastern Europe, and many of them settled on the Lower East Side. They made up the largest portion of the East Side’s citizens when the population of the area reached its peak in the 20′s with more than 500,000 people. That figure began to decline rapidly when immigration was drastically restricted by the laws of 1922 and 1928, and by 1938 the area had half that number, an estimated 250,000. In the twenty-one years since then the population has continued to drop, but not nearly so sharply as in the first post-immigration years, and today it is some 200,000. Although the movement out has continued, the post-World War II years brought a new movement in, with the latest group to make its start in this neighborhood—the Puerto Ricans. As in other parts of the city, the Puerto Ricans, who range in color from white to black, broke the color barrier in many blocks for the Negroes, and colored people from the South as well as from other parts of the city have also begun to move into the district in increasing numbers.

There are no census breakdowns which tell the new ethnic make-up of the district, and the closest one can come to grasping the extent of the new changes is through the school population. In school districts 1,2,3, and 4, on the Lower East Side, Puerto Rican children make up 45 per cent of the students, Negroes 14.1 per cent, and “others” 40.9 per cent. These figures are misleading, however, unless it is borne in mind that the majority of the newest group, the Puerto Ricans, are young people, often with large numbers of children, while the greatest part of the remaining Jewish, Italian, and other European nationality groups are older people, most of whom have already raised their families.

The Lower East Side, as well as remaining a point of entry, is now also a point of return, especially for the Jews who grew up there and have moved their homes but not their roots to other parts of the city and the suburbs. Harry Golden, a graduate of the neighborhood who is proudly referred to now at the University Settlement House as “one of our boys,” wrote in Only in America, “I receive many sentimental letters from men and women who were raised on the East Side, and I think it is more than nostalgia.” Whether it is, as Golden believes, because of the close family ties and the absence of anti-Semitism (unless you wandered into the Italian district) that existed in the old Jewish quarter of the East Side, or whether it is also due to the fact that for the Jews more than for any of the other groups the East Side was not just a slum but a center of culture, the old-timers do indeed feel a strong loyalty to the neighborhood. If there were unattractive elements in it, there were also many things worthy of preserving, for here occurred the flowering of Yiddish literature, theater, and journalism.

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As the old-timers come back to shop in the markets of Orchard Street, or to eat the blintzes and sour cream of Ratner’s, so others come to the Garden Cafeteria to sit in on the long discussions of literature and life. The newspapermen from the Forward and the Day-Journal come—and they are not merely “newspapermen,” but, in the great tradition of the Yiddish press, more often scholars as well as journalists. They are men like Meyer Stiker, city editor of the Day-Journal, who translated The Wasteland into Yiddish, or Isaac Bashevis Singer, one of the country’s outstanding short story writers (cited last month by the National Institute of Arts and Letters) who is also a staff reporter on the Daily Forward. And the poets and critics come—some, like A. Tabachnik, who have moved uptown, but come here to meet with what is probably the last, and now aging, generation of the Yiddish intelligentsia.

A recent Friday afternoon this spring at the Garden found nearly a dozen of these men pressed around two tables at the front of the cafeteria. They are men with gray hair or no hair at all, and their faces are expressive of the wisdom not only of books but of a life recast in a new culture, and the struggle to survive in it and still maintain the old. Among those present were the poet-critic Tabachnik, the poet Jeremiah Ashesheles, and J. J. Schwartz, a heavily black-browed man who once wrote a 250-page epic poem which told the story of a Jewish peddler who went to Kentucky, and which went through three printings and sold over 5,000 copies.

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The Yiddish audience of course is narrowing now with each year—the newspapers count on an annual percentage of loss by deaths that will not be replaced—but still these men write on in the language that their sons and grandsons are forgetting or have already forgotten. Tabachnik was saying that he had just brought out the first issue of a new Yiddish literary quarterly, Wogshol (The Scales). When asked what kind of audience it had, he answered, “I tell you the truth—we read each other. We sold about 300 copies of this issue. Few Yiddish readers are left, but there are some in every part of the world. The other day I got a letter about the quarterly from a Jew in Sweden.

“From 1910 to now we have a great body of Yiddish poetry,” Tabachnik explained, “a great literature that grew up here in America, on the East Side, that hardly anyone knows about. When the Jews disappear from the East Side, this work will still stand—people will finally discover it and study it. The Yiddish poet H. Leivick is the greatest poet in the last twenty years. About four or five months before MacLeish published J.B., Leivick published a long poem called In The Days of Job. I wish you could read them both and see which has the most poetry.

“We have lived with the poetry of all America. People don’t know that. People think the East Side is only interested in itself—but we’re concerned with the world. People come to us to find gefilte fish . . .”

A companion, smiling, interrupted: “But they find T. S. Eliot instead.”

Tabachnik nodded vigorously, and leaned closer over the table to say, “Our children, our grandchildren are a little ashamed of us. I wish they knew these things. Someday, when we’re all dead, this literature will be discovered.”

A man in a brown workshirt stopped by the table and tapped the shoulder of Moshe Duchovney, who works for Israel Bonds and writes literary columns for the Day-Journal: “Duchovney,” the man said, “you ought to leave Pasternak alone,” and, shaking his head, walked off into the crowd.

The particular kind of community sense which reached a peak at the Café Royal exists, in the shrunken Yiddish literary world that is left, at the Garden Cafeteria. The reader knows the writer and the writer the reader; the writer is a dignitary who is seen as well as read, and the ambiance resulting is the closest America has come to the European literary milieu in which the “mandarins” are seen in certain spots, and are known by sight to their followers and fans. What exists now of course is but a remnant of the spirit that pervaded the storied days of the Café Royal. Not only the Yiddish writers of the East Side forgathered there, and Jewish intellectuals from all over the world who made it a rendezvous when they were in New York, but leaders of life from outside the Yiddish world—Lincoln Steffens, Sherwood Anderson, Teddy Roosevelt, Jimmy O’Dwyer, as well as mayors, judges, and politicians from around the city who liked to be seen there before election times.

With only what tables can be snatched at the Garden left to serve the purpose of the old, European-style cafés, much of the life of the East Side’s Yiddish intelligentsia has retreated to the bookstores—and even they are now rapidly declining. Only this spring the most famous of them all, down the block from the Garden Cafeteria on East Broadway, died with the death of its owner, Max Jankowitz. Jankowitz came to New York at the turn of the century and made a name for himself as the first man to translate Dostoevsky into Yiddish. His store is closed and bolted now, the books still stacked inside, the window still displaying what it had for so long: the books, the fading picture of Theodor Herzl, the Jerusalem Post, and the prayer-shawls and religious items which it is said that Jankowitz, an atheist, grudgingly displayed and considered “his compromise.” He is dead but a month or so, and already the myth has settled around him (the world he belonged to lives in no small measure on its myths now), the story being that he rose from his sickbed, got dressed, and came to the bookstore, where he died, surrounded by his life.

There are other bookstores remaining in the neighborhood—though none with the heavy history of Jankowitz’s, where Emma Goldmann and other famous figures used to come. These bookstores serve as a meeting place for itinerant rabbis, Talmudic scholars, and Yiddish writers who are, as one East Sider put it, “the last of the real bohemians,” living as best they can for the learning that is their passion, finding temporary means of supporting themselves. And even if they are not “the last of the real bohemians,” they are surely the eldest; J. J. Schwartz was on the road from the Lower East Side to Kentucky long before J. Kerouac began his wanderings.

The writers most often have found their outlet in the Yiddish press, which has traditionally been oriented toward literature as well as news; indeed, the intellectual debates and serialized fiction often are the most exciting news to the readers. The spirit of these papers is best summed up in the story told about the man who was reading his Yiddish paper, and was asked by a stranger what the big headline was that went clear across the page in bold type. “It says,” the reader translated, “Was Spinoza Right?”

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When the East Side reached its peak of population in the 20′s, so did the Yiddish press; there were at the end of that decade a half-dozen dailies, and a number of other weeklies and less frequently published papers in Yiddish. This was the time when the Forward hit its peak with a quarter of a million readers. From then on the number of papers and their readers have steadily declined, in a series of collapses and mergers that have left the Day-Journal and the Forward as the main Yiddish dailies still publishing. The Communist Freiheit still hangs on, but only with a few thousand readers. The last of the mergers, in 1953, united the Morning Journal and the Day, and the hope of the joint management was that the combined readership would total around 95,000. The overlap of readers, however, was even greater than they had anticipated, and the combination could claim only 78,000 readers. This figure has already fallen to 65,000 in six years. Although impossible to calculate exactly, the overlap of readers is also probably great between today’s Day-Journal and its only rival, the Daily Forward, which claims 80,000.

Many things may have changed in policies and attitudes on both the remaining papers, but the traditional formula of the Yiddish press is still adhered to—the combination of serial thrillers, philosophic discourses, news of the doings of the Landsmanschaften (the groups of countrymen who came here from the same town or region in Europe), Yiddish translations of the world classics, and the ever popular Bintel-brief (advice to the lovelorn and lonely hearts). The main new element stressed now in both papers is news from Israel. The Day-Journal has a weekly column by David Ben Gurion himself, and regular coverage of the country by a full-time correspondent. The Daily Forward, which originally was anti-Zionist, now has three Israeli correspondents and is as avidly pro-Israel as its competitor.

Hillel Rogoff, editor in chief of the Forward, sat in his office this spring with the naked lines of the many new housing projects blooming in the windows around him, and speculated that “the Jews, in time, will come back to the East Side—though it won’t be the way it was before. It’s being rebuilt all the time; it’s more ‘American’ now.” The circulation of both the Yiddish dailies, once highly concentrated on the Lower East Side, is scattered now throughout the five boroughs of New York City, Long Island, and across the country and the world. “We have Jewish articles from all the big cities now,” Mr. Rogoff explained, “Philadelphia, Chicago, all of them; and even regular columns from some of the cities.”

As for the yearly shrinkage of Yiddish readers, Mr. Rogoff said, “We hope there may be a renewal of the language through the Yiddish schools. Many parents are sending their children to school to learn Yiddish now.” But that hope must remain a small one in the face of the cold reality of the circulation figures. However, the readers that remain are fanatically faithful. Arthur Jacobs, general manager of the Day-Journal, says: “We raised our price from five cents to seven cents six years ago, and we got all kinds of letters from readers saying that if we needed to make it ten cents or even a quarter a day, that was all right, but to please keep the paper going.”

Even in the face of the inevitable decline, the Yiddish papers have fared much better than the other foreign-language papers of the old East Side immigrants. The four or five Italian language papers have been distilled to the single daily, Il Progresso, which has roughly 50,000 readers. But despite the passionate loyalty they command, the Yiddish papers face not only a shrinking audience to read them but a shrinking staff to write them. The youngest of the staff members are in their forties; as Arthur Jacobs explained, the younger men naturally want a career with a future, in the English press. The men who remain are justly proud, not only of their past, but of the work they do today; yet they know that it is part of a world that is passing. A veteran of the Yiddish press who was telling a friend of the great traditions and the fine work still going on, finally ended by saying, “But when all’s said and done, it’s like being at a funeral now.”

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The funeral bell has been tolling long and loud for another once-great part of the East Side cultural world—the Yiddish theater—although the actors refuse to hear it. The Yiddish theater was founded in Roumania in 1876, spread through Eastern Europe, and then was banned in Russia in 1884; it subsequently reached its greatest heights on the Lower East Side of New York. The first Yiddish theater in America, the Oriental, opened in a former Bowery music hall. Others grew quickly, and in a short space of time the Yiddish theater was an institution, with its own stars, its own repertoires, and its own passionate audience, which, like the audience of the Yiddish papers, cut across intellectual and economic class lines. There were original plays and musicals about the world of the ghetto, and also revampings of classics—such as the Yiddish Hamlet, in which the Prince of Denmark is off being educated as a rabbi and a jealous rival tries to prove that he is actually a nihilist and has him sent to Siberia.

The theaters were customarily reserved for clubs of Landsmanschaften, guilds, and assorted groups who made block reservations on the first four nights of the week, while the weekends were left for individual tickets. A current devotee of this art remarked recently with scorn that one of the reasons that the Yiddish theater is dying is that Jewish groups and clubs no longer support it: “A Jewish woman’s club today reserves its block of theater tickets for The World of Suzie Wong.”

The first death knell for the Yiddish theater was heard as early as the first years of the century, when an observer wrote that the great Yiddish actors “feel not only the weight of the commercial spirit, but also the imminent death of their stage. For the Jews of the ghetto as they become Americanized are liable to lose their instinctive Yiddish, and then there will be no more drama in that tongue.” But more than a half-century later the death knells are still tolling and the Yiddish theater, though greatly diminished, is still performing. In an article last year in the New York Times, Murray Schumach described the last rehearsals for the last play in the last Yiddish theater—the National—which was doomed by new construction on the subway at Second Avenue. Schumach reported the nostalgia with which the small band of actors recalled the great past, and the hopelessness of the future of their stage. But although the National indeed has come down, the Hebrew Actors Union is planning now for next season, which will see Yiddish plays put on in the Phyllis Anderson Theater, and the halls of the Educational Alliance and the Forward. When a drama critic of the Yiddish press was asked recently if he knew about a meeting of the Hebrew Actors Guild this winter which reportedly discussed the survival of the Yiddish theater, he smiled and explained, “It could have been any meeting of the Union; that subject is a permanent part of the agenda.”

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Meanwhile, as the old dies, much new is being born on the East Side—often within the very walls of the old. No more appropriate name could have been chosen for the first off-Broadway theater to come to the Lower East Side than the Phoenix, which arose in the old Jewish National Folk Theater, built across from the Café Royal at 12th Street and Second Avenue in 1927. The Phoenix was opened in 1953, and soon afterward a rash of other, smaller theaters grew up around it in the neighborhood, in converted lofts, former movie theaters, and revamped basement apartments, until today “Off Broadway” means the Lower East Side as much as it means Greenwich Village.

The East Side, in fact, has in many ways taken the place of the Village as the haven for artists, writers, and actors, and the geographic home of the New York avant-garde in painting, theater, literature, and jazz. Roughly concurrent with the outbreak of theaters on the East Side was a proliferation of small, cooperative art galleries on and around East Tenth Street, and, soon after, the opening of many coffee houses. Within one tumbledown block on East Fifth Street, squeezed between tenements, Chinese laundries, and barber shops, are the hopefully exotic and candle-lit cafes called Hassan’s, the Port Afrique, and, after its Parisian namesake, the Deux Magots. Garbed in the native regalia of the Beat, young poets and aspirants of the arts assemble there in the evenings and on Sunday afternoons for poetry readings, sometimes to jazz accompaniment. In addition, the neighborhood has one of the more far-out jazz rooms in the city in the Five Spot on Cooper Square. Folksinger Jimmy McDonald, who lives on the Lower East Side, says proudly, “some of the greatest jazz men going live down here now—Sonny Rollins, Cecil Taylor, lots of ‘em are down here.”

The new cultural flurry on the East Side is not, of course, a natural outgrowth of the neighborhood, the work of the people living there, as Yiddish culture was. It is rather the result of a growing exodus of bohemians from Greenwich Village, which has, with its rising rents and supersized new apartment buildings, become too expensive and middle class for the starving or even semi-starving artist.

The culture that these new artistic immigrants have brought across Broadway to the East Side is largely avant-garde, and bears no more and no less relation to the neighborhood around it than the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay bore to the Italian immigrants of the Greenwich Village that she and they inhabited in the 20′s. The Yiddish artistic culture that came out of the people who lived on the old East Side, and was read, watched, and listened to by them, is a phenomenon that seems unlikely to recur. The genuine, unpretentious quality that it seemed to have perhaps was due to its being a natural part of the world around it. Nothing could be farther from the self-conscious social aspects of the new East Side culture. Hassan’s Cafe, with its Arab-garbed waiters, Israeli folk songs on the hi-fi, Chinese lanterns, and European travel posters, is not, as the Cafe Royal was, a place where Teddy Roosevelt would have gone.

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The work of the artists, writers, and musicians who live on the East Side now cannot of course be typed by the tastes in decoration of the café proprietors who happen to be in the same neighborhood. The new East Side bohemia is, like all bohemias, compounded of many parts phony to many parts true, many hangers-on as well as many real creators. And this bohemia perhaps more than others is impossible honestly to type as a “movement” or “school” in any of its areas of creativity. Probably the greatest activity is going on in art, and the colony of painters and little galleries that have multiplied on and around East Tenth Street has already been branded as the “Tenth Street Movement,” though the artists involved respond that it is just a place to work and not a “movement” in the traditional sense of the word. Since its beginning, which might be formally dated by the opening of the first of the now dozen or so little galleries in the area—the Tanager—in 1952, it has grown in size and notoriety, not only among other artists, but as of this past year, among writers, critics, and journalists who have photographed it, talked about it, analyzed it, and interpreted it. In an article in the current Art News Yearbook Harold Rosenberg, who himself lives on East Tenth Street, writes that “Tenth Street . . . draws on deeper sources than the negative sociability of the West Coast Hangout literature (Kerouac, Beat, etc.) with its generation propaganda. For on Tenth Street, the individual prevails against the band and it is to him that art there owes its inspiration and vocabulary . . . The absence from Tenth Street of fixed group identities, whether of nationality, race, class, ideology, or age is one of the superiorities of this colony and its novelty . . . Tenth Street is the opposite of a community. . . .”

Rosenberg is better qualified than other writers to talk about Tenth Street, but many have and many more will, and it perhaps was in the uneasy knowledge of the new notoriety that the latest analysis of Tenth Street was made by the artists themselves. Early this year the Artists Club, which occupies a loft in the neighborhood and includes almost all the artists of the area, had as the topic for one of its Friday night meetings: “Tenth Street — Self-Portrait.” Representatives from five of the small co-op galleries made up the panel, and restated their opposition to the idea of a “movement.”

The co-op galleries started by the artists in the neighborhood came into being, John Krushenick said, “Because the majority of us didn’t want to sit in garrets waiting to be discovered. The fact that the galleries are centered around the same block makes it easier to see the other artists’ work. The original idea was merely for a place to show—none of us had any axes to grind.”

When the moderator, Irving Sandler, asked the panelists what they felt about “the nature of the artists’ community,” Sam Goodman answered, “When the Tanager appeared, this was just a cheap rent area with lofts, and when the Camino opened, others followed and it seems to have grown into a ‘movement.’ It’s a vital situation.” But as to the nature of the “movement,” Goodman felt that its only common denominator was “vitality.”

It seemed to be commonly agreed that the great advantage to this “movement” was that it had no fixed rules or formulas. “So there’s no set purpose,” one painter said, “that’s fine—the writers will tell us what we’re doing. I think it’s good that we don’t know why we’re here.”

The evening was climaxed by the reading of a poem by Phil Littlefield entitled “Murder on Tenth Street,” which opened with the declaration: “We don’t have to do what we don’t want to do / Or do what we already know . . .” And ended with the explanation that the “Murder on Tenth Street” was the “death of a fixed idea.”

The applause was long and loud.

No one can say how long the Tenth Street colony will flourish, but everyone realizes that it, like so much that has flowered in this most surprising slum, is doomed to destruction, at least geographically. As Rosenberg wrote in his essay, “The artists’ Tenth Street will not deteriorate; it will be extinguished. It will be swallowed up in the yawn of a steam shovel. Its future is—an excavation.”

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That has been the fate of so much that gave the East Side its special flavor—markets, restaurants, lofts, and tenements—all have been shoveled up to make room for new city and co-op housing projects, especially in the past decade, and the old residents have repeatedly been dispersed. But the ebb and flow of the human tides that continue to move in and out of the lower East Side have their causes in more than just the physical dislocation caused by the widespread bulldozing. The single greatest change in the area has been the coming in of massive numbers of Puerto Ricans. Many have come through assignment to city housing projects. The three-year-old LaGuardia Houses, at Rutgers and Madison Streets, have a residential make-up of 45 per cent Puerto Rican, 20 per cent Negro, 20 per cent Jewish, and the rest a mixture of other groups. But aside from the projects, many of the Puerto Ricans have come to the East Side for the same reason that brought the artists in—the low rents of the tenements. Unlike the other foreign language groups, the Puerto Ricans have scattered throughout the East Side instead of forming a little ghetto within it. The signs of the pentecostal churches, Iglesias de Dios; the groceries, Bodegas; and the small shops that sell the herbs and prescriptions for the work of the spiritualists, Botanicas, are visible throughout the entire area.

Although they have gone to no particular section, many of the blocks that these latest newcomers settled in quickly become largely Puerto Rican. For here in the oldest slum in the nation, as well as in the middle-class white communities across the country, the phenomenon of “block-tipping” is a force of dispersion. An East Side social worker estimates that when any one block becomes “about 35 per cent Puerto Rican or Negro, the whites move out.”

The reaction of many of the old Jewish residents to the Puerto Ricans has been the stereotyped one of fear, uneasiness, and misinformation that so often greeted their own people. One Jewish housewife born in the neighborhood who lives on East Sixth Street explained: “It’s not the same neighborhood now. This block is all right, but you just walk a block over to Avenue A and you’re in a different world. And they’re so clannish. The old merchants, a lot of them, learned Spanish, but when the Puerto Ricans got so strong they got their own shops in. Why, there’s not an English-speaking barbershop within blocks of here. Where did the Jews go? Out to Forest Hills. Anyway, as I say, on this block it’s still all right, but in the mornings you hear them walking across from Avenue A, and then again when they come home at night you hear them, all speaking Spanish, all at once, going by right under your window. We’ve got to move, at least for our daughters’ sake. It’s got so you don’t dare go out alone at night. Why, when I was a little girl you wouldn’t have thought a thing about walking by yourself. That’s how much it’s changed.”

The lady’s husband lit a cigar and gruffly said, “Aw, it was the same thing then, you just didn’t know it cause you were a girl. The things I seen, I sometimes wonder if I really lived through them. I seen guys holding up guys in broad daylight—guys who were friends of theirs. I was lookin’ on once when this guy I know holds up this friends of ours and the friend says I gotta be a witness and I tell him I didn’t see a thing. That’s how I lived so long. I remember once this fella Louie (later on they shot him down in the street) comes up to this car which is driven by Davey, and he stops him and says, ‘Davey, I’m takin’ over.’ See, Davey has about eight tins of gin in the car—he’s bottleggin’ then—and he has to get out and Louie says, ‘Davey, walk,’ and Davey walks and Louie drives off with the gin. By the way, this Davey, you’d never believe it, but he made a lot of dough and today he’s gotten very pious—goes to synagogue all the time, holds the holidays, everything. Things change, you see.”

Things indeed change. Many of the Jewish residents who have chosen to stay and accept the Puerto Ricans as neighbors have learned Spanish; some shopkeepers who never found it necessary for their business in this neighborhood to learn to speak English are now bi-lingual—in Yiddish and Spanish. All have picked up the most vital words and phrases, and it is not unusual to walk down Orchard street and watch a schlepper (puller-in) grab the sleeve of a Puerto Rican lady and say, “So come in and look around—bueno, everything bueno.”

Some of the old Jewish residents are not only willing to stay on the new East Side, but are determined not to leave it. A not untypical story is the one told of the synagogue at Madison and Montgomery streets which stands on municipal property and was recently condemned by the city. The congregation was aged and small, and the building itself was in such a state of disrepair that the worshipers met for their services in the basement. When the city condemned the building the rabbi called together the faithful and announced that he would hold twenty-four-hour prayer services until the city promised to let them stay—and the city, at last report, has relented.

The hold of the East Side is a strong one; its folklore has always been full of tales of those “traitors” who left and then, seeing the error of their ways, came back. A famous Yiddish musical called Attorney Street told the story of a Jew who left the East Side for upstate and returned to sing, to the cheers of the audience:

Hooray Jews, I’m very happy,
I came back to Attorney Street.

And indeed there is a new “remigration” today of Jews who left the neighborhood when they moved up the economic scale and have now returned—not to Attorney Street, but to the middle-income housing projects and co-ops, like those built by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.

Those who come back today find an East Side that is probably less ghettoized than ever before in its history—at least partly because of the way the Puerto Ricans have settled throughout the neighborhood. Not only streets but institutions in the area which were formerly all of one ethnic composition now include Spanish-speaking residents as well. The famous Educational Alliance, on East Broadway, one of the centers of Yiddish life, now has classes in Spanish, and early this year formed an “International Club” which sponsored as its first event, this May, a “Carribbean Festival.” The flyers notifying the neighborhood of the event were printed in English, Spanish, and Yiddish.

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The strongest force for cooperation among the more than forty ethnic or national groups living in the neighborhood today is an organization born of the problems and hopes of the new East Side: the Lower East Side Neighborhoods Association (referred to locally as LENA). Its purpose is nothing less ambitious than to unite all the social, civic, and religious groups in the area into one body that works for common goals.

The East Side has traditionally been a center of social experimentation—usually by necessity. It had the first mass-occupancy tenements, and also the first settlement houses—the Henry Street Settlement, University Settlement, and others which drew world-wide attention in their effort to create better conditions for slum dwellers. In the early 50′s, with the area undergoing new and complicated changes, whose over-all scope was too great to be dealt with by any one institution, the East Side brought forth LENA to meet the new challenges. The sudden increase in the new Puerto Rican and Negro population had resulted in outbreaks of teenage gang activity in the traditional pattern: the old residents resenting the “intruders” and ganging up against them, the newcomers forming their own gangs in self-defense. One day a little girl who was being chased by a gang ran into the Henry Street Settlement for refuge. When her mother came to get the frightened child she told Helen Hall, the director of the settlement, that she was going to take her family and move to Harlem because “it’s much safer there.” The declaration dramatically pointed up the state things had reached on the Lower East Side, and Miss Hall decided it was time for the neighborhood to do something about its new problems—of which the gang troubles were only one part; she called together some of the veteran neighborhood leaders to discuss what might be done. Out of their discussions came the formation of the Lower East Side Neighborhoods Association.

Lena came into its first real prominence in 1956 when its leaders helped mediate one of the worst outbreaks of teenage gang violence in the recent history of the East Side. But juvenile delinquency is only one of its areas of activity. Today, nearly 100 cooperating agencies, and citizens from all sections of the population are working together in LENA on problems of housing, health, education, and employment. It has enriched the cultural life of the area with such programs as its summer “Evenings by the River” concerts at an amphitheater on the East River which had been unused for twenty years.

One of Lena’s most important objectives is to try to preserve the neighborhood from being bulldozed away into one massive public housing project. Charles Cook, director of the University Settlement and co-chairman of LENA, explained recently: “By massing public housing we’ve massed our social problems. We don’t want the city to build all its public housing down here—by building more of it on the Lower East Side they’re going to ‘build in’ a slum for the next three generations. We want a balanced community. We have the highest hopes that by mixing income levels we can have integration that will really work.”

The Reverend David Romig, minister of the Presbyterian Church of the Sea and Land, which has two storefront churches and one of traditional structure in the neighborhood, is himself a member of LENA. Rev. Romig says, “We want mixed income housing, but we also want to retain the spirit of the old East Side. We want to have some ‘Vest-pocket’ low income projects besides the middle income buildings, instead of just making it all one thing. We want the people who have their roots here to be able to stay, and we want to preserve the old markets that still are left instead of having some modern shopping center that’s just another chrome-and-neon monstrosity.”

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The planning against the “bulldozer” future is being carried on by the four neighborhood councils of which LENA is composed—the Two Bridges Council, One Mile Council, Tompkins Square Council, and Good Neighbor Council. A recent meeting of the Good Neighbor Council, held in the community center of the LaGuardia Houses on Madison Street, heard a description of a neighborhood “renewal” plan worked out by the Two Bridges Council, which is in the area next to the Good Neighbor territory. The Good Neighbor Council, like the others, is composed of social workers and citizens of the area; the names of the members of its executive board give some indication of the new cooperation that is taking place among the formerly ghettoized groups of the Lower East Side: Julius Miller, Narcisa Cruz, Louis Berkowitz, Hugh Johnson, Ferrucio Ferruci, Jack Martin, Howard Latzen, and Stella Shepard.

When the meeting opened, Jack Martin of the health committee distributed leaflets to be handed out through the area announcing the times that free polio shots would be given (“Polio Must Go on the Lower East Side!”) and Suzanne Louchard, a social worker from the Henry Street Settlement, announced that the Tenants’ Association she was working with at the LaGuardia Houses was going the next morning to a meeting of the City Planning Commission to protest the widening of Montgomery Street for use as a truck route.

Milton Pulakos, a social worker from the Hamilton-Madison House and one of the drafters of the neighborhood renewal plan, explained that the Two Bridges Council had been working on the plan since September. “We felt that if we didn’t plan ourselves, someone would come in with a bulldozer and that would be all. We wanted to keep the indigenous population and also improve the community.” Mr. Pulakos went over the details of the plan, and when he finished there was a loud protest from Mrs. Stella Shepard. Stella Shepard has lived in the neighborhood all her life, and experience has made her mistrustful of high hopes for community improvement.

“Those are nice fancy words about relocation,” she said. “I’ve heard those words before and I’ve been relocated three times. And I had to do it myself. We’re not interested in lovely middle-income homes because we couldn’t afford them. We’d just be kicked out, and we’re tired of being kicked around. All we want is a place that’s livable where we can pay the rent, and stay in this neighborhood where we have our roots.”

Louis Berkowitz pointed out that one of the main gaps in the plan—and in most of the plans of the past—was that “there are two kinds of people it doesn’t handle: single persons under sixty living by themselves who aren’t allowed into public housing but can’t afford the co-ops; and also the families with many children that aren’t eligible for public and don’t have enough money for co-op housing.”

When the business of the meeting was over, Narcisa Cruz, the council’s co-chairman, who is one of the most active Puerto Rican leaders in the neighborhood, said that she had a special announcement to make: she was going to have to resign from the council because she had to move from the community.

“I have eight children,” she explained, “five of my own and three nieces I take care of. I can’t get anything in the projects, and the private apartments don’t want to hear about me. The place I’m in just isn’t room enough for all of us to live. I don’t want to leave the neighborhood—I love the work I’m doing here; but there’s nothing else to do. I’m going to try to find something outside the city, maybe in New Jersey.”

It was quiet for a moment and then Stella Shepard raised her voice to say, “Why don’t we make them take her in here at LaGuardia Houses?”

Mrs. Cruz said she had been trying for four years to get into a public project, but with no success.

Julius Miller suggested that the Council should send a delegation to see the local assemblyman about getting Mrs. Cruz a place in the neighborhood.

“I already saw him,” Mrs. Cruz said.

“Well,” a voice shouted from the back, “we’ll all go to see him.”

“That’s right,” said another, “We can’t afford to lose people like this.”

The meeting slowly broke up, small groups gathering together, some going up to tell Mrs. Cruz that they would all put the pressure on to try to find her a place in the neighborhood.

There is a spirit on the new East Side that has discovered the bulldozer—the impersonal forces of change and dispersion—as the common enemy, rather than the neighbor who speaks a different language. It is a spirit that hopes to preserve what is worth preserving from the past and to work for a future that will mean better days for these neighbors who are, in their efforts, building from our oldest ghetto our newest community.

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