Archive for March, 2011

Mar 30 2011

Researching a Building or Site

Published by under Lower East Side

Are you curious about the history of your apartment or another building that has meaning for you? Here preservationist and Eldridge Street intern Chelsea Dowell shares steps on uncovering information about a residence, business or any building of interest drawing.

As a graduate student at Pratt Institute’s Historic Preservation program, I’ve engaged in several projects centering on building and lot research. There is a wealth of information regarding individual buildings and specific lots and blocks, particularly in New York City. Many of the resources are not difficult to use; knowing that they are available is half the battle. This post should arm you with several tools in the research of a particular site.

Examine insurance maps

One of the best tools for looking at the changing built fabric of a city is to research historic insurance maps. These maps, commonly produced between 1850 and 1940, show an aerial view of the streetscape, often labeling street names, parks and large institutions in the area. Each lot depicts the footprint of the building that stands there at the time of the map’s production. The maps are also color coded to denote material – New York City’s maps show wooden buildings as yellow, brick as red, and sometimes make further color distinctions as well.  

To access the maps of New York, contact the Map Room at the New York Public Library, or browse online at The website is accessible from anywhere and includes a short video on how to use the online site. Pull the map of your area for as many years as you can find; these maps are a great way to determine a lot, block, or entire neighborhood’s evolution through time.   

Pull the Block & Lot folder

Each individual city lot is labeled with block and lot numbers. These numbers are entirely separate from the address and can be found by searching on this website: (for non-NYC addresses, ask your local Department of Buildings how to obtain block and lot numbers). Once you know your block and lot number, the folder for this lot can be pulled. Each city lot has its own folder. This folder should include papers on all activity and development that occurred on this lot. You may find deeds, building permits, alteration requests, records of disputes, blueprints, and other resources. 

In New York, these folders are located in two places. In Manhattan, block numbers 1 to 1000 are available at the Municipal Archives (212-788-8590). All other blocks are at the Department of Buildings (212-566-0042). For all other boroughs, the folders are all housed in that borough’s Department of Buildings. This information is in the public domain, so any individual can pull a block and lot folder of their choosing.

Look at tax photos

The city has commissioned photo projects several times that catalog the image of every lot in the five boroughs. These photos are housed at the Municipal Archives in Manhattan.

Synagogue tax photo

They are on microfilm and available for public use. The photos are organized by block and lot, and an archives employee should be able to assist you in locating the correct microfilm roll. These photos are an excellent way to get images of the façade of absolutely any building in the city, or a great way to see what used to stand on a particular lot.





Check local newspapers

Just like in genealogical research, newspapers like the New York Times can hold historic information about a specific building or address. Try searching for your building address in quotations (“12 Eldridge Street” for example) and see what comes up. When reading through the results, make sure that the article is referring to your exact address – sometimes a Times search for an address will yield results for a certain address in three different states.

Happy hunting. And if you have any other tips or interesting stories about researching a building, let us know!

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Mar 17 2011

From Bad Date to Great Play

Published by under Lower East Side


We asked writer/performer Rachel Evans to share her inspiration for Jew Wish, the one-person play on her on-line dating adventures that she will be performing at Eldridge Street on Thursday, March 24. Join us that evening for fun, laughter, and a post-event schmooze.


How exactly did I come to bare my dating woes to a room full of strangers? Let’s see. I began working on Jew Wish over two years ago. I had done Jdate for a few months two separate times, with years in between the first and second time. I wasn’t using the site for too long (I know people that have been loyal Jdaters for years and years), but in that short time, I had given it my all. In my dedication to dating, I went out a lot, and I had some very funny and strange stories. And when I told people these stories, someone, I think it was my dad (ha!) suggested I write a play about it. So I started to write, and I just found I had a wealth of experiences and dates to draw upon. I worked on it in a playwriting class and that helped foster the creative process, and it made me realize “Wait- this is funny!” It was no longer just words on a page, I was reading it out loud in class and people were laughing. From there I had a small reading, where I got a lot of great feedback, and I just kept re-writing it and editing, and cutting and adding and re-writing. The show premiered in the NY International Fringe Festival last summer (2010), directed by Rachel Eckerling, who has been such a collaborative, creative and nurturing director to work with.

The night of the first show I was both terrified and elated. Airing your private neuroses, your romantic hopes and your conversations with your parents out to an audience of strangers was a very scary experience. Would my story be embraced? Would anybody be able to relate? Would I be able to face my parents afterward? I found the answer was yes to all of these questions. People seemed to really enjoy the show and connect with the universal story within it- the desire to meet someone, and the obstacle of your own judgments. Thankfully, my parents took the whole show very gracefully, and accepted that I was playing fictional characters; in fact they didn’t miss one of the five performances and are the best free press agents a girl could find. And amazingly, the show was very empowering to perform- if I can talk about all these things to a theater full of strangers, than I can pretty much do anything- like even possibly meet a tall handsome stranger of substance on the internet. Wink wink.

But in all seriousness, Jew Wish has been quite a ride to perform, and I am looking forward to next week’s performance, to see how the show will change and grow in the different theatrical space of the beautiful Eldridge Street synagogue.

Follow us on Facebook this week for Rachel’s tips on on-line dating.

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Mar 15 2011

From the Trenches: Visitor Stories

Roberta and Nancy, our archivist, enjoying our most recent gala

Master Docent Roberta Berken shares:

In my capacity as a docent I am fortunate to meet people from all over the world and the country. Here are some of their stories.

In East London in the l9th century it was the custom for street peddlers to specialize in a particular item. Often the Jewish peddlers would sell fish and the Irish peddlers would sell potatoes, According to one of our visitors from London the Irish and the Jewish peddlers got together and decided to sell fried fish and potatoes together. Thus the origin of fish and chips. Now is this a fish story?? On the Lower East Side in the 1890′s one of our visitors described her great grandfather as a custom peddler. He would question his neighbors as to what they wanted to purchase for their needs. He would do their shopping for them for a fee. Thus the first personal shopper.

In a town in North Carolina there is a very special Torah. A visitor to our sanctuary while standing near the Ark told how her great grandfather fled his shetl with the Torah from the towns’ synagogue. While running from the shetl the soldiers fired on the band of Jews. One of the bullets hit the Torah which her great grandfather was holding saving her great grandfather but leaving a hole that went through the Torah cover and most of the Torah scroll. The Torah saved his life. She said that the Torah is in their synagogue and is used on special occasions.

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Mar 10 2011

Archivist Files: Rain, Rain, Go Away

Maybe something can be done about the weather…

As the Museum’s archivist, it has been a treat to be able to look at each item in our collection.  What are my favorites?  It’s so hard to say, but this sign, from the Museum’s sizable collection of Hebrew and Yiddish signs collected from around our Lower East Side neighborhood, is on my list.

It’s small, about the size of a standard sheet of paper.  Its frame is nicked and worn, and the sign itself is stained.  Why do I like this so much?  I like how it looks, its authentic patina of age.  But the deal was sealed when I found out what it says.

The Hebrew writing is the beginning of the Blessing for Dew:  “V’ten Tal u’Matar“; in English, “And give rain and dew.”  This sign signals that this blessing should be added to daily prayers, and it would be hung on the synagogue’s bimah during the dry season in Israel, roughly from fall through early spring.

I was curious about why the sign had clearly gotten wet — its letters are blurred and its hanger is rusted.  I wanted to think that it had hung outside and that its instructions had produced results — that it had worked and brought rain.  But probably, like so much else at the Eldridge Street Synagogue, it fell victim to the elements when the main sanctuary was shut in the 1950s.  Still, I love that the cycles of nature are part of prayer and faith, and that asking for rain would be a community aspiration.

As this brutal winter drags on, maybe we should organize a collective prayer for an early Spring!

Written by Nancy Johnson, Museum Archivist

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