A few months ago, way over in Germany, Friedrich Caesar was looking through old things stored in his basement. He came across a book of illustrations that he believes his father must have purchased while visiting New York City in the 1950s. Entitled New York, City on Many Waters the hardcover book (published in 1956) features illustrations by the Austrian artist Fritz Busse and text by legendary New York City journalist Meyer Berger. While flipping through the drawings of frenetic street scenes and watercolory nighttime skylines, Friedrich stumbled across a site he had visited for the first time only a year previously – the Eldridge Street Synagogue! Friedrich was kind enough to share with us a copy of the illustration.
The Eldridge Street scene is labeled simply “Remnants of Old East Side Ghetto.” And Busse was right – by the mid-1950s, the Jewish character on the Lower East Side was a remnant of a culture that was rapidly vanished. The remaining shops, institutions, and old-world residents would have seemed like survivors from a bygone era. These old-fashioned sections of the Lower East Side, including our synagogue building, were a bit of a time capsule.
And today, Busse’s illustration is a time capsule of its own. It’s a simple black and white drawing, but the artist captures so much real-life detail, rendered with energy and whimsy. Busse conjures the iconic idea of a bustling Lower East Side, with figures milling around on the sidewalks, in the street, and on the steps leading to the grand shul. Just north of the synagogue, a peddler sells wares from a pushcart. It’s all very typical for the Jewish Lower East Side. But Busse may have taken some artistic license, especially with that pushcart. Street vending was big business in immigrant neighborhoods at the turn-of-the-20th century, and perhaps no where more so than on the Lower East Side. But in 1938, then-mayor Fiorello La Guardia vowed to rid the downtown streets of the pushcart peddlers. He claimed they crowded the streets and sold unclean or unsatisfactory goods. So the Essex Street Market was built to move many vendors indoors and the peddler was professionalized, making the traditional street vendors all but extinct. By the 1950s, there probably weren’t any pushcart peddlers on Eldridge, but they were still iconic of the old neighborhood – perhaps Busse was tapping into a bit of nostalgia.
Other aspects of the illustration are spot on. Busse littered the Eldridge Street storefronts with signs advertising jewelry businesses and indeed this area was a hub for the industry. Historic photos of this block show many small businesses dealing in gems, precious metals, custom pieces, and more. And not only does Busse convey the general tone of the businesses surrounding the shul, but he includes some specific markers to actual businesses. Anyone who’s spent time dissecting old photos from the block will recognize the curiously shaped sign hanging off the facade two storefronts down from the synagogue in Busse’s illustration. It’s Pesselnik & Cohen’s distinct eyeglasses sign!
Sadly, this sign no longer exists on our block. And I haven’t been able to find out much more about this store or its eye-catching signage. If you have any intel, please share with us.
You’ll have to look skyward to spot the other recognizable feature in Busse’s illustration. The WITTE roof sign presiding over the block refers to a real business, although in reality it was a block further north, between Canal and Hester. Another small discrepancy? The menswear businessmen, two brothers, actually spelled their name Witty. Perhaps Busse had simply forgotten the specific spelling when it came time to add in the sign to his drawing? The Witty brothers really did have a sign towering over their block, though. This partial view, from a 1940s tax photo, was the best I could find:
The Witty Brothers Clothier was just one of many in the booming Lower East Side clothing business. Their building, bearing the Witty Brothers name on the facade, still stands – but sadly the rooftop sign has not survived. Thankfully, at least these charming features live on in Busse’s illustration of the block and a few historic photos.
It’s no surprise to us that Busse chose to represent the iconic Lower East Side through an illustration of our landmark building. The Eldridge Street Synagogue is emblematic of the neighborhood and the immigration experience – their social aspirations, their creation of a new home and a unique identity.
What a pleasure it was to take a step back into history through this fun illustration and Fritz Busse’s work. If you’re someone who loves New York scenes and slice of life art, you’ll definitely want to check out the entire New York, City on Many Waters book. Thanks to Friedrich Caesar for sharing with us!