On the Lower East Side, A Taste of the Old Neighborhood

Remember the scene in Woody Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris? Owen Wilson, as Gil, is sitting on a Paris street corner at midnight. The clock bells chime and he’s transported back to an earlier era. Same corner, same street, same city, only now, he’s in the city of his dreams: Paris in the 1920s.

How many times have I wished to do exactly that here in New York City? Stroll along Riverside Drive when it was lined with mansions; climb the stairs of the Eldridge Street Synagogue in its heyday; walk into a photograph of old New York and just keep on going.

Where’s Woody Allen when you need him?

Seward Park and environs. Click to enlarge (Photo courtesy Museum of the City of NY)

This wonderful photograph, taken in 1928 just minutes from the Eldridge Street Synagogue, is a favorite of mine. Here at the crossroads of Essex, Canal, East Broadway, and Division Streets was the heart of the Jewish Lower East Side, and for hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants, the heartland of their America.

Walk here today – as you will on our October 14th Nosh and Stroll – and you’ll see streets that look remarkably the same. Long gone are the soapbox preachers, Yiddish speakers, and newsboys, but neighborhood landmarks endure. Seward Park, here in the middle of the photo, the Seward Park Library, just above, the Educational Alliance across the street – all remain in form and function. The tall building on the right of the photo also still stands, though only its landmark façade is the same. In 1928 this was the Jewish Daily Forward building. Today it’s a condominium and unlikely that anyone inside still uses a typewriter.

But just imagine.

Imagine a split second after this moment was captured. Pedestrians frozen mid-stride take another step … and keep on walking. Cars move and honk, city sounds and smells (more on those smells in a moment!) fill the air, black and white is infused with color and we’re in. In the photo and it’s nearly a century ago.

Abraham Cahan

Now, the sound of clattering typewriter keys is surely spilling from the windows of the sixteen-year-old Forward building. Chances are Abraham Cahan, the founding and impassioned editor of the paper, is inside. Perhaps he is editing his famous advice column, the “Bintel Brief” at this moment. Yiddish for “Bundle of Letters”, each letter was a story, each column a nuanced portrait of immigrant life.

“Dear Editor,” the letters would begin.

“We are a small family who recently came to the ‘Golden Land.’ I had opened a small grocery store here but soon lost all my money…”

“Worthy Editor, I beg you to print my letter as quickly as possible and advise me how to save myself…”

“Dear Editor, I hope you will allow me to unburden my heart in the ‘Bintel Brief’…”

For Jewish immigrants, there had never been and was nothing else like the “Bintel Brief.”

“The essence,” Cahan reflected in later years, “Surely is to be found in the quiet tragedies of our lives – true, incredible pages from the ‘book of life.”

Children's Room, Seward Park Library. Click to enlarge. (Photo courtesy New York Public Library)

Cross the street now and walk into the Seward Park Library. Opened in 1909, the library rarely closed and on this day, the day of our photo, it will be crowded. People come after school, they come after long hours of work, they come any time the library is opened, often from 6am to 1am, nineteen hours a day.

“If I could read the whole world of knowledge was open to me.” Rose Cohen, a sensitive, young sweatshop worker, wrote in her poignant memoir, Out of the Shadow: A Russian Jewish Girlhood on the Lower East Side. A New York Times reporter, moved by the sight of so many immigrants using the library in 1913, shared Rose’s feelings:

“…what (books) contain can feed a starving mind and a hungering imagination with such royal richness as their lives could never afford them; and that their contents can lead him, step by step, along the journey to success and power and dominance. It is not far-fetched to say that many of the statesmen of the future are now in the making at Seward Park library.”

Certainly on the streets around the library, many of the comedians of the future were in the making. Vaudeville, Broadway, and Hollywood star Eddie Cantor didn’t say much about the neighborhood library in his autobiography, My Life is in Your Hands, but he had plenty to say about candy stores, street life, and something an old black and white photo just can’t capture: those Lower East Side smells.

“There had long been a movement on the East Side for fresh air”, he remembered. “But the East Siders were not clear on the subject of air and could never quite distinguish it from food vapors.

“Each street had its own favorite flavor which it cherished with a certain local and civic pride. If, for instance, the tang of herring was missing from Hester Street, the Hester Streeters thought they were walking in a vacuum.

“Similarly, the Italian quarter had its air pockets filled with garlic; under Williamsburg Bridge blew strong fish breezes, and no rich supply of ozone was complete without the ingredients of a dozen stables and the thousand and one fumes arising from vegetable pushcarts, poultry and meat markets, pickle works, and refuse cans.

“If one walked down Orchard Street toward Rivington, one knew definitely that here air was literally cheese, sometimes fragrant cream cheese blended with cottage, and sometimes it was stale Roquefort with a dash of Gorgonzola. Subtract the cheese from this region and people would die for lack of air.”

Born in 1892, “in a small gas-lit bedroom on Eldridge Street” Eddie Cantor lived far from the smells of his childhood on the day this photo was taken. Did he ever step into the Eldridge Street Synagogue? We don’t know for sure. We do know that he crossed paths with Isaac Gellis, a founding member of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, and perhaps better known in some circles as the Delicatessen King.

“I was the trusted emissary, or maybe ambassador, of the Isaac Gelles Wurst Works in those years,” Eddie Cantor recalled, “and carried their daily supply of pickled meats from the factory on Essex Street to their big store at 14 Market Street. I used to start out with an empty stomach and a full basket and wind up vice versa.”

At the end of Midnight in Paris, Gil (not to mention, the audience) reluctantly returns to the present. But forever changed, he holds onto the best of the past. How about this? As you sample a taste of the old neighborhood this Sunday on our Lower East Side Nosh & Stroll, remember the voices from the past. Imagine the smells. And hold onto Eddie Cantor’s early 20th century advice: “start out with an empty stomach and wind up vice versa”.

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