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Norfolk & Stanton Street

12 Feb

Man, the Jews!  You ever heard of these guys?  I guess they’ve been around a little while.  And when you’ve been around a little while you tend to be involved, you know, in history.  I’m still deep into Paul Johnson’s The History of the Jews myself, and it seems like to read the Jew’s history is to read the history of the world (oh, yeah, I guess leaving out China and all that stuff.  But hey, somebody’s got to be the “other.”).   So cool, let’s stick with the Jews a little longer.   And yeah, let’s stick with the Lower East Side a little longer too – specifically an old synagogue.   I know I said eventually I’d like to work my way up to the public housing of the Lower East, but I think I need to get a little better educated first.  But don’t worry, I’m getting educated!  We all are right, if we’re paying attention?  That’s one of the advantages of living in such complicated times: you gotta learn some shit.  Though don’t you love how everybody loves to say “we live in such complicated times?”  Open any magazine or newspaper and that’s what you’ll see.  But haven’t we always said this?  Weren’t we saying this in the 1980s?  In the 1950s?  In the 1880s?  They were probably saying it in Rome when Augustus took control.  I guess that would have been one nice thing about living in the Dark Ages.  Like, “Man, what incredibly simple times we’re living in.”

I came across this quote by Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr. that I thought was pretty great.  “When it is said that we are too much occupied with the means of living to live, I answer that the chief worth of civilization is just that it makes the means of living more complex; that it calls for great and combined intellectual efforts, instead of simple, uncoordinated ones….Because more complex and intense intellectual effort means a fuller and richer life.  They mean more life.  Life is an end in itself, and the only question as to whether it is worth living is whether you have enough of it.”  Yes please!

Holmes, Jr. is one of the most cited Supreme Court Justices of all time, by the way, following a 30 year career from 1902-32.  He’s also the oldest Justice in the Court’s history, retiring when he was 90 years old.  Now until I Wikipediaed him I’d always vaguely thought he was some kind of poet/preacher guy.  Though guess what, his father was! (Okay, more poet/gentleman/doctor than poet/preacher).  Holmes Sr. was a contemporary of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and that whole many-named crew, and with that whole many-named crew was one of the founders of Atlantic Monthly magazine, in 1857, up in Boston.  (Incidentally, Holmes Sr. was the guy who coined the term “Boston Brahmin.”)

That was seven years after – and probably a whole culture away from – the completion of congregation Anshe Slonim’s synagogue at 172 Norfolk Street.    See, I didn’t forget about the whole synagogue thing.  How’s that for a transition?  Let’s dive into it.


Anshe Slonim’s synagogue, which is today the Angel Orensanz Foundation, is actually the oldest extant synagogue in NYC.  Or at least the oldest extant synagogue that was built specifically to be a synagogue.  Before it was completed in 1850, every synagogue in New York City occupied a re-purposed older building, a practice that would continue for decades and decades to come.  But Anshe Slonim’s synagogue, though built in the style of a Neo-Gothic church (by architect Alexander Saeltzer), was built from scratch to house their congregation.  The Reform synagogue was the largest of its day: with room for 700 men on the main floor and 500 women in the gallery (I guess even with reform they still split up the sexes).  The congregation – as with most Reform congregations – was made up primarily of German Jews and was apparently the third oldest Jewish congregation in New York.  We know the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue (Shearith Israel) was the oldest congregation in the city (and the country); we’ll have to add finding out which one was second to the list, even if our list is getting pretty long already.  Ah well, it’s probably good to have a never-ending list really.

Anshe Slonim lasted in the space till 1873 when it sold the building to Congregation Shaari Rachmim and moved uptown, like so many other churches and Reformed congregations of its day.  From there the building on Norfolk passed over to Congregation Ohab Zadek (1886, from Hungry) and then a different congregation Anshe Slonim (1921, this one from Belarus).  That Anshe Slonim lasted until 1974 when the building was abandoned.  Again, nothing too new around these parts, at least back then (they were very complicated times we were all living in).  Also not too new – for the right now – is the fact that it’s been turned over into an arts and performance space; purchased by the sculptor/painter Angel Orensanz in 1986 and since then the host of innumerable events, concerts and galas – some pretty chic , some pretty less so.  As for the various congregations that once worshiped there – you can find some traces of them big and small throughout the city.  Well sure, if New York is the world, and to read the Jew’s history is to read the history of the world, then logic dictates that to read the Jew’s history is to read the history of New York, right?  Am I right?  I might be on to something.


Norfolk & Broome Street

29 Jan

I mentioned in my last post how something can only feel complicated relative to its time period.  That seems to be true doesn’t it?  The further back you go the simpler things appear to be – it’s the very essence of this type of collective nostalgia we all have.  You can imagine that each complex institution, institutional system or government entity that exists today was at its inception something simple – something created by people who understood what it was and could explain it forthrightly.  Maybe it was complicated as all hell to them, but it doesn’t seem like that to us today, looking backwards.  Today is what’s complicated.  It makes me want to look at everything that seems abstruse and trace it forward from its beginnings.  Start with the corporate shit before you even get into the governmental labyrinths.  How did Bank of America begin?  How did Verizon?  At what point did they become connected to so many other things?  (You know that in the private sector these days every huge corporation owns just about every other corporation you’ve ever heard of right?  Incidentally, you know who doesn’t own everything you’ve ever heard of?  All the rest of us.)

The Lower East Side actually seems like a good physical representation of this kind of thing: a good place to start.  I mean it seems to encompass a few different levels of complexity correlated to different time periods.  I need to work myself up to the public housing/workers housing/slum clearance/urban renewal projects that make up so much of its current landscape.  Honestly, just dipping my toe into the history of these buildings confuses me.  Confuses and excites me, too.  I mean, have you ever googled Section 8? (Hey, how did google start?!)  I’ll get to these guys eventually, but it might take awhile.

So let’s start with something simpler instead.  Let’s start with a church that turned into a synagogue that’s now abandoned.  That kind of sums up a lot of the history of the L.E.S. right there – but hey, we can understand it!  We’ve heard of Jews, you know, and immigrants and all that jazz.  It’s people!  We like people, right?


So yes, the old synagogue for the orthodox congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagadol (Great Study House) was first built as a church – the Norfolk Street Baptist Church to be specific – completed in 1850 in a Gothic Revival style, on Norfolk and Broome Street, at a time when the Lower East Side was still something of a wealthy (or maybe middle class) native-born enclave.  Though things were changing rapidly; just ten years later the Baptist congregation sold the building to move uptown with the rich folks (they eventually became Riverside Church, right by Grant’s Tomb), as the L.E.S. was becoming an increasingly immigrant filled neighborhood (mainly Irish and German at that point.)  The building was converted into a Methodist Church, which lasted till 1878, before being bought by Beth Hamedrash and converted into their synagogue – something that would become pretty common in the neighborhood as the years went on.  Beth Hamedrash itself had been around as a congregation since 1852, making it the first eastern European congregation in NYC and the first Russian Jewish congregation in the United States entirely.

And that was well before the Russian Jews really started coming to America (hey, how did Eddie Murphy start?).  By the time Beth Hamedrash had bought the church on Norfolk Street, in 1885, Russian Jews – and eastern European Ashkenazi Jews in general – were coming to America in epic droves.  The catalyst was the assassination of Russia’s Tsar Alexander II – a liberal reformer and emancipator of the serfs.  His murder in 1881 – horrifically blown up by a bomb thrown at his feet – kicked off a reactionary backlash best epitomized by the Russian state’s pogroms against its Jews.  Paul Johnson in his epically amazing A History of the Jews writes, “Thus 1881 was the most important year in Jewish history since 1648, indeed since the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.  It’s consequences were so wide, and fundamental, that it must be judged a key year in world history too.” (If that kind of sentence don’t excite you, you’re not me.) Between 1881-1914 an estimated 2 million Jews moved to the United States; the Jewish population before 1881 had been something closer to 250,000.

And those newly-arriving Jews were very different than the quarter million that were already here.  Before 1881 most of the Jews in New York City specifically were middle class, English-speaking and, just as importantly, practitioners of the Reform movement – an attempt to adapt and reform Judaism for the modern era, first begun in Germany.  They were more or less assimilated into American culture, and they were happy about that.  The Ashkenazi Jews arriving now were largely Yiddish-speaking, Orthodox and very poor, and coming in such numbers that assimilation would be difficult.  Though again, Paul Johnson writes that in the end that may have been the blessing in disguise of these new immigrants, transforming American Jewry from “an exercise in gentility, doomed to mortify, into a vibrant creature of an entirely new kind – a free people, cradled in a tolerant republic, but shouting their faith and their nature from the rooftops of a city they turned into the greatest Jewish metropolis in the world – the nucleus of a power which in time would exert itself effectively on behalf of Jews throughout the world.”  Man, like all well written history, that kind of sentence gets me excited for what happens next.  Where did it start?  Where is it going?  Who wants a bagel?

St. James Place & Oliver Street

21 Jul

Who knew the fifties were so amazing?  I mean Fahrenheit-wise, not the decade (although also worth some contemplation – get high and think about it).  This past week has been a revelation; it’s already warm enough in the sun to wander aimlessly around outdoors, and the ability to wander aimlessly around outdoors exponentially increases your ability to pass the time with meaning, humor and consideration.  Sorry, I just liked the way those words sounded.  But the fifties rock!

Before winter came along I was getting into the Lower East Side, specifically the area below Canal and Grand Street, where the blocks run diagonal to the east-west grid and public housing tends to dominate the sky-line.  And now it’s warm enough to get back to exploring.  I’m particularly interested in the area known as Two Bridges, between the Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge, namely because of how close it is to the Civic Center.  I tend to think of the Civic Center and the Lower East Side as two neighborhoods that are further apart – first you have to pass through Chinatown, then Little Italy (what’s left of it), then hook a right for the LES.  This new approach is almost like a back door entrance.  Now sure, today this area is basically an extension of Chinatown, but historically it’s always been considered the Lower East.  That very proximity in fact played a role in the creation of the Civic Center to begin with.  The land north and east of City Hall was chosen as the site for various municipal buildings almost by default – the boggy ground (thanks to the old drained and buried Collect Pond) made the area undesirable for high-rise commercial development, and the slums of the Lower East Side made it an undesirable location for anything else.

But before any of those buildings came along, when the Collect Pond was still a pond and New York City still lay to the south, one small part of this neighborhood was used as a cemetery.  On present day St. James Place, just below Chatham Square, Shearith Israel, also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue – the first Jewish congregation in New York (and the only one until 1825) – purchased land in 1683 and began using it as a cemetery.  It was actually their second burial ground in Manhattan, with an earlier one dating to 1656, though the location of that first one is today unknown.  As such the one on St. James Place is called the First Cemetery of Shearith Israel.  Burials continued there all the way up until 1833.  By that time development had caught up with the area and the city was beginning to nibble at the property; the cemetery shrank in acreage throughout the years, until only the small section we see today remained.

Well before the First Cemetery closed Shearith Israel opened a second one, on 11th Street just east of 6th Avenue.  When burials first began there, in 1805, 11th Street didn’t exist yet.  Six years later the Commissioner’s Plan was adopted, laying out the city’s grid plan for all future development, and the Second Cemetery lay right in the middle of what would become 11th Street.  Burials continued taking place however, as it wasn’t until 1830 that the street was actually cut through.  At that point the majority of bodies were dug up and moved to the congregation’s Third Cemetery, on 21st Street just west of 6th Avenue.  Only a tiny triangle remains of the original Second Cemetery, on the south side of 11th Street.

The Third Cemetery is by far the largest, taking up a whole lot on 21st Street.  It operated until 1851, the year that a law was passed by the City Council banning all burials in Manhattan south of 86th Street and prohibiting the creation of any new cemeteries anywhere on the island.  That law came just a few years after the Rural Cemetery Act of the New York State Legislature, allowing for the construction of large commercial cemeteries in Brooklyn and Queens.  A lot of graveyards in Manhattan were dug up at that time and the bodies moved to the outer boroughs.  This was partially in response to the cholera epidemics that would sweep through the city and partially an attempt to clear the land for more profitable development.  As such it’s a rare thing to find a cemetery in Manhattan now a days, and the fact that all three of these still stand (at least in some fashion) is pretty amazing.  And they aren’t the only three graveyards on the island, which is also kind of exciting to think about.  Do I sense the beginning of a new list?

(Originally posted Mar. 12th, 2010 on

South William Street & Mill Lane

11 Jul

If I’ve ever given the impression that I’d like to travel back in time I just want to clarify that I meant I’d like to travel back in time during the summer months only.  Good god!  You know what I’m talking about?  What the f did people do before central heating?  Yeah, I know I know, they probably had a lot of fires to keep them warm.  Well bullshit!  These people must have been freezing!  I’m freezing now and it’s 2010.

I’ve had the idea of late of spending a weekend or some similar amount of time just within the parameters of the original New Amsterdam settlement – south of Wall Street, west of Pearl Street, north of State Street, and east of Trinity Place.  I don’t know, that might be fun right?  Though where would I sleep? That’s one question.  Also, what would I really do all day?  Maybe I’ll boil it down to a long afternoon and a half-pint of whiskey.  In the summertime mind you, about six months from now.  And I guess with the growing residential nature of the Financial District, the whole idea isn’t that special anyway.  I’m sure a lot people end up spending their whole weekend within these streets.  You’re feeling lazy on a Saturday, you don’t want to go anywhere, and then on Sunday you’ve got football to watch.

New Amsterdam’s eastern-most road, Pearl Street, used to run more or less along the East River (taking its name from the numerous oysters that dotted the shoreline).  A block west of that is Stone Street, originally called Brewers Street (I’m not gonna try to include the Dutch names here), and then changed to Stone Street after its cobblestones were laid down – probably the first paved street in Manhattan.  A block west of Stone Street is South William Street, originally called Mill Street after the giant windmill that stood along it.  The tiny Mill Lane still keeps its name in recognition of that, running between South William and Stone Street.  This is one of my favorite spots in Manhattan.

Besides grinding grain, the windmill served the important function of holding the meeting room for the first Jewish congregation in New York (and the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States), Shearith Israel, located for the last hundred odd years on Central Park West and 70th Street.  They worshiped in the windmill until 1730, when they were able to construct their first synagogue at what is now 26 South William Street.  The Jewish population of New York was small throughout the colonial period and into the early 19th century – Shearith Israel would remain the sole Jewish congregation in the city all the way up to 1825.  The very first Jews to arrive in New York (New Amsterdam) in 1654 ended up here through a series of accidents.  They were Sephardic Jews fleeing Brazil and the Portuguese Inquisition, on their way to Holland when their ship was seized by pirates.  After being rescued by a French frigate they were charged for passage to Amsterdam, but were brought to New Amsterdam instead.  Governor Peter Stuyvesant was opposed to them settling here but eventually relented, and allowed them to stay.  The congregation is also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, in recognition of its heritage.

You won’t find any remnants of them now on South William Street.  The whole district was built up with wooden structures throughout the 17th and 18th century, and they all burned down completely in the Great Fire of 1835 (there’s been a couple Great Fires in this city – 1776 was the other one).  A year later numerous Greek Revival commercial buildings started going up, with storefronts below and warehouses above.  A lot of those are still standing, although in the early 20th century a variety of new facades were added to several of them.  As such you get a wide mix of styles following the curve of South William Street – neo-Dutch Renaissance next to neo-Renaissance next to neo-Tudor – a whole bunch of neo.  Most of the buildings extend through the full lot to back onto Stone Street, where you can get a better sense of their original design.  These days Stone Street is full of restaurants and bars, with outdoor seating in the warmer months, for tourists or the people who live their lives down here, on the only remnant left of New Amsterdam – its street plan.  I’ll see you down there, should we say in June?  I’ll bring the whiskey.  Wild Turkey or Old Grand-Dad?

(Originally posted Jan. 6th, 2010 on

Bialystoker Place & Grand Street

25 Jun

Due to the fairly limited size of Manhattan and its relentless pace of development, or gentrification, or cannibalization, or whatever you want to call it, it’s easy to feel like none of its corners are left unturned. By which I mean, any given section of the island can be representative of any other, interchangeable, held up as the Manhattan of RIGHT NOW. None of it is outside the market, the connection, outside the knowledge that every square inch is equal to so much money. No place is set-up to surprise you; everybody walks these streets.

Which is why I think my new obsession is going to become the Lower East Side. I’m not talking about Orchard or Ludlow and their obscene Bourbon Street-esque weekend nights. I’m thinking more of the south-southeast elbow of the place – where the streets run basically true east west, pointed straight towards the Woolworth Building, diagonal to the grid. Whenever I find myself around these parts my first thought is always, “Oh right, New York keeps going here, this isn’t water yet.” Then I imagine what it used to look like, before the whole area was razed and replaced by giant public housing. It basically looked like what the Orchard & Ludlow blocks remain today – old tenements (sans the new large glass condos). You can still get some of that scene the closer you get to the Manhattan Bridge.

But the current paradigm and lay-out of the rest of the area helps give it its removed feel. These large apartment buildings make for swathes of open space, where the sunlight can shine in from more than just a certain angle. The streets are wider, and less busy – there’s the kind of lull you’d find across the river, in another borough. And then scattered throughout these (generally) post-war behemoths, you’ll come across the occasional old building, left over from another time. Of course, being myself, that’s the main thing that I’m looking for. It’s interesting to note which type of structures survived, given that there had to be a conscious decision to spare them from the wrecking ball.

So it’s not surprising that so many of them are houses of worship, some amongst the oldest in the city. Bialystoker Synagogue was founded as a congregation in 1865, by a group of Jews from Bialystok, Poland. They met first on Hester Street, then Orchard, before merging with a second congregation and moving to Willett Street (now Bialystoker Place) in 1905. But the building they moved into was even older. They purchased and converted (hehe) the old Willett Street Methodist Episcopal Church, which had itself been built in 1826, when the Lower East Side was becoming a wealthy residential district. The church was one of four in the LES – all still standing – to have been constructed from Manhattan schist quarried from the nearby Mount Pitt, on what would become Pitt Street. It became a common occurrence in the neighborhood for Jewish congregations to take over churches, as their own congregations moved away with the changing demographics.

Another of the Manhattan schist churches sits around the corner from Bialystoker Synagogue, on 290 Henry Street. Built originally in 1829 as the All Saint’s Free Episcopal Church (”free” because they didn’t charge rent for pews) it is today owned by Trinity Church, and houses their Saint Augustine’s Chapel. All Saint’s grew out of a mission established by the General Theological Seminary, by the site of the old Grand Street Ferry to Brooklyn. It grew under the leadership of Colonel Marinus Willett, the same Willett who would give his name to Willett Street, before Bialystoker Synagogue established itself there, and for which the street was eventually renamed. The synagogue currently refers to itself as the most active congregation in the Lower East Side. I’m not sure how Saint Augustine’s does.

Now there’s something predictably hypocritical about these churches and synagogues being preserved while everything else was torn down around them – in the process known as slum clearance. Sure, the idea may have come from good intentions: to replace cheap housing with a better kind of cheap housing, but I don’t know if you could call the results a success. What makes a neighborhood poor is that poor people live there. By which I mean it’s the people you have to help, not just the neighborhood. Is it enough to say, here’s where all the lower income folks can live? Here, we’ve carved out a proscribed space for you. You can clearly see the boundaries.  Until we move you somewhere else.  But don’t worry, we’re going to keep your churches and temples around, because, you know, what we really care about are your souls.

(Originally posted Oct. 9th, 2009 on