exploring New Amsterdam

aka another beautiful Sunday with the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy on their Colonial New Amsterdam tour. Until they added some new public tours this spring, this was the last one I hadn’t done so I was pleased to see it offered in the spring as I generally don’t do tours in November and December. I think the seeds of this tour were planted in my brain at Shorakkopoch Rock during the Great Saunter and further while reading James and MIchelle Nevius’ Footprints in New York.

While blissfully shorter, today’s tour started at Fraunces Tavern whose 300th birthday is coming up sooner than I realized. For as many times as I’ve been to the Museum & eaten at the restaurant, I didn’t know that much about the building or its history. Even if the current building only dates to 1904, it’s still amazing history happened here. [[NB: I learned the year of the current building and a lot more on the Lovelace Tavern from this Forgotten NY Tour, whose only clue as to its age is the comment on the planned rebuild of the Staten Island Ferry terminals. So much has changed in this neighborhood since 2005!]]

From Fraunces Tavern we headed south (or “under water”, as I learned that Pearl St. was the shoreline and where it drew its name from. We passed the old Battery Maritime Building which is slated to be a hotel sometime soon. I wonder what will happen to the ferry service to Governors Island once that happens. From there it was on to Peter Minuit Plaza, whose history  I learned more about recently. Somehow I never noticed the topographic map that allows you to “walk” New Amsterdam with your fingers, nor the Jewish Tercentenary Monument at the flagpole’s base.

After looping around and through Stone Street, home to approximately four billion and twelve historic signs, we ended up nearly where we started, diagonally across from Fraunces Tavern. As many times as I’ve walked that block, I never noticed that I was walking on top of Lovelace Tavern and somehow never even saw the above-ground signs to the Stadt Huys’ history. In my defense though, the potholes are mostly condensed over and nowhere near as visible as in the Forgotten NY link above. There’s some more fun history here.

the first Shearith Israel Cemetery
the first Shearith Israel Cemetery

From there we headed north on Pearl and out of the Financial District/New Amsterdam to Shearith Israel’s first cemetery on St. James south of Chatham Square and practically in the heart of what is now Chinatown. It’s amazing how far outside “the city” that was when you walk uphill from Wall Street to the Brooklyn Bridge and then back down. Walking past the Seaport is just sad with the recent news and more-or-less permanent closure of the museum’s galleries. There are some great images and maps of the cemetery’s history and it was a pleasant surprise to find it open. It turned out it was for a Memorial Day dedication and so we got a nice bit of history about those who were buried there. The 2006 restoration was done with some amazing detail to find new pieces of history.

The guide said, and I agreed, that this tour was a hard one because with the exception of Shearith Israel’s cemetery, we were talking about things that there’s no trace of. It’s not like the other tours where the buildings’ purposes may have changed but they still remain. I found it amazing that there are only two manmade structures that date back to the 18th century: the fence at Bowling Green and (maybe) Fraunces Tavern.

The end of this tour segued nice with Eric Ferrara’s Bowery tour, which I did two or three years ago. I especially liked accidentally finding Collect Pond Park on my way to the West Side after the tour.

Further reading:

Second Hand Rose

The Lower East Side Conservancy Tour‘s meeting site, “the former Yiddish Arts Theater (now a multiplex)” is Second Avenue in a nutshell. And while the tour of the Jewish Rialto is one I’ve wanted to do for about three years, it felt even more timely in light of the recent fire.

The arts & culture of the neighborhood was the draw of this tour for me, but in the end it was the architecture & history that I found just as appealing and intriguing. The tour began at the aforementioned former Yiddish Arts Theater. The 2000+ version of Joni Mitchell’s Taxi appears to be “they tore down paradise and put up a multiplex.” Or in NYC, a Chase Bank or a Duane Reade. On this half mile of Second Avenue alone that applied to:

  • the Yiddish Arts Theater
  • the original Second Avenue Deli
  • the Filmore East, among other theaters in that building

I fear the same may ultimately true of the vacant lots formerly known as 119-123 2nd Avenue.

The buildings and stories I found most interesting along the tour were:

  • the former Loew’s Commodore, later the Filmore East. “The neighborhood died hard: drugs, thugs, murders and so did the Fillmore. It will live forever in my memory.” The Apple Bank that now stands there was closed today, but I’m definitely going back when it’s open to see the ghosts. I truly wonder if the Lower East Side/East Village has undergone more change than any in the city
  • the Saul Birns building, the site of Ratner’s 2nd Avenue (history and Delancey ties here). Although I’m an NYU grad, I’m glad they  didn’t win that battle. More on the man here and the building here.
  • the Community Synagogue, former St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church whose congregation was decimated in the Slocum Disaster but which partially lives on in Yorkville. While this is generally considered to be an unknown disaster despite being the largest loss of life until 9/11, I was familiar with it. I don’t recall where I learned about it, but I’ve thought about it in the last few years since I moved to Yorkville and walk past the “new” church nearly daily. I was pleased to find the plaque a few weeks ago when I discovered the Community Synagogue. After the tour, I walked to Tompkins Square Park in part to see its memorial to the sinking (easy to miss) as well as to cross it off my NYC Bucket List. For some reason it retained its 1980s status in my brain. Nope, oasis definitely fits

Oh and the blog’s title. She and Sophie Kalish aka Sophie Tucker, the Last of the Red Hot Mammas.

Everyone knows that I’m just Second Hand Rose
From Second Avenue

Lower East Side Then and Now

for all the tours I’ve done with the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, I had only done a mini tour of the Lower East Side. It was time to fix that, so I joined this weekend’s tour, the Lower East Side Then and Now. Among other things, I was excited that it included Bialystoker, a building about which I’ve been curious for some time.

I can say without a doubt that this was one of the most interesting tours I’ve done, and also one of the most stunning.

It was a perfect spring day with scarcely a cloud in the sky, which I think led to the vibrant light within the buildings we visited, but I also think Bialystoker would be beautiful wrapped in black construction paper.

While Bialystoker is best known for its mazalot (great information and more and photos), I found the architectural history even more amazing. Yes, the presence of zodiac signs in an orthodox shul is slightly surprising, but challenges of dealing with the conversion of what was the Willets St. Church into Bialystoker Synagogue in 1905 was awe inspiring. I also had no idea that the Manhattan Schist from which it was built was from a quarry practically next door on Pitt St. While the building looks distinctly Jewish with its Stars of David, there are telling pieces of its christian history, including the stained glass and an altar-looking Ark of the Torah, for which the congregation received dispensation for it not facing east. That is believed to be one of the reasons for the extensive imagery of Israel in the synagogue’s interior. While I knew Shelly Silver worshipped at Bialystoker, I had no idea it was once home to Bugsy Siegel and Max Lansky, father of Meyer Lansky. Living history, not all positive.

From Bialystoker we headed down E. Broadway past:

  • some of the original buildings of the Henry Street Settlement;
  • the recently landmarked Bialystoker Center (called “one of the last remaining physical reminders of the Jewish Lower East Side”);
  • a few of the remaining shteibl of what was once Shteibl Row;
  • the Forward Building (yep, an interesting mix of then and then with Tatum O’Neal trying to buy crack in Seward Park); and
  • an unexpected view of One World Trade with the Manhattan Municipal Building.

It’s a really striking mix of then and now. While the neighborhood has changed (and will continue to change with SPURA-more on that later), there’s still a swing back that has been going on since 2000. While the old shteibl aren’t expected to survive long term as their congregations die off, the young returners are worshipping at Bialystoker again.

From E. Broadway we had a quick detour up Norfolk Street to Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the shell of the oldest Russian, orthodox congregation in the US. This was the synagogue that first caught my attention back in November and which I’d thought about recently while wondering how much of the neighborhood SUPRA would touch. It turns out that in addition to the building in which the Conservancy’s visitor center is located, SPURA will come right up against the old Norfolk Street Shul. Hopefully the visitor center will find a new home within Essex Crossing, but there’s no doubt the development is going to change the neighborhood. I find it amusing or amazing, not honestly sure which, that both SPURA and the Second Avenue Subway are finally happening.

Our next and final stop was Kehila Kedosha Janina, the only remaining congregation of Romaniote Jews in the Western Hemisphere. Another amazing interior, and the women’s section doubles as a museum.  This was one of the many landmarked places we saw/visited on the tour that it’s going to be interesting to see how the landmarks of the old neighborhood hit among the new SPURA buildings. I found the Museum Director’s explanation that they’re “less neurotically Orthodox” an interesting one. If not for the gorgeous torah scrolls I’m not sure I’d have realized this was an orthodox shul.

With Bialystoker today, Eldridge St. many times over and Stanton St. and Angel Orensanz last November, I think I’ve hit all the iconic synagogues of the Lower East Side. I’ve also seen some of the amazing uptown architecture, but alas I haven’t been in any. I’m especially glad that I was able to visit Angel Orensanz as it is currently closed due to structural issues and there is no timeline for when/if it will reopen.

All in all, another amazing day on the Lower East Side.

Red Square in the East Village

every time I do a tour with the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, I learn things that have nothing to do with Judaism and/or the Lower East Side. I attribute this to the diverse range of guides they use, each of whom bring their own flavor to their tours. This bit of history might actually be Lower East Side related, depending on whose definition you use of the Lower East Side.

As we stood on the southern side of Houston St. headed from Congregation Chasam Sopher to Angel Orensanz, Marty pointed out a new building on the northern side of the street. On the surface, there wasn’t anything special about the building, aside from it being newer than some of its neighbors and decidedly not a tenement. However, Marty encouraged us to look up to the top where we saw a statue of Lenin and a clock whose numbers were backwards.

Welcome to Red Square, on Houston Street.

The rental apartments, on land that was a gas station for 25 years, were designed by Michael Rosen and the statue of Lenin, which points toward Wall Street, was added later following the fall of the Soviet Union when it was discovered in Moscow. The building’s clock is said to come from a design in MoMA’s store.

Some of the building’s neighbors are just as eccentric as Red Square itself and all add some flavor to a street that is adding too many chains and strip malls for my liking.

Crossing Delancey

with photos.

on a day where crossing 1st Ave. due to the marathon was the bigger odyssey. Luckily, the m15 was (sort of) running and I was able to make it down for the Jewish Heritage Festival.Before I made it to the Festival, however, I caught a peek of a broken-down synagogue on what I realized was Norfolk St through the Seward Park playground. With time to kill, I walked down Essex to Delancey and back up Norfolk for a better look. It turns out it was Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, formerly the Norfolk St. Baptist Church/Alanson Methodist Episcopal Church, now a landmark in some serious disrepair. Sad. While it appears it is no longer in immediate danger of being torn down, it appears that another piece of living history is gone.

From there it was a hop-skip to the Conservancy’s visitor center where, by virtue of the numbers, I did Crossing Delancey with Marty of Manhattan Walks, the guide who I loved from the Upper West Side and Jewish Harlem tours. I was pleased to be joined by Jeff Dobbins of Walks of New York, Howard Teich of the Brooklyn Jewish Historical Initiative, among others familiar faces from the Conservancy’s tours.

Because I hadn’t planned to go today or put much thought into the tour I was going to take, I hadn’t done my homework. I was pleased when the first stop was the Stanton Street Shul, one of the LES synagogues by which I am most fascinated. Although its congregation was mostly LES immigrant poor, a ton of love and detail was put into this tenement shul, especially the mazalot. There is an amazing amount of history in this 20′ x 100′ space.  While Eldridge St. remains the crown jewel of synagogue restoration, others like Stanton St., Beth Hamedrash Hagadol and Emory Roth haven’t yet been as lucky. I hope that tide turns soon. Stanton St. is amazing as one of the last remaining tenement synagogues (from a high of 700), all which had an interesting role in NYC history.

After Stanton Street, we headed to Clinton St. and Congregation Chasam Sopher, one of the oldest buildings whose continuous history was as a synagogue. It was originally built in 1853 by Congregation Rodeph Sholem, now located on the Upper West Side. Yes, more congregation musical chairs. Chasam Sopher has an interesting history, both in its continued existence as a free synagogue, but also how it suvived the down turn of the 1970s-80s and is now thriving due to the  influx of young Orthodox families on the Lower East Side.

Although the tour continued down Orchard Street, my final stop was at Angel Orensanz, a cultural center whose work I love. I had no idea that it was (one of) the previous homes of Anche Chesed, nor that it was the oldest surviving building in New York City built specifically as a synagogue, and the first synagogue structure built on the Lower East Side. It is now a venue that is available for rent (especially weddings!) and has been home to some amazing cultural programs. I hope that rental income allows it to thrive because this architecture cannot be lost to history.

I was sad to leave the tour, but it whet my appetite for even more exploration of the Lower East Side, which will hopefully come soon.

Jewish Harlem

Another Sunday, another day of exploration with the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy (LESJC). Another day of not actually visiting the lower east side with the Conservancy, although I’m desperate to learn more about the neighborhood I’ve somewhat explored the last two Sundays. This time was Jewish Harlem, an area I haven’t explored in really any sense of the word. Not too many photos, not because it wasn’t photogenic (although pieces of Harlem certainly aren’t), but because it was hot. Yes, I think this is the last tour until fall for me. Heat and I are not friends so I was grateful for the shade of the tour’s starting point – the shade of the Adam Clayton Powell office building.

There’s no question that 125th Street is a major shopping thoroughfare today with stores aplenty (soon to be joined by Whole Foods), but standing in the shade provides a nice view of the street’s shopping history including Koch & Co. and Blumstein’s turned Touro College (home of Powell’s Don’t shop where you can’t work protest) with the “Waldorf of Harlem”, the Hotel Theresa, between them.

While the Apollo will always stand out by virtue of its iconic marquee, it’s very easy to get lost amid the chaos of 125th Street and I was grateful when the tour headed south along is it Lenox Avenue or is it Malcolm X Blvd. (yes, Harlem likes to confuse people with its street signs!) to the relative quiet. Quiet and churches.

If you didn’t know that Harlem was once home to the world’s 3rd largest Jewish population (Krakow, 1 and Lower East Side, 2), you wouldn’t know it today. It seems to be the city of churches. Ephesus, St. Marten’s, Mt. Neboh, Abyssinian (not on this tour). Religions of Harlem is an interesting and fairly comprehensive site on the neighborhood’s houses of worship as well as their histories including Harlem’s last remaining active synagogue, the Old Broadway synagogue.

That said, if you knew where to look, Harlem’s Jewish history is hiding in plain site.

“In its churches, of all places, Harlem reveals its Jewish past.” David W. Dunlap

  • Ebenezer Gospel Tabernacle (built as a Unitarian Church and the first north of 42nd Street before converting to Congregation Chebra Ukadisha B’nai Israel in 1918 and then finally to the church it is today in 1942.
  • Harlem’s Baptist Temple Church, under a state or two of demolition since its roof caved in, was a former home of Ohab Zedek, now on the UWS.
  • Salvation Deliverance Church, formerly Institutional Synagogue, aka the “shul with the pool, a predecessor to today’s JCC. Note: link covers a tour very similar to the one I took. A very interesting read from The Riverdale Press.
  • Mount Olivet Baptist Church at 120th and Lenox, formerly Temple Israel
  • Mt. Neboh, formerly the home of Ansche Chessed, now located on 100th St & West End Ave.
  • The Commandment Keepers whose former home beside Mount Morris Park is now under renovation.
  • The neighborhood was also home to entertainment luminaries including Milton Berle, Richard Rodgers, Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, (“The Jewish Caruso”) and Lorenz Hart  as well as the founder of Lane Bryant.

Dunlap’s article, Vestiges of Harlem’s Jewish Past, referenced above, covers this in much greater depth then I could ever imagine. I’ll blame the heat for melting my tour brain.

Aside from its religious history (for Islam, Christianity, or Judaism), the neighborhood has some amazing architecture and history: the Mt. Morris aka Hispano Theater, the Renaissance Theater and Casino, and its many Queen Anne-style homes.  It’s also a treat for the nose and taste buds especially in summer with Sylvia’s, Rao’s, Red Rooster, the Malcolm Shabazz Market. It’s easy to lose a day or more in Harlem.

Above all, it’s a place of change. Harlem Opera House became the Apollo. Harlem’s churches became it’s synagogues, which became its churches. The Lenox Lounge closed and will become…

I’ll have to take the tour again in  2015 to find out.

Currently reading: Joseph Berger’s The World in a City, which I’d started years ago but never finished. Overlaps nicely with this weekend’s tour. Haven’t totally given up on Waterfront but the author’s style makes it almost unreadable.