400 Grand Street is an interesting space. I remember documenting some of the residence when they lived in a Cooper Square building on east 3rd street, across from the Men’s Shelter when that shelter was a war zone. Because of certain redevelopment changes the tenants, I knew, were moved to400 Grand Street and there they remained.
Over the years I had been contacted by one of the residence about a rat problem in the building they felt they could do nothing about. One resident I got particularly close to, in his last couple of years, as he fought off death.
No question it was a shame to lose Ruby’s Fruits, which was one of the last of the classic old school LES store front fruit stands. At the moment I forget the names of the two charming guys who worked there, but no question they had good produce, service with a joke or two, and an extra plum thrown into the bag after it was weighed and priced.
I admire how hard Jewish Conservancy Executive Director Laurie Tobias Cohen is fighting to try to keep alive some of the LES Grand Street Orthodox Jewish history. But I think she is fighting a losing battle. No question her humble space reflects the lack of support she gets from the community.
I know this fight first hand. I have known the struggles of many LES Jews, poor Jews, forgotten Jews. Over the years I have, along with Danny Stein, photographed most of the LES synagogues. Have documented the demise of a number of shuls. Watched the Orthodox community dwindle with little or no recognition from those in power. In power, in this case, I am specifically referring to Speaker of the New York State Assembly, elected local politician, Sheldon Silver.
One campaign I have been involved in is trying to save Danny Stein’s LES Orthodox photo archive. Danny, without question, has the largest photographic collection of the LES Orthodox community. A Peoples photographic history- weddings, bris’s, bat and bar mitzvahs, funerals, UJC meetings, festivals and so on. I have gotten the story of Danny’s archive into the Villager, the NY Times, Jews: A People’s History of the Lower East Side, onto blogs and so on, but have not gotten resistance from Silvers office, only dead silence. The message: nobody home. Shades drawn down over the office windows. More silent than a Potters Field grave. Case closed. Who cares?
I published a 3 volume anthology called Jews: A People’s History of the Lower East Side. Danny, has known Silver his whole life, they go to the same synagogue. Silver did not know Danny is in this anthology, he denied knowing about the existence of this 3 volume anthology, even though there is an article on Silver.
In one conversation I had with a member of Silvers staff, I was told it is possible that Danny’s whole archive could be thrown in the garbage. Talk about Up Against the Wall! Talk about history deniers and destroyers of history. What is that about???
There is much more I could say about this struggle to save LES history and those who are out to deny and destroy it. But I will close with this point. As we all know. Silver is a very private person. There is almost no record of his achievements, his history, or his physical presence on the LES. For example: how many times has he shown up at an event above Delancey Street?
AS I told the member of his staff- there are symbols in the present; for example: money and power. But then often, in the long run, the one that counts the most is legacy. Silver may have money and power, but in this new LES- there are many who have both more money and more power than Silver. As to LES legacy- the place that counts- he has very little. I see his lack of local presence as a serious mistake. It may turn out he is little more than a blank in the LES history books- or worse- depending on who writes the books, he may end up as a destroyer of culture, neighborhood, and placed in with a small group of people who took more for themselves and shared very little with those below them.
Unfortunately my message to Conservancy Executive Director Laurie Tobias Cohen I do not see a Silver lining in this struggle you are engaged in. I wish you the best and, again, I admire your struggle. You are doing the right thing.