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Not Everyone Views the Bialystoker Building Through the Same Lens

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Photos from Yenta Laureate.

This evening Community Board 3 will vote on a resolution in support of saving the Bialystoker Nursing Home building on East Broadway.   Previously, CB3’s landmarks subcommittee and parks committee voted in favor of the resolution, which encourages the Landmarks Preservation Commission to act on an application to protect the endangered building.

We last reported on this issue following the landmarks subcommittee meeting.  Our coverage focused on the “case for demolition,” since it was the first time the Bialystoker Board had detailed in a public setting why it is trying to sell the building as a development site.  Today, we hear from an anonymous preservationist, who obviously sees something in the shuttered nursing home that board members and a lot of members of the Lower East Side’s Orthodox Jewish community do not.

The other day I found myself walking down Clinton Street towards East Broadway noticing how spring had transformed that short, oddly curved block. We’re used to thinking of the Lower East Side as a place of constant change. But that sometimes makes us ignore obvious continuities or even worse, take them for granted.

So I thought about another type of neighborhood transformation that I had seen. A famous photographer, Brian Rose, had given a lecture at La MaMa about his recently published art book Time and Space on the Lower East Side. He used an old viewfinder camera to take photos of the neighborhood, first in the 1970s and then again in 2010. Given the continuities of the neighborhood (and in the technology used to represent it), many of his photos corresponded so well that the surprised audience could not tell that they were taken forty years apart.

While the neighborhood’s ubiquitous changes have accustomed us to seeing things in certain ways, similarly sometimes “Nature” can interrupt those patterns. Yesterday, spring showed that it had arrived at the back of the old Bialystoker Home building. Even softened with a blanket of new greenery, the building’s soaring clear-cut Deco edges still proclaimed themselves joyfully, contrasting markedly with the smoothness of the vividly blue sky. Oddly enough, here was a old age home proudly announcing that Modernity had indeed arrived.The messiah may have tarried, but the Bialystokers didn’t. Busy beavers even in the Depression, they used Deco’s clean lines to announce their building’s arrival, much like spring itself. Yet their slogan which could be viewed until recently in their lobby, was an old-fashioned plea of sorts: “Cast me not off in the time of old age; when my strength faileth, forsake me not” (Psalms, 71:9).

Crossing the street onto East Broadway, was the empty lot that marked where the original Young Israel synagogue had been built and remained before being torn down four years ago. As its name implied, Young Israel was founded in the Lower East Side as a religious movement officially embracing modernity. Yet in looking at that site, I immediately flashed back to the neighborhood’s empty lots of the 1970s. Young Israel’s embrace of modernity had somehow turned into one of abandonment. Despite the bright spring sunshine, it still gloomily projected an image of the type of urban blight that had once been the Lower East Side’s calling card.

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  1. A very eloquent defense of a beautiful and historic structure. I agree, losing the Bialystoker would be a tragedy for the Lower East Side.

  2. This is a deeply moving piece that makes us stop and think that there is more to life than the pursuit of money.  The Bialystoker Home should be landmarked to remind future generations of the sacrifices that were made by poor immigrants to construct a building that would offer a caring place for the old and infirm. 

  3. It saddens me to see the LES transformed with such extremity. My great-uncle was the architect for that building and it speaks of my family’s history, of the Jews who came here in late 1800s. I’m a regular NYer, been here always, my parents, siblings, cousins & my kids are here. I’m also an architectural historian. What the LES is today is great, super touristy & trendy, but fun and SAFE. But with all that investment comes the danger of demolition. If you destroy the things that made the nabe appealing in the first place, it’ll be Disney. I live in Harlem, which is big enough to absorb a lot of this, but seriously, ONE MORE CONDO HIGH-RISE…Put condos in this building like they’ve done in so many Wall Street bldgs. Luxury condos, but save the damn building. Forgetting history is a very dangerous thing.

  4. No offense to your great-uncle who designed the building, but apparently the structure is not particularly attractive to condo conversion.  IMO, the structure is narrow, has low ceilings and does not make optimum use of the entire property.  As is, the building served its design purpose well as a nursing home. But if this building had the bones of say the Forward Building up the block or some of the grand old Wall Street office buildings, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.

  5. I am from NYC and live in Istanbul for almost 20 years. they are destroying Istanbul and making it into the kind of disneyland you have described. the destruction of history IS dangerous. There are ignorant people in the government both here and there and money rules. Very sad.

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