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Jewish Conservancy Advocates For New Home as Redevelopment Nears

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As we reported yesterday, six remaining tenants at 400 Grand Street, which will be demolished next year to make way for the Essex Crossing project, are fighting for relocation rights.   But another tenant in the building, the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, is also concerned about its future.

400 Grand Street.
400 Grand Street.

The conservancy, part of the United Jewish Council of the East Side, established its first dedicated home in a 650 square foot storefront at 400 Grand in 2011.  The space had previously been occupied by Ruby’s Fruits, a Lower East Side institution.   But the building will likely be emptied and torn down next year in preparation for new residential and commercial development set to rise on nine long-neglected sites in the former Seward Park Urban Renewal Area.

Wednesday night, Jewish Conservancy Executive Director Laurie Tobias Cohen asked Community Board 3’s land use committee to support her campaign for a new space in the Essex Crossing project.   She told panel members that her organization, founded in 1998, is dedicated to providing historic preservation funding to the LES’s synagogues and to make it “possible for the touring public to enjoy and learn about the history of this vibrant, contemporary and profoundly historic… community.” Cohen added, “I’m coming here just to make sure you folks know that we exist, know that we are threatened with losing our home and to say we would be grateful” for a place in the new development. 

The conservancy's ribbon cutting in 2011 was attended by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and other elected officials.
The conservancy’s ribbon cutting in 2011 was attended by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and other elected officials.

Two committee members were at least somewhat unreceptive.  Harriet Cohen, a Grand Street resident, said she was perplexed why the conservancy chose to move into a building that was slated for redevelopment. She recalled hearing from city officials that the new tenant was aware the space was only temporary. Lisa Kaplan, another committee member, agreed, saying she believed Ruby Baumgarten, the previous tenant, was asked to shutter his business because the redevelopment site was being cleared.  Dominic Berg, one of the leading members of a community task force working with the developers, told Cohen Essex Crossing seemed like a strange fit for the conservancy.  “It seems odd to me that you would want to go into a new development instead of finding another place in a more historic location,” berg said. “I feel like it would really conflict with the message and the programming you’re presenting.”

Other members, however, argued that it is appropriate for the community board to advocate on behalf of the organization. Tim Laughlin, executive director of the LES BID, said the conservancy is a “unique place,” and he told Cohen, “I think there are ways that we can think creatively about how to assist you in this situation.”  Herman Hewitt, a longtime board member, added, “I think we have a community organization that we should, like everybody else, try to help.”  Jamie Rogers, a board member (but not a member of the land use committee) noted that the developers have plans to bring an Andy Warhol museum to Essex Crossing and suggested that CB3 should be thinking about how to work with other cultural institutions, including ones with local roots. “I think the committee should start to think about how to advocate for groups that will approach the… developers and come up with priorities and criteria,” he said.

Cohen, the conservancy’s director, explained to committee members why the organization chose to lease a doomed building and to invest $125,000 (mostly from private fundraising) in the renovation of the space.  She said, it was not at all clear in 2009 when the deal was signed that the Seward Park project was going to happen (the community had been fighting over a development plan for 45 years).  While she did not mention it Wednesday night, UJC officials have told The Lo-Down in the past that they hoped a new visitor center would, one day, be established in Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the distressed synagogue on Norfolk Street.  Restoration plans stalled (see our previous coverage for details), dashing the conservancy’s long-range plan.   In response to Berg’s skepticism about finding space for the visitor center in the new project, Cohen said, “one of the things that is distinctive about the conservancy is that we relate to the existing Jewish community on the Lower East Side… We don’t relate to the community as something that is static and only from the past.”

Cohen has reached out to Delancey Associates, the development company building Essex Crossing.  A considerable amount of space has been set aside for community facilities.  There has been little conversation, at least in public view, about plans for local cultural offerings in the project.  In response to an inquiry from us this past fall, a spokesperson for the developers said they were “committed to starting a dialogue” with the conservancy.


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  1. The following comment is from Clayton Patterson:

    400 Grand Street is an interesting space. I remember documenting some of the residents 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 to 400 Grand Street and there they remained.

    Over the years I had been contacted by one of the residents 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.

  2. This comment is from Joyce Mendelsohn:

    Although I do not live in the neighborhood, I have deep roots on the Lower East Side — my grandparents who settled here and never left (to them, America was the LES) and both my parents who were born here. I agree with all of your points and lament the lack of interest of Jewish Orthodox community leaders to honor the Jewish legacy of the LES by preserving historic buildings and images that reflect Jewish life on the LES. It is a total disgrace that they have not stepped up to save Danny Stein’s LES Orthodox photo archive.

    As we all know, Laurie Cohen is working tirelessly to further the mission of the LES Jewish Conservancy — a not-for-profit organization “dedicated to preserving, sharing and celebrating the Jewish heritage of the Lower East Side.” Now, when the Conservancy is in imminent danger of losing their small space on Grand St., who is standing up for them? Perhaps some in the community, but we have not yet heard from the leadership who seem to be unwilling to act to preserve the LES Jewish legacy. Why don’t they don’t see their obligation to honor those immigrant Jews who came to the Promised Land seeking freedom and economic opportunity — working to make a better life from themselves and their children? Their descendants today need to overcome long standing bitter grudges within the community and show respect for those brave Jews who formed the heart of the American Jewish experience, right here on the Lower East Side.

  3. CHUTZPAH! The United Jewish Council and it’s political allies has fought against low income housing and affordable housing on the Spura site for close to 50 years. It’s racist attitude toward the Black and Puerto Rican community, had prevented any and all efforts to build housing here. It is only through the struggles of the progressive community that we were able to develop this property. Now after years of struggle for affordable housing, the United Jewish Council wants a piece of it. I have been involved in this struggle since my family and friends were evicted from this site in 1967 under the Urban renewal plan. We, the community, had won the right to some public housing called Seward Park extension in the early 70’s. After this fight was won, the Orthodox Jewish community claimed that it had the right to these apartments because Jewish people lived in the Lower East Side a hundred years ago. Sounds familiar? I am not opposed to the Jewish Conservancy having a new store front in the new development. However, they should not get any preference, and they have to apply like anyone else.

    Tito Delgado
    Former Spura Site Tenant

  4. How true< said like a professional………but when you care not what can I say. they deserve nothing and let me tell you if demographics did not change this would never have happened, and Silver would have made sure of it!!!!!!!!!!!!

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