New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer visited Art on A Gallery yesterday morning to learn more about the new documentary film on Streit’s Matzo and to deliver a message: the city must do more to save cherished small businesses.
An exhibit at the gallery complements the film, Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream, which is playing through next Tuesday at Film Forum. Stringer spent some time with filmmaker Michael Levine, who explained the events leading up to Streit’s decision to close its Rivington Street factory after 90 years. The business is relocating to Rockland County. In the next few weeks, the old factory buildings will be demolished to make way for luxury condos.
The film repeatedly drives home the point that members of the Streit family felt a strong emotional connection to the neighborhood and had no desire to leave. In his conversation with Levine, Stringer said, “the city doesn’t work to save small businesses. They work to build luxury condos.”
The comptroller referenced his recent report detailing small business struggles due to mountains of red tape at city agencies. He also alluded to the the city’s decision to lift a deed restriction at the Rivington House nursing home, clearing the way for luxury condos there (Stringer’s office is investigating the matter). Speaking of Streit’s, he said, “this is a perfect example of the trials and tribulations of a business that thrived for more than 90 years but with the onset of gentrification and the inability to work with the city to preserve a business that provided good jobs for people (the business was forced to move)… There’s just something wrong with that.”
Invoking the Rivington House scandal, Stringer added, “A deed restriction was lifted so that a developer could walk away with $72 million literally in the middle of the night. The Lower East Side is such a part of our history over many generations — and we’re seeing it sort of wiped away. Maybe this film will wake people up to realize that businesses like the matzo factory — they don’t have to be collateral damage as we change the skyline of the city.”
Levine told Stringer, “The family had tried for many years to get tax incentives to stay (on the Lower East Side)… Finally when they announced that they were leaving is when the city finally offered that to them.” He asked what can be done to make sure other small businesses receive help before it’s too late. Stringer did not have a specific answer but said, “We in government have a responsibility if we want to keep this city diverse and we want to give every family a fighting chance to make it here. I think people are starting to feel this is only a city where wealthy people can do business. That would be a terrible tragedy.”
Yesterday afternoon, we spoke with Aron Yagoda, one of the owners of Streit’s, about the family’s dealings with the city. Over the years, he said, they tried to contact various city agencies about their predicament. “No one would call us back,” he explained. In the end, the factory buildings were sold for $30.5 million. But Yagoda said, “It wasn’t about the money. We did not want to leave the city. That was our home.” A couple of years ago, he spotted Mayor de Blasio walking down Rivington Street and invited him inside to see New York City’s last matzo factory. The mayor declined, saying he was too busy. That episode made a big impact on Yagoda, who said he became convinced, “the city really doesn’t care.”
There were many reasons for the closure of the Lower East Side factory. There was no getting around the limitations of those old tenement buildings, which could not accommodate modern baking and production equipment. Tax breaks might not have made a difference. But people in this neighborhood will always wonder whether more could have been done to save a business so important to the identity of the vanishing Jewish LES. Could there have been heroic efforts within the community to save Streit’s? The family could have used the news media to get the city’s attention, said Yagoda, but it’s just not something members of a proud, legacy business were comfortable doing.
It’s obviously way too late for Streit’s. But in an email exchange yesterday afternoon, Levine said he hopes “the film will raise awareness of the challenges facing (other) family businesses in the city, and encourage viewers to challenge elected officials to pass measures that would give these businesses the kind of opportunities that seem currently to be reserved only for developers.”
Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream screens twice daily, at 3:40 p.m. and 10:10 p.m., at Film Forum. The film closes after May 10. For tickets and showtimes, visit the film’s website.