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A Chronicler of the Lower East Side: Remembering Historian and Filmmaker Suzanne Wasserman

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Suzanne Wasserman. Photo courtesy of the Wasserman/Stern family.
Suzanne Wasserman. Photo courtesy of the Wasserman/Stern family.

People have been telling the story of the Lower East Side for generations. Few people have told that story in the past few decades with the passion, insight and generosity of Suzanne Wasserman. On June 26, the well-known and widely respected historian lost a lengthy battle with progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare form of Parkinson’s Disease. She was 60 years old. Today we take a look back at some of her essays and films, namely those focused on this neighborhood’s rich and colorful history.

Wasserman was director of the Gotham Center for New York City History at the City University of New York. In the 1990s, she worked for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, helping to shape the narratives of families that once lived at 97 Orchard St.

It was at the Tenement Museum that she met Joyce Mendelsohn, another historian with a great love for the Lower East Side. The two women were close friends for years. In an interview, Mendelsohn said, “Suzanne was an incredible person. She was a delightful person, both in her professional life and in her personal life. She was highly intelligent and vibrant, courageous.”

Wasserman’s son, Raphael Stern (Rafi), said his mother developed an interest in Jewish history while an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, after receiving a grant to conduct oral histories of some of those black listed in the McCarthy-era. “She was very proud of being Jewish,’ said Stern, saying his mom’s, “interest (in the topic) really came from a personal place.” 

Wasserman came to New York in the 1980s and lived in the East Village. During this time, she told the blog, Who Walk in Brooklyn,  she “became fascinated by the remaining Jewish informal and formal institutions and people. The subject became the foundation of her graduate dissertation at New York University. “I was interested in why certain people remain in certain neighborhoods instead of moving away,” explained Wasserman, “and how those who move away feel about their neighborhood after they’ve gone.”

The dissertation traced the rise and fall of pushcart vendors on the Lower East Side and the relentless campaign by city and neighborhood business leaders to force them inside new public markets (including the Essex Street Market). She made the point that the Lower East Side became a destination for Jewish nostalgia when Jews started moving out of the community in large numbers in the 1920s. Shop keepers in brick-and mortar stores loathed the street peddlers and were shocked when business evaporated after they were swept from the streets. Wasserman wrote:

What the merchants of the East Side failed to recognize, until it was too late, was the symbiotic nature of their relationship to the peddlers. They underestimated the power and appeal of a growing nostalgia towards the old East Side streets and the increasing development of the Lower East Side as a site for cultural pilgrimage. The merchants wanted to exploit this growing sentimentality on the part of ex~East Siders and non-East Siders alike, but they failed to see that this nostalgia depended on the continuation of traditional practices, not on a sanitary and spurious hadoor re-creation. Fifty years later Lower East Side merchants still regret the passing of the pushcarts.

Wasserman had long been intrigued by the Essex Street Market. The idea for one of her films, Meat Hooked!, grew out of her interest in longtime Essex Market butcher Jeffrey Ruhalter (Ruhalter died last year). Wasserman told Bon Appetit, “I wanted to make a film about Jeffery because his shop in the Essex Street Market… was the oldest remaining shop (in the market). It opened in 1940. Through him, I started learning more about butchers, and found it really interesting.”

Wasserman was the co-author with Peter Dans of, Life on the Lower East Side: Photographs by Rebecca Lepkoff, 1937-1950In writing about the acclaimed photographer, who died in 2014, Wasserman observed:

The faces of the Lower East Side became her muse as her interest in photography blossomed. Through the lens of her camera she captured the lives of a spirited neighborhood – women hanging laundry out their windows, children playing stickball in the street, men chatting at the barbershop. In 195o, when this close-knit community was destroyed and the Alfred E. Smith housing project built in its place, Lepkoff’s images became the memories of a neighborhood lost but not forgotten.

In a 2010 film, Wasserman told the story of another fascinating Lower East Side figure, writer Anzia Yezierska, who was wooed by Hollywood during the golden age of silent film. Wasserman told The Forward, “She was a model for me in the sense that she molded this obsession with the past into her writing. And at the end of the film, I try and show that when I say, I have learned a lot from Anzia Yezierska. She was able to make her inability to move forward into an art.”

There’s no doubt that Wasserman added a lot to our understanding of the Lower East Side’s past and present. But her close friends and loved ones told us repeatedly they will remember Wasserman as much for her kindness and warmth as for her scholarly contributions.

Susan LaRosa of Henry Street Settlement, who had known Wasserman since graduate school, called her a, “generous, funny, brilliant person, and a wonderful friend.” Rafi Stern, her son, said, Wasserman always made time for her family, in spite of many professional demands. “I hope people remember that she balanced her career with raising me,” said Stern, “and that she supported women who did the same.” Stern concluded, “I hope people remember that she was such a sweet person.”

In addition to her son, Wasserman is survived by her husband, David Stern, and her sisters, Tina, Stephanie and Nadine Wasserman.

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