Leonard Quart: Lower East Side loses another piece of its past

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NEW YORK >> Anyone who casually wanders through the streets of the Lower East Side cannot avoid seeing how radically it has changed. A recent documentary film, Michael Levine's "Streit's: Matzo and the American Dream," captures the character of Streit's matzo factory, one of the last remnants of the area's immigrant past.

Since 1925 Streit's has existed in four converted tenement buildings on Rivington Street, while producing 40 percent of the nation's unleavened bread. Other matzo companies had modernized and left the neighborhood, but Streit's stayed on, though it was inefficient and more costly to do so.

The inside of their factory charmingly looked as if it existed in a time warp. Its machinery antiquated, its space constricted, it even lacked a loading dock. In addition, the demands of dealing with international competitors and markets made it even more economically difficult to stay tied to its roots.

Streit's had played an important role in the Jewish immigrant LES, and had preserved the feeling of that immigrant communal tradition through the decades, while everything around them was in process of being transformed. Its articulate, college-educated co-owners were inheritors of a multi-generation family business that maintained a profound commitment to the neighborhood and its unionized, multi-ethnic employees, a number of whom have been working there for decades

The director uses archival film clips and photos to evoke Streit's earlier years on a Lower East Side that was once mainly Jewish and working class. In the first decades, its customer base primarily existed in the neighborhood, and on Passover there were long lines waiting to buy matzos from their street level shop. The founder's son, Jack Streit, was a perfectionist who saw the workers as part of an extended family and thus gained their loyalty.

Much of the film consists of interviews: with the owners, who have a deep emotional investment in the company and the quality of the matzos they produce; with one of their long-time workers, Anthony Zapata; and with an urban geographer who provides a somewhat repetitive and droning overview of the neighborhood's evolution and the store's social significance.

Zapata is the film's star — vital, voluble, and sharp, if a bit sentimental about Streit's and the Lower East Side. He takes great pride in Streit's and states: "Making matzo is an art. We have tourists from all over the world coming just to get a glimpse of how we do it." He also sees the job as a "safe haven" that has given him a sense of belonging.

Zapata bemoans what has happened to the Lower East Side — the stores he grew up with disappearing, the city caring little about what is happening there, and feeling that money has become all. He fantasizes that soon condos will be built on top of the Brooklyn Bridge, since everything in the city is for sale, including Streit's. For despite their devotion to the building and the company's traditions, the owners decide to sell the building and move the factory to Route 303 in Rockland County.

The bottom line was that they felt to reduce costs and stay competitive they had to move or go out of business, but they did offer jobs to any of their locally based work force that would follow them to the suburbs, though the stalwart Zapata seemingly decides not to go with them. Of course, the factory will be demolished and turned by a developer into a seven-story luxury condo and retail building.

Levine's film is basically an uncritical but moving homage to Streit's, It makes us feel that the company's flight from the LES is one more distressing loss for the more idiosyncratic and economically equitable city that once existed; one additional embrace of big money modernity and the ethos of the upwardly mobile young, and the established wealthy that embody it.

Telltale green sheds

Watching the film moved me to explore the streets that surround Streit's factory. As with a number of buildings in the immediate area, a green shed surrounds the abandoned factory. The same sheds surround other buildings where condos will built and the large fenced off lots that dot the streets augur upscale towers and luxury hotels like the Ludlow with its mosaic-floored lobby.

On Ludlow Street one can also find Galli, an Italian trattoria, and Rising States, a women's boutique that showcases local designers. Similar changes are happening on other neighborhood streets, where amidst tenements, seedy pizza parlors, check-cashing shops, and one landmark 1937 store, Economy Candy, selling both Gummi Bears and high end candy, one discovers Anastasia, a photo gallery, and other art galleries and innumerable coffee shops, cafes, and gastro pubs like Spitzer's Corner. Most of the couples who are drinking and eating in these places are young and white, and it won't be long before LES turns into a new Williamsburg.

However, for the moment the area is still in transition, and the Essex Street Market (built by Mayor LaGuardia in 1940 as part an effort to find a new place for street merchants to do business) is still open. I sit down and have a latte there, but I know that it will soon be shut down, and it will be housed in the immense Essex Crossing development across Delancey Street. The market site itself will be turned into a mixed-use tower, the predictable fate of large swaths of the neighborhood.

The LES's gentrification is inevitable, though the Chinese population continues to grow and there is a great deal of low-income housing. But the world of Streit's and the streets filled with fruit and vegetable stalls and bargain shops will never return. I miss their distinctive atmosphere, but my ranting against the sterility of the new towers and hotels will not bring back the past.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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