The neighborhood is 90% Chinatown, 8% shtetl, and 2%...other. On East Broadway, across from Seward Park, next to a restaurant selling whole pigs and a Chinese church is the old haunt of the Jewish Daily Forward.
The building at 175 East Broadway is a bold monument to the power and voice of the working class. Built in 1912 to house the Forward, the Yiddish-language daily founded in 1897 to bring news to New York's Eastern-European immigrants, it was designed by George Boehm to reflect the newspaper's success and ideals. Two stone pillars stand on each side of the entrance, outlining stained glass windows that show torches burning with the flame of socialism. In the building's heyday, an electric sign on the roof announced the building's presence to the neighborhood. "Forverts" is emblazoned in Yiddish across the uppermost part of the façade, and the doorway is adorned with busts of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
In the last quarter century the Forward building has gone through many transformations. As the success of the Forward declined in the second half of the twentieth century—paralleling the waning number of American Yiddish speakers—the newspaper altered its format and ideology. Eventually, the Forward staff also decided on a change in location. In 1974, the building on East Broadway was sold to the Lau family, which used the building for a Chinese church. If you ask the scarf-clad grad-students who run tours of New York, parts of the building also served as a Chinese publishing house, and even (ironically) a sweatshop. But we'll leave rumors aside.
The building's greatest transformation is happening right now. Having been landmarked by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1986, the building is now part of the revitalized Lower East Side. It has passed into the hands of developers and is becoming a luxury condominium.
The new occupants, strolling into the building from their Wall Street jobs or neighborhood dog walks, probably don't look up at Marx and Engels for inspiration to be better socialists. They're more likely occupied by thoughts of new walnut floors or specialty Zuma soaking tubs that await them after a hard day on the trading floor or movie shoot.
Why are the rich and famous choosing this curious building in a developing neighborhood, rather than a stylish SoHo loft or a sophisticated high-rise on the Upper East Side?
"Excuse me sir, um...do you live here?"
A weird look. "Nope, I work here." After some hemming and hawing, he tells me the building is occupied by various wealthy people and celebrities whose names "I can't tell you, you know, privacy and all that...but if you look at the Daily News, the Wall Street Journal...they'll tell you what you need to know." "It's just a hot thing to live in a landmark now."
One might think that living in a landmark implies an interest in or appreciation for history. But that would be giving too much credit to the new residents of 175 East Broadway.
"Most of the people who live here probably have no idea whose faces are on the outside," says a hipster I speak with who is "involved with the project"—the architectural restoration of the building.
Gazing up at Marx, he considers further, remaining in quiet confederation with the dialectical materialist who meets his gaze with a stony countenance. "And I don't think there are any Jewish people who live here, actually. Yea...definitely not."
"People just live here because...it's pretty?" I probe. "It's pretty, it's out of the way...the celebrities would rather live here than in SoHo. They can go across the street to the park and nobody will bother them." That's for sure.
This corner of the Lower East Side certainly doesn't draw a lot of tourists. Down the street, Iglesia Christiana invites people with "Andremos! Come, let's Worship!" A sofer on the block hangs a sign advertising the writing of Torah scrolls and mezuzot. I look for a local coffee shop to sit and write, but find only stores offering me Chinese pastries and exotic vegetables.
The rich and famous of the Forward Building will likely not be disturbed by the Chinese food sellers who make up the majority of the street's population, and even less likely by the young yeshiva students rushing up and down the street. Today, as when the Forward spread its socialist gospel, many neighborhood residents identify more strongly with their own ethnicity than with the American culture a few blocks away. Though the area is no longer a haven for Eastern Europeans, the atmosphere of eclecticism and frenetic acceptance of a different type of life lingers. And if this is what the celebrities are seeking, then they have found their solace.
Ariel Pollock is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in History. She is a Junior Editor of The Current.