The Forward Building
In 1973, I began to paint the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Now, 5 1/2 years and 31 paintings later, I realize that I have been watching the changing of one era into another.
New York City has always been a new world for immigrants. It is also a world which they eventually reshape. The children bring their version of each newly arrived culture into the existing one, and as they leave and the elderly pass away, another newly arrived group is ready to step into that spot.
In 1978, when I worked on this painting, the Jewish population had dwindled down mostly to the elderly. The Garden Cafeteria was one of their favorite gathering places. It also had a large Puerto Rican clientele and an occasional black or oriental. The same was true of the park across the street.
The Forward Building stands in the foreground. It was one of the primary centers of the Jewish world in the city. Politics, Workman’s Circle, “Bintil Briefs”- written in Yiddish. It was a link with the past and the present and one of the most important aids in the assimilation process. Today it is a Chinese church.One of the delights of painting in the streets was that the local residents accepted me. I was, after all, doing their neighborhood and it seemed as if everyone wanted to pose.Met stands next to the mailbox. She is the woman with the red turban and Teresa is next to her in pink. Originally, I’d painted Teresa smoking but she felt that it made her look too tough.“It looks like the cops want to arrest me. Maybe you’d better not show me smoking.”The officers in the police car were Alan Norberg and Bruce Struthers. They’d stopped to get a sandwich at the Garden Cafeteria and ate while they posed.There were a few problems. An old Jewish man stopped on the first day and began to ask questions.
“Your husband lets you sit on a street corner?”
He stopped by often to watch the progress and when one day he saw a Chassid asking to be in the painting his belligerence disappeared. He decided that he wanted to be in it also, but because the front was nearly finished I had to place him near the back. He is shown walking next to the Chassid by the car door. Alma walks next to Teresa and Joe Lavan (the young man with the mustache) sits on the steps. Near him is Larry in a white and red striped shirt . Ernie (green hat and yellow shirt) and Chino next to him with black hair and a mustache were my self appointed guardians. In the late afternoons they would often appear and carry my equipment across the street from the park.“It’s getting a little rough in there.”I never argued. They knew what they were about. There were gang fights and stabbings and when I arrived in the mornings, I would be told the stories of what had happened the night before.Eddie is shown leaning on the meter in front of the fruit store. He was such a gentle person and though he was also one of the park people he would never get involved in a fight. If someone tried to argue he would drift away. When I put my painting equipment into the van he would lean on the meter across the street and watch over everything until I came back. He was so excited about being in the painting, but he never saw it completed. One day, about a month before I finished, he disappeared.There was also another Eddie. He was a photographer and I placed him between the fruit store and the Forward Building. Next to him stands Stanley G. Goldberg. He is the lawyer whose sign is over the bar and the woman is his secretary, Marie.It was brutally hot that summer and there were days when I spent as much time in the Garden Cafeteria as on the street. It was during these times when I learned the history of the area from the people who had lived it. They sat at a table near the window, and I’d join them and ask questions.I learned that the tiny triangular park shown on the right had been the spot where Jewish immigrants lined up to hire or be hired. If you needed a carpenter, a tailor, or a window washer, you would go down and take your pick. Now it is filled with the elderly who are afraid to go into the larger park across the street. Years ago many of them had stood there hoping to be hired for a days pay.The fruit store stands where the Tel Aviv restaurant used to be. The Yorks are Korean and at the time of this painting Mrs. York was pregnant with their first child. I placed both near the curb in front of their store.The bar has been there since 1955 when Joe Colon began it, and he is still running it. Next to it stands George Weissman.When I finished this painting the next few commissions took me to different parts of the city. A year later when I returned to do one centered around the Garden Cafeteria, there were more Chinese and Indian faces and some of the older people had passed away. The area had undergone many changes, the liquor store was owned by a young Korean family, and Mr. and Mrs. York had their first American born child.