If you have a bit of a history fetish, you too might take a passionate interest in who painted a mural that has been covered over for the past 20 years that probably depicts the Hester Street Market, which disappeared about a hundred years ago.

Description from “Freelance” in the Times of London, June 30, 2006: “On the walls of the cafeteria was a social-realist mural depicting pushcarts and peddlers on nearby Orchard Street, going about their business as if marching toward a better world.”

I’d run across Hugo Gellert earlier, described as an early social realist painter, while looking up the old boundaries of nearby Seward Park.

Hugo Gellert Biographical Timeline from Graphic Witness:
1928
50 foot mural for Worker’s Cafeteria in Union Square, New York City; possibly the first labor mural in the United States, now lost or destroyed.
1959
murals for Seward Park Houses in New York City.

I really do like when things intersect very neatly. I always really loved the fact that Paul Simon and Carole King recorded demo records together when they were at Queens College. So, of course, I’m really attached to the image of the old socialists arguing under a socialist-realist mural that links the site to the surrounding neighborhood, namely the ILGWU coops built by Abraham Kazan where a lot of the cafeteria regulars would have lived.

From Wikipedia, more on the Seward Park murals:
Among the frescoes, is the series that adorn the front entranceways of each of the four buildings of the Seward Park Housing Corporation, a housing cooperative with 1728 apartments, designed and built by Herman Jessor as part of the social housing cooperatives built by the Abraham Kazan and the United Housing Foundation. The series recently became the topic of controversy after the cooperative converted from its limited equity status to a fully private and market-rate residential co-op. The cooperative attempted to remove or destroy the four giant Gellert murals. The Coop board felt the socialist-style paintings were no longer representative of the people or the Lower East Side neighborhood. Note: Abraham Kazan is not Abraham Cahan, who founded the Jewish Daily Forward. Kazan built workers coops all over the city that look surprisingly (though not entirely) like Moses projects. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

I found James Wechsler online, who did his art history doctoral thesis on Gellert at CUNY. I sent him what I knew and he eventually wrote back. He says the mural doesn’t look like Gellert. Suggested Phillip Reisman, a WPA artist who used to teach at the Educational Alliance, I found when I looked him up. So, next I contacted a woman who calls herself ” a collector, consultant and writers of the period.” She telephoned me back Saturday morning and gave me instructions to send the photographs I’ve found to her here in New York. We’ll see what happens next.

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The Garden Cafeteria

June 30, 2007

The Garden Dairy Cafeteria was located on the corner of Rutgers and East Broadway from at least 1943, possibly 1941, and there just might have been something on the spot since 1911. The Cafeteria was at the heart of the old Jewish Lower East Side, between the Jewish Daily Forward and the Educational Alliance. The Forward writers would drop by on their way to drop off their stories for the Forward.

Isaac Bashevis Singer certainly spent considerable time there. Leon Trotsky might have stopped by too, and Emma Goldman, while you’re at it, why not Fidel Castro.

The cafeteria lasted right through the neighborhood’s changes, through when Jackson Pollack and Morly were living there and would come by the cafeteria because they didn’t have any money and right through to when it became the Wing Shoon restaurant in the early 80s.

I wish I’d started this earlier, but better late than never. Some of the best parts of this have been the things I fell across by accident in files at the library or books or prowling around downtown. (This all has taken me from the 1890 testimony of a street cleaner to the state senate on why the street are so dirty in which he outlines the exact boundaries of the Hester Street Market to my talk with Bert Feinberg, who ran the cafeteria for 25 years, and would give Morley soup when he came in hungry). So there’ll be some of that to add to the mix here, and a little bit of the progress of the hunt. So now this thing can actually have a purpose, as opposed to just being a random repository of things.

(This big Bashevis Singer collection used to be on the shelves in my living room and was one of those books I used to read over and over again years ago for whatever reason I can’t really fathom at this point. There’s an extent to which I have to admit that most of my image of new york city before I moved here was this odd mashup of Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Bashevis Singer.)

I’m doing this research for a the Place Matters project of an organization on the LES called City Lore.  It’s historical puzzle work, and I love it.

I’m going to have to do this in pieces, I think.

The Educational Alliance
Last Thursday I went down to the Educational Alliance on East Broadway. It’s down the block from the old Garden Cafeteria, part community center, part elders home. It was founded by the first generation of Jewish immigrants, the German wave, as part philanthropy, partly a means to assimilate their Eastern European followers. Shalom Aleichem met Mark Twain here.

I arrived in time for the seniors’ luncheon, pretty much to the confusion of everyone. And here an explanation is warranted. You should know that this project is not as interesting to anyone as it is to me, for whatever reason, this whole thing is fascinating to me because of summer academic withdrawal or whatever boring job I’m compensating for at the moment. And I’m slowly getting over the expectation that anyone I babble on to about it is going to do much more than smile and nod (on good days, I restrain myself entirely). So, in any case, I didn’t totally realize what had happened until I was burning the recording I’d taken to disc later on at the radio station. I had the minidisc playing through the board and in that first minute or so of tape you can hear me ask this question about the Garden with a tone that gives away I’m not sure anyone’s going to actually know what I’m talking about, and then slowly, you can hear the whole table start chattering. The garden. She wants to know about the garden, on east broadway.

So, clearly, if you’re 80, this stuff is fascinating.

Most of what they remembered was pretty fuzzy, but there were pieces in there that were pretty fascinating, a much more vivid picture of these places and characters I’ve been piecing together. Pieces that could have been just composits of characters, or made up all together, like half of this could be.

At this point, I’m the one correcting the Lower East Sider’s on their old haunt….’What was his name, Tolstoy? Tolstoy?

Trotsky?

‘Right, he used to stop by. He was writing for the newspaper upstairs [or the Foward next door].’

(This stuff really is coming from somewhere)

They brought up the son-in-law, Bert Feinberg, the first person that I talked to, with great disapproval. The son-in-law was a gambler. He’s the reason the place went downhill, gambled it all away.

They told me I had to go Gertel’s. By tomorrow, it’s gonna be gone.

So I went by, after we’d talked for a while, and after I’d talked for a while longer with Harold, the amateur historian, who pulled me aside on the way out and spent another quarter hour or so describing the whole Lower East Side back when he was growing up.

Gertel’s is moving to Brooklyn. I walked by these two reminiscing on when you would come back to the Lower East Side to buy your underwear and socks.

Then, walking back to the subway, I had the idea walking by here to try one more shot at the Garden, and poked in to this Judaica shop that’s crammed so full you can only just squeeze through the aisle.

“And that’s how I met Steven Spielberg”
The shop clerk was telling two very impressed older women how this place has been in movies! You know Crossing Delancey? And who was that little guy? Woody Allen!

He remembered the Garden, like everyone does, just as something that was there. He called up his 80 year old clerk to ask if he remembered anything at all, but he only said I needed to find a real old-timer, before his days.