Posts Tagged ‘LES history’

Broken remains of a Norfolk Street synagogue

September 12, 2013

NorfolkstreetsynagogueThe once-spectatular, now rundown building at 60 Norfolk Street started out in 1848 as the Norfolk Street Baptist Church.

It still has all the wonderful Gothic Revival touches of a mid-19th century church: arched windows, four-leaf tracery, and a high, vaulted nave inside.

Ten years later the church moved out, following its well-to-do members uptown as the neighborhood became an enclave of poorer immigrants.

Norfolkstreetsynagogue1900sA Methodist church took it over until 1885, when Orthodox Jewish congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagadol bought it for $45,000—and stayed for 122 years.

Founded by immigrants, Beth Hamedrash Hagadol was “the oldest Orthodox congregation of Russian Jews in the United States,” states

The congregation made some cosmetic changes so the place looked more like a synagogue.

“The new owners added a Jewish star to the roof and reconfigured the altar area to become a bima, but otherwise left the plain Gothic church intact,” says Inside the Apple.

In its day, thousands of Lower East Side residents worshipped here. But you know the story: the neighborhood changed, residents moved or died, and the congregation dwindled.


Designated a city landmark in 1967, Beth Hamedrash Hagadol leaders closed the synagogue in 2007.

Since then, time and harsh weather have taken their toll. Windows are blown out, moldings have chipped, plaster falls, and overgrown brush block the entrance and give an eerie, abandoned feel.


Last year, the congregation asked the landmarks commission for permission to tear down the synagogue and  sell the land to developers.

That request is on hold. In a city that loves its past, it’s surprising money can’t be found to turn around this historic bit of the Lower East Side.

[Second photo, about 1900: Wikipedia; Third photo, Wikipedia]

When the Lower East Side was “Poverty Hollow”

February 9, 2011

It sounds like a desperately poor place in Appalachia.

But news articles from the early 1900s refer to a pocket of the Lower East Side as Poverty Hollow.

“Poverty Hollow, down by the East River, has a mayor and a cabinet to settle all disputes,” states a New York Times headline from 1910.

The article, about the small-time thugs who appointed themselves in charge of the area, put Poverty Hollow’s boundaries in kind of a triangle formed by Corlears Hook Park, Clinton Street, and Delancey Street.

And in a patronizing 1905 feature from the Times, a writer promised snippets of “life as it is lived by the denizens of one of the most picturesque portions of the lowlier sections of this great city.”

I’m not sure when the Poverty Hollow moniker fell out of use. At the same time the area was also known as “The Ghetto,” thanks to all the Jewish immigrants (in the above 1903 photo, from the NYPL Digital Collection).

But at some point, both names were swallowed up by the all-encompassing Lower East Side.