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Wasn’t It Grand?

Photo show marks the transformation of the Lower East Side.


Suffolk and Delancey Streets in 1934.  

H ilda Lederfajn was born on the Lower East Side the same year the Art Deco Amalgamated Dwellings on Grand Street were completed, in 1930, and has lived there ever since. The Dwellings, with a Parisian-style courtyard and airy apartments, were built by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union on the site of an old printing plant. Lederfajn remembers wishing she lived there, thinking, Oh, what beautiful buildings! compared with the 6th Street tenement that she called home. The apartments were harbingers of change in the area then teeming with Jewish immigrants. New York City’s Regional Plan of 1929 targeted swaths of the Lower East Side, for “slum clearance,” to erect “super-block” buildings that would attract a better class of residents, so that “the rich could live close to the financial district.”

The Great Depression delayed the area’s transformation, but a young student at the Graduate School for Jewish Social Work, J. B. Lightman, saw that the old neighborhood wasn’t going to stay like it was forever. He got a commission to photograph the Lower East Side of 1934, depicting the obsolescence of “Jewish communal life, activities, and endeavor, a record of which would someday be a matter of historical importance.” Postwar, big sections of the Lower East Side were cleared of tenements, notably around Grand Street, which is now home to the middle-class housing towers of Coop Village, where Lederfajn has lived for 50 years. The American Jewish Historical Society commissioned photographer Henri Silberman to shoot the same locations of the present-day LES, which thanks to the real-estate boom is now becoming the luxury residential zone planned back in 1929. The society is juxtaposing these images with Lightman’s for its just-opened exhibit, “The Lower East Side: ’34.”

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