On the Cusp of Change: Rebecca Lepkoff takes you back to the Lower East Side of the ’40s

Cover of “Life on the Lower East Side” Photographs by Rebecca Lepkoff, 1937-1950. Text by Peter E. Dans and Suzanne Wasserman. Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2006.

From November 11, 2012, till January 4, 2013, you can go back in time and see what it was like to live in Manhattan’s Lower East Side during the ’40s—thanks to photographer Rebecca Lepkoff and the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy.

“On the Cusp of Change: The LES, 1935-1975”—an exhibit of Lepkoff’s photographs—is held at the conservancy’s Visitor Center at 400 Grand Street in Manhattan.

I found out about the exhibit recently when I reached out to Ms. Lepkoff to express my gratitude her for book, Life on the Lower East Side, which I drew heavily on as a research source for Mantis. In it, she brilliantly captured life on the Lower East Side during the middle of the last century—a place where, as her camera reveals, pushcarts full of fruit and vegetables crowded the streets, kids of every background played catch, shoe shine boys and butchers and cobblers plied their trades, laundry hung in wide festoons and seagulls flocked fish market stalls.

I should add that the exhibit was originally scheduled to open a week earlier on the 4th of November, but was postponed due to Hurricane Sandy. Fortunately the Conservancy was able to open the exhibit this week. It’s a piece of good news for a part of the world where so many suffered tragic losses. My thoughts are with them and with all who are still struggling to recover their lives.

I encourage anyone interested in Manhattan’s history or photography to attend the exhibit and view this artist’s beautiful work. Below is a short interview with Lepkoff—produced by Jim Epstein—that features some of her startling duotones.

*The Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy accepts donations which support their ability to preserve and honor the Lower East Side’s history, as they are doing with Lepkoff’s exhibit. (Please check their website for information on how to donate.)

And now a brief excerpt from Mantis inspired by Lepkoff’s work. Here the hero, Lucas, wakes up in the new home he inherited from his father, and heads out into an area of the Lower East Side between the Manhattan Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge, now buried by a housing development, but fortunately preserved in Lepkoff’s photos as it would have appeared then.

Light. Cold air. Faraway voices. The clatter of a wheel over cobblestones. I open my eyes. I’m in a small sunlit room with an old radio on the floor, a chair, a coffee table, a standing lamp. I have no idea where I am. My legs hang over the arm of a couch. I’ve woken up inside a dream. This is what I think until I see the sketch of a giant man with one ear and realize where I am, that this dream is my new reality.

I look at my watch, my dad’s watch. Six thirty. I don’t know what time Olivia gets to the office, but I want to speak to her as soon as possible. I want to know what she knows and I want to get on the trail of the Beast while it’s still warm.

In my dad’s bedroom I pull out a toiletry case and a shopping bag from Ohrbach’s that I saw in the armoire last night. There are some new clothes in the bag, including a few plain white undershirts, some underwear—Jockey shorts—and socks. Good.

In the bathroom I wash up as best I can at the sink and then with a straight razor I attempt a quick shave. I manage to remove most of my stubble but my face is a bloody mess. Once I’m dressed I fold the contents of my father’s file folder and stuff them inside my jacket, lock up and rush downstairs, out into a street that barely resembles the street from last night. People are everywhere—men in work clothes spill out of the facades, lunch boxes in hand, women wearing kerchiefs lean out of windows talking to each other, and ragamuffin children sit on stoops and fire escape landings. No thin man in a black suit.

The smell of fish is thick in the air as I march down the street, shivering against the morning chill. People look at me, tilt their heads. I’m a stranger in the neighborhood, but somehow vaguely familiar. There’s a pushcart at the curb selling bags of pistachios, Hershey’s Kisses, fruit, bagels, pickles in a barrel. I haven’t eaten since 2012 but I’ve got no appetite. I hurry around the corner past a fenced-in lot, a razed tenement, where a pack of dogs scurries around in rubble and litter. At the end of the lot there’s a stretch of hoarding plastered with movie posters, Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Joan Crawford. Just beyond that, I find a set of steps that take me down into a subway station.


Finding a home in Manhattan 1940

A current view of a street ‘between the bridges’ near Lucas’s 1940 apartment

Finding my hero a home in Manhattan 1940 became a little bit of an obsession for me. I had a sense of it in my head—more my gut—a gritty tenement somewhere, a street where footsteps echo loudly, with dark alleys nearby, a railroad floor plan, a rickety floor…. There had to be thousands of these places in Manhattan back then, but where? Where exactly would my hero lay his head once he slipped through time, from 2012 to a New York decades before gentrification transformed large swaths of the island?

I would spend many hours on a few research trips to NYC hunting Lower Manhattan—circling the blocks around Greenwich Village, SoHo, Tompkins Square Park, the Williamsburg Bridge, trying to conjure up what they might have looked like decades earlier and praying that my instincts would tell me I was getting warmer, closer to something I could only vaguely identify as a feeling I expected to get. But that feeling never hit me, until—on a later trip—I trekked through the neighborhoods between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges. That’s when I felt that pull inside me, that rush that told me Lucas’s home would have been here—but here was no longer there. Here—in 2011 as I researched the book—stood the Governor Alfred E. Smith Houses, a public housing project built in the 50s. But still, somehow, I felt strongly that Lucas, and his father Lorne before him, would have lived in this neighbourhood.

I badly wanted, needed, to know what the area looked like, smelled like, who lived in it—before the development. On foot, I started to scour used bookstores—dragging along my very patient girlfriend. After ransacking many a dusty shelf, I hit the jackpot on a bottom shelf in Alabaster Bookshop. The find: Life on the Lower East Side: Photographs By Rebecca Lepkoff, 1937-1950. Lepkoff, a brilliant young photographer at the time, made it a personal project to capture life in the area between the bridges. The book contains more than a hundred duotone photos—tenements festooned with laundry, razed lots surrounded by hoarding, laborers with grappling hooks, men hiding in the shadows under the El (now dismantled), seagulls swarming crates by the nearby Fulton Street Fish Market (now moved to the Bronx).

Lepkoff’s work was the key to finding Lucas’s home. As an homage, I named one of my characters after her.

I ended up locating Lucas’s home on the third floor of a cold-water flat on Olson Street, a fictitious street in the neighborhood now buried by the housing project.

Below is a brief excerpt from Mantis—when Lucas comes upon the street where he finds the home he is to inherit from his father:

I’m hoping the neighborhoods will improve as I get nearer Olson, but they don’t, and when I turn onto my father’s street, a narrow cobblestone road flanked by shabby tenements, my throat thickens. I can barely process the thought of my father living in this area, an area so decrepit that the city will soon tear it down, just like the blocks of gas tanks, to make room for a housing development. Did he not make any money working for Kay? Is this the best he could do? I touch his keys again and search the buildings for a number. The odds are on the south side, and his building must be midway down the block.

Slowly I cross the street, a street that reeks of putrid garbage as much as any I’ve walked along tonight. As I step onto the sidewalk, a geyser of steam whooshes out of a nearby manhole. Afterward, there’s an eerie silence, just my footsteps and the faint thump of cars on the bridges a few blocks either side of me. Some windows are lit, but not many, and I see nobody around.

I’m a couple of buildings away from my father’s when I detect another set of footsteps from somewhere behind me, just barely out of synch with mine. I turn, but see no one. I stand and wait, my eyes probing the bands of darkness between the reaches of the street lamps. I scan tenement facades on both sides of the street, searching doorways, every crevice within view. I start to stamp my heels on the sidewalk, mimicking the sound of me walking again. Within seconds, my eye catches on some movement, a shift of darkness under an archway across the street, a few apartment buildings down. I squint to get a better look and feel a sudden jolt when I detect a sliver of a dark jacket and the tip of a hat brim.