Over forty years ago a friend and I travelled weekly from Washington Heights to work with a new reform Democratic club on the Lower East Side. My commitment to a very concrete and practical political activity was a big change from taking part in civil rights and peace demonstrations and marches. The political club consisted of a mélange of smart, ambitious reform lawyers, Midwestern WASP émigrés looking to find their footing in the city, Old Left activists who spent most of their waking lives involved in politics, and a few intellectuals and writers (black and white) who were generally radical, but too idiosyncratic and insufficiently fervent to be sectarian. We were attempting to unseat the old–line, boss—and patronage-driven Democratic machine—one of whose rising stars was a tall, skull-capped young man, who became the ever-droning New York State Assembly Speaker and political operator deluxe: Sheldon Silver.
We never won any local elections during those years—the political machine was just too entrenched in the well-organized Jewish working and lower-middle class and much smaller Orthodox Jewish communities (the latter are the dominant Jewish group on the Lower East Side today) who resided mainly in the neighbourhood’s many union cooperatives. (The Hispanic population was much more politically passive then.) But we felt that we were doing useful work by canvassing apartments, calling up prospective voters, and manning sound trucks—establishing the groundwork for a political victory some time in the future. The reform club’s headquarters were on East Broadway, across the street from an old-time cafeteria—the Garden— that was close to the then Forward Building. It was where we restored ourselves after meetings, eating late suppers, arguing politics, and mapping strategy.
Cafeterias were a part of my Bronx adolescence—they were inexpensive, decent places to take a date after a movie. They tended to be vast, noisy spaces where large portions of home cooked brisket, matzoth ball soup, onion rolls, latkes, kreplach, borscht with sour cream, and kasha were served for very affordable prices. In the Bronx cafeterias, first and second-generation Jewish garment workers, cabbies, bookies, leftists, and solitaries would not only have their meals but also sit late into the night with a coffee and a Danish, turning the place into a home away from home. The cafeterias served as refuges and communal gathering spots for their regular customers. The cafeteria I would have liked to inhabit was the legendary Waldorf in late 40s Greenwich Village where abstract painters like Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Philip Pavia would pull up chairs and nurse nickel cups of coffee and argue about art into the small hours. When the Waldorf chased out those then indigent, passionately arguing painters by raising the price of coffee to a dime, they found a rented loft at 39 East Eighth Street and established “The Club”— where they met, more formally discussed painting and poetry, danced, and shaped Abstract Expressionism.
But what moves me to return to memories of the Garden Cafeteria, which is now, predictably, a Chinese restaurant, is an exhibit, Isaac Bashevis Singer and The Lower East Side, of Bruce Davidson photographs running until Feb. 3 at the Jewish Museum (1109 Fifth Avenue). The exhibit centres on the great Yiddish-writer and Nobel Laureate, Isaac Bashevis Singer (e.g., Enemies, The Spinoza of Market Street), but also includes photos selected from Davidson’s portfolio of the Garden Cafeteria where Singer was a regular customer. Davidson is a documentary photographer who over the years has produced books of striking realist photos of Brooklyn gang members, passengers on graffiti-ridden subways, and the people living on an East Harlem block.
The Garden Cafeteria was opened in 1911, part hangout, part salon, famous for its hospitality to radical political activists (Emma Goldman and Leon Trotsky are said to have eaten there) and also to the journalists who wrote about them. It was also then part of a Yiddish-newspaper row, which is what brought Singer down from the Upper West Side where he lived, to deliver his stories to the Forward and then stop at the Garden (a place he would call his “second home”) to talk to his readers and to other Yiddish writers. Cafeterias for Singer were, according to Davidson, what bars are for Hemingway,” and he even set a story of his at the Garden, The Cabalist of East Broadway.
Davidson’s black and white photos of the Garden Cafeteria in the early 70s capture, in close-up, people who look like the despairing, lonely old man in Hemingway’s short story, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, who finds momentary solace in the illuminated café at night. Davidson’s Garden world consists of isolated older men and women, barely aware that there are other people in the room. They wear hats, caps, and kerchiefs, and often tattered clothes, they sip coffee, and look disconsolate. But they at least had the Garden as a temporary haven.
For Davidson, the people in his photographs were “remnants of a past age” —of a Jewish milieu that was fast disappearing. For me, their faces invoke memories of my forties’ Bronx urbanscape where poor and working class Jews represented a large portion of the population.
By 1983 the Yiddish speaking intelligentsia had begun to die off, and at the same time fewer poor Jews remained on the Lower East Side, so the Garden closed. And with it vanished a world that can now only be experienced in exhibits like the Jewish Museum’s.