- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 30, 2006

LIFE ON THE LOWER EAST SIDE: PHOTOGRAPHS BY REBECCA LEPKOFF, 1937-1950

By Peter E. Dans and Suzanne Wasserman

Princeton Architectural Press, $40, 192 pages

REVIEWED BY J. ROSS BAUGHMAN

At the dawn of 19th century, the only fresh meat that could be bought in lower Manhattan came from street vendors, in a choreography of hand carts and wagons that ceaselessly roved the neighborhood. By 1841 however, the tastes of the people had changed, and new laws allowed the first butcher shops to open.

That way of working continued across another 100 years, an era preceding grocery stores or refrigeration or even public sanitation. The little cold-water flats that hunched over each storefront, sweltering in summer and numbing in winter, could not hold a family of 10 or more children.

As a result, life spilled irrepressibly out of the tenements and onto the stoops, and to our great fortune, a few wonderful photographs were taken before it was too late for us to see what that life was like. These are not merely records of what a few people looked like, but are instead vital performances of life and human nature.

Two essays in this volume, Rebecca Brody Lepkoff’s first-ever monograph, supply vivid family histories brimming with mealtimes and landmarks around the Five Points dating all the way back to the era when gangs ruled New York.

Mrs. Lepkoff’s gaze fell on that neighborhood that used to stretch between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, and from the Bowery over to the East River. Those familiar with New York today can imagine everything east and northeast of City Hall.

President George Washington didn’t just sleep there, he chose a home in New York at 1 Cherry Street after his first inauguration, an address that no longer exists, but the spot is remembered with a plaque on one footing of the Brooklyn Bridge. The editors of “Life on the Lower East Side” can’t resist pointing out that showmen Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor grew up just around the corner.

Mrs. Lepkoff’s parents came from Minsk in present-day Belarus, and while their life and hers proved sad and difficult, she tried to make it beautiful by studying dance and buying a camera with her first paycheck.

Mrs. Lepkoff saw the few blocks around her home at 343 Cherry Street as a big theater, and no one seemed to mind her taking pictures or very often even notice that she was there. The sweethearts, the rascals and the gossips all traipse across her stage. The butcher, far too dignified, sits still for her camera in the front of his shop. A powerful awareness of architecture pervades each scene, but even in the midst of chipping bricks, peeling billboards and rickety fences, the atmosphere is always supremely humane.

This place served as the way station for every nationality and race of newcomers holding high hopes for America, and each took their turn living there: the Irish, Germans, Italians, Jews, Greeks, Spaniards, Chinese, Puerto Ricans and African Americans.

Mrs. Lepkoff’s world contained scores of sidewalk living rooms, every curb serving as a preschool and the alleyways aflutter with a dozen clotheslines. She picked up her camera to express herself (“What’s not to love about him?”), or to save the little mannerisms of neighbors (“Is that my train, or is that the express?”) all which prove today how subtle and observant she was. She could even be counted on to cover the hometown news (“You should have seen him digging his car out of that snow!”; “We have to get vaccinated! Some tourist from Mexico died from smallpox”; “Look at the size of those logs they just delivered.”)

Mrs. Lepkoff joined the Photo League where teachers and guest speakers included the giants of photography such as Lewis Hine, Paul Strand, Berenice Abbot and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

The subtext of the book, however, is loss and the decay of golden days. During the 13 years covered by Mrs. Lepkoff, we notice several urban corners sliding into disrepair. Perhaps this impression comes from the wise, emotional but non-chronological pacing of her pictures in this book, carefully assembled to evoke a bittersweet taste.

Any art director from Hollywood could only pray for the detail and inspiration contained in Lepkoff’s pictures. Anyone who recalls Don Corleone choosing the best fruit will swear it must have been stolen from Lepkoff’s way of seeing.

Mrs. Lepkoff’s chronicle came to an end when she became a mother in 1950 and new demands took up her passion. The Photo League, which had been such an important, inspiring and nurturing influence, happened to close the next year.

But most dramatically, her neighborhood disappeared, reduced in 1950 to layers of brick dust beneath the giant Alfred E. Smith housing project. The book thoughtfully includes a detailed street map to show many of the charming, helter-skelter city streets that dated back to Peter Stuyvesant and the colonial Dutch and that no longer exist.

It adds to the public fortune that some of her work resides in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and has also been shown to her fellow New Yorkers through shows in the International Center of Photography and the New York Public Library.

J. Ross Baughman is the director of photography at The Washington Times and a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist.

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