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Lower Insider

A walking tour of the fast-disappearing Lower East Side with its unlikeliest chronicler.

To civic boosters, it’s the rejuvenated haven, once slum, known as the Lower East Side. To Clayton Patterson, on a bitter winter day, it’s a frigid burial ground.

Patterson, the unlikeliest chronicler of Jewish life on the Lower East Side, is strolling to the Chinese-run Shop Smart on Ludlow Street for groceries. On the way he conducts an off-the-cuff walking tour.

“This used to be Bella’s Fabrics,” he says, nudging an elbow at the polished women’s boutique Lindsey Thornburg near the corner of Stanton and Essex streets.

Down the street, Patterson, whose multi-volume history of the neighborhood, “Jews: A People’s History of the Lower East Side,” was self-published a couple of years ago, pauses at a posh all-natural cosmetics store.

“This? This was the pillow guy,” he says. “Nah, don’t remember the name. Just the pillow guy.”

Around a corner he points to a gourmet deli on Rivington Street. “That was the Big-and-Tall shop.”

On it goes. Inside a three- or four-square-block radius surrounding his Essex Street home, Patterson unspools a roll call of the retail-wholesale dead, drawn from the American past’s most vibrant pool of Jewish-owned small business.

The candy store turned another fashion box. The furniture store, the paper outlet, Schapiro’s winery, the First Roumanian-American Congregation, gone. Spitzer’s clothier now a trendy bar, named, what else, Spitzer’s.

Patterson nods at a sleek glass tower, one of a host of new structures transforming the face of the antiquated brick-shelled, six-story walkup district.

“That’s Persian Jews doing that,” he comments. “They got money. That’s the new generation.”

Coming up to Houston Street, Patterson peruses the fanciful neighborhood map painted on a wall of Katz’s Deli. Depicted are extinct shmatte stores and equally dead onetime alternative culture hot spots like Max Fish. One colored square frames the single name “Clayton.”

“I’m the last dog standing,” he chuckles.

All is not utterly bleak. Extending the tour, though not without the occasional caveat, Patterson might guide visitors to other remnant commercial food sources like Yonah Schimmel’s knishery or Russ & Daughters appetizing. Or the multi-service giants Educational Alliance and Henry Street Settlement. Or the renascent Stanton Street and Bialystoker synagogues, the latter with its glowing depiction of the zodiac.

An emigrant from Calgary with a nebulous Protestant background, Patterson is one goy who knows the Jewish side of the Lower East Side. His meandering history, which he edited, is contemporary Judaica’s best-kept secret. Published under the imprint of Clayton Books, with a print run totaling 500, the massive three-volume anthology embraces about 160 entries from scores of both marquee and almost-famous writers, including Patterson himself.

Dedicated to the themes of “loss and change,” it takes up where Irving Howe’s canonical “World of Our Fathers” leaves off, coursing from the 19th-century cold-water flats of immigrant Russian hordes to the gentrified and artistic downtown hub of today. Shamelessly idiosyncratic and squarely authoritative, it tells you everything you wanted to know (and then some) about the minutiae of pushcart socioeconomics and also about the comic travails of some brilliant but culturally obscure poet you might run into tomorrow on Ludlow Street.

Why did he do it?

Says Patterson: “I know interesting people who happen to be Jewish.”

Praised by area politicians and esteemed professors of Jewish studies, the Gibbons-esque epic makes stops at vanished upscale steam rooms, the Jewish Daily Forward in its heyday, Murder Inc., Emma Goldman, the Garden Cafeteria, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, as well as locations significant to rival movements in Yiddish theater and poetry, the sage of letters Lionel Ziprin, Jewish cartooning, Jewish tattooing and Forsythe Street’s biggest heroin den.

The work’s preface, composed by Patterson and Mareleyn Schneider, his co-editor for Volume I, declares its premise: “to record memories of the lost world when New York City’s Lower East Side was bustling with Jews, synagogues, Jewish culture and Jewish stores.”

Overall, the collection reads less darkly unhopeful than the musings of Patterson himself.

Whatever people say of Clayton Patterson (righteous gentile? self-aggrandizing bomb thrower?), he’s nobody’s conventional idea of a Judaic anthologist. His gray beard weaves down hard in a wispy queue. At 66, he still leans toward the timelessly bohemian all-black look, with generous touches of leather, topped by a broad-billed cap of his own design. The look is Hell’s Angel meets urban guerilla dandy.

With his accustomed candor, Patterson says: “No one but me could have done it.”

Nevertheless, when the project began in 2005, he delegated much of the editing and indexing duties to Monica Uszerowicz and Kenny Petricig, younger editors well versed in the subject matter.

After the anthology’s launch with a flurry of local public readings, such as one at the big ballroom of the Angel Orensanz Center, Patterson says that sales have been steady but low; he doesn’t collect exact numbers. The sales are mostly confined to Amazon.com’s online order list, with some copies available at the St. Mark’s Bookstore and the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street.

“Jews” follows Patterson’s broader-focused 2005 anthology on the the Lower East Side, “Captured,” which inspired a film documentary of the same title.

Patterson’s official calling card is his design business, Clayton’s Caps, whose motifs of skull-and-bones, roses and birds have earned them high fashion status. But even more pronounced is his standing as the Lower’s East Side still photo and video chronicler (claiming 2,500 hours of raw footage of local streets and their denizens), village griot and de facto ambassador to the outside world.

Patterson’s one true moment of wider fame, unleashing national headlines and landing him a spot on the Oprah Winfrey show, came in the 1988 clash between police and protestors in the East Village’s Tompkins Square Park. Presaging the age of ubiquitous cellphone and surveillance camera scrutiny, Patterson, joined by his life companion Elsa Rensaa, documented by video incriminating scenes of police brutality.

He has also thrown in on Jewish local causes, such as the ultimately thwarted campaign to save the Eighth Street Shul.

Playing countercultural art broker, over the course of 36 years Patterson has opened his Essex Street home and workspace to the Outlaw Art Museum. Above his door is the Hebrew alphabet painted by chasidic artist Efroim Schnyder.

Patterson sees the old Lower East Side not only as a clamorous, poverty-riddled slum, but also as a thriving mecca of “rabbis and artists.” Its historical end, he says, was not just the much-touted testament to Jews’ gift for social mobility but also a “great brain drain.”

“The grandkids settle into a mediocrity,” he mocks. “They become plastic surgeons.”

“The cheap rents have been given up to the gentry,” he says. “The individual character is gone.”

He creates a verbal map of the neighborhood, whose topography is reflected in the organization of the anthology’s three volumes.

“Between Delancey and Houston is the business sections,” he points out. “It’s where you find the artists. Below Delancey it’s the conservative and traditional middle class.” It’s a demarcation rife with longtime implications for residents and their supporting institutions, often to the detriment of those north of the Delancey Street line.

Months ago Patterson and the Norwegian-born Rensaa announced they were abandoning New York for Austria, a prospect with so many end-of-an-era overtones that even The New York Times devoted a front-page Sunday Styles section to the announcement and its ramifications. (The couple have held on to their Essex Street digs, dividing their time between New York and the alpine town of Bad Ischl.)

Dorothy Friedman-August, who contributed to Patterson’s tome, sees Patterson’s non-Jewish status as irrelevant to his work’s achievement.

“Clayton has something else,” she says. “He’s a radical. He gets the diversity, the class wars of the Lower East Side. He gives life and blood to the Lower East Side.”

A native Lower East Sider whose own artistic and scholarly work focuses on the neighborhood, Jeffrey Wengrofsky offers a critically nuanced view, suggesting that Patterson’s “people’s history” may be a little too personal for its own good.

“It’s sloppy history,” says the documentary filmmaker and adjunct professor of history at New York University. “There’s an overall lack of editing, too many typos, a lot of poor grammar.”

He cited what he called crucial omissions: immigration restrictions early in the 20th century, the origins of B’nai B’rith and Yeshiva University, the absence of important rabbinical and political figures.

But, on balance, he says, “I’m glad the books came out. There are some tasty nuggets. It fills a lot of gaps.”

Groceries in hand, Patterson takes a break at the Davidovich kosher bagel stall, in a small corner of the refurbished Essex Street Markets. After returning a first cup of coffee (too cold), he sits down to a sesame bagel with a cream cheese shmear.

“I don’t know how kosher the bagel is,” he says. “But it isn’t bad.”

* * *

Lower East Side, Then And Now

The following is an except from Bonny Finberg’s “Three Kings and Uncle Charlie,” from Clayton Patterson’s “Jews: A People’s History of the Lower East Side.”

I live on the sixth floor of a corner building on Stanton between Allen and Orchard. I’m sitting in the dark looking down Orchard Street, which is strung with white holiday lights. I’m listening to Dave Tarras playing a bulgar — what my mother called a “freilach” — which translates as “joy.” I’m imagining that behind all the windows are Jews. Their houses smell, like my grandmother’s did, of boiling chicken and fart.

There are a lot of people talking over one another, either laughing or arguing. Or there’s dead silence. Maybe a victrola (small ‘v’) is playing this music. I’m thinking that no matter who lives in those apartments now, this loud laughter, argument, or silence prevails in the layers of paint and wallpaper quietly disintegrating beneath sheet-rocked walls, the ripped-up linoleum, probably rotting in the deepest layers of a Staten Island landfill.

editor@jewishweek.org

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