House of Sages. Photo by Vivienne Gucwa

In the very first version of Julius, the magazine was supposed to be a lament of how the socially-progressive Lower Eastside—home to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—had gentrified so much that it now catered to the one percent and had pushed out the 99 percent. The story has changed since that first draft, but the Lower Eastside still has a large role in the story…and that’s all I’m saying.

I’ve always been intrigued by the Lower Eastside. When I moved back to New York after 15 years in California, I settled in NoLita and later the West Village, but where I really wanted to live was on the LES. I’m cheating here, but I’m repeating an essay I wrote about seven years ago that I never submitted because I was a coward and didn’t think it was very good (I never think their very good even after thousands of edits). It’s about the time I lived on East Broadway and about one of my neighbors: The House of Sages.


The House of Sages

A recent real estate section feature about the Lower East Side included a sidebar of buildings currently on the market. As I skimmed the listings, I saw the apartment building where I used to live – the asking price: $2.2 million.

For three years I lived at 279 East Broadway, a former tenement that had been gutted into four large, full-floor apartments, each measuring 1000 square feet. In a poor Jewish Orthodox neighborhood, it was one of the first buildings in the area that had been handsomely transformed. My first year there I sublet the third floor for a whopping $2,500 a month (paid in cash). During the second and third years, the rent was dropped to $1,800. My landlord, a colorful and well-known tattoo artist, told my partner and me that we were getting a deal because we were good tenants. The second floor apartment, he told us, went for $4,000 a month.

My building had two prestigious neighbors. On one side stood a Federalist-style townhouse, which housed the administrative offices of the Henry Street Settlement. Next door was an unattractive nondescript building that suffered from the ravages of harsh winters and summers, disrepairs, and a neglectful owner. On the scratched-up metal black door of that ugly tenement was a small grated window and beneath it was a plaque that stated: The House of Sages, Agudas Anshei Mamod Ubeis Vead Lachachomim, founded in 1922.

Every morning when I walked my two terriers, I always noticed a group of elderly bearded men in black hats and long black coats scurry into the mysterious entrance. A guidebook said it was an institution for prayer and study for retired rabbis. I assumed that this gathering was a Minyan, a prayer group of ten men. The door briefly opened and I tried to see what lay beyond, but it was always slammed making it clear that it was none of my business what went on behind closed doors.

When I greeted these solemn men during these morning strolls, my “Good morning” was never returned. Instead, I received a nervous glance directed at the dogs. Not uttering a word or even a nod of acknowledgement, they’d enter their exclusive and holy sanctum, and slam the door.  Not able to exchange a pleasantry, let alone engage them in a conversation, I made up stories about them, especially the eldest in the group, who appeared to be in his 80s and whose face looked as if it had been bashed in.

“Do you think he’s a survivor?” I asked my partner late one Saturday afternoon.

“Looks like a rifle butt came down hard on his face.”

“Hmm. . . if he’s a survivor it would make sense why he’s afraid of dogs,” I said.

“Possibly or maybe he thinks they’re trayf because they whizz ten steps away from their door,” he said.

Or I wondered, perhaps I’m the one they considered trayf. I thought about this for sometime. After all, I was an outsider–a half-shiksa raised by a Catholic mother and  a Jewish father among the Wasps of Westchester County.

One afternoon returning from a walk, I saw the men in their tailored long black coats, all wearing fur hats. They were oblivious to the traffic, focused on their discussion. As I observed from across the street, photos from Roman Visniac’s A Lost World flashed to my mind. Sadly, I realized that one day their world would be gone too and the House of Sages would fall prey to a developer. The eyesore of a building would be renovated, its façade prettied up to fit the aesthetic standards of gentrification.

As I went toward my building’s Brazilian tiled entrance, I caught the eye of my survivor. Not expecting him to respond in any manner, I smiled in his direction. Perhaps he sensed my mood or maybe because I had become a fixture on the block, he finally nodded his head in greeting.

Three months after September 11th, my partner, the terriers and I moved upstate to a twelve room Victorian house on fourteen acres where our dogs freely roamed. I missed the morning walks past the old Daily Forward building, Sunday bagels at Kossar’s, trekking to Chinatown for dim sum, and making unexpected discoveries like stumbling across the long-forgotten Sheriff Street where Ethel Rosenberg had lived as a young girl.

After two years of living like landed gentry, acquiring a third dog, and fed up with the never-ending snow,  we yearned to move back to the Lower East Side. But our neighborhood had changed. Old Jewish mainstays like Ratner’s had closed. The old Daily Forward Building, now converted into a 39-unit apartment building, was up for sale for $20 million. Orchard Street, the place to go for affordable clothing and leather goods, was clogged with expensive boutiques like Skella, which sold $90 t-shirts and $4,500 evening dresses. Goulash and dumplings were replaced by American nouveau cuisine, and the ubiquitous Keith MacNally had, like my dogs before him, marked his spot with Schiller’s Liquor Bar.

Returning to East Broadway in 2006, I parked the car near my former apartment building. I was greeted by a huge blue Corcoran sign posted on the side of our old home. The building was up for sale. What ungodly price would it command? I wondered what happened to the House of Sages. When I turned the corner and got to the ugly building with its small grated window, I saw that it was the same with the exception of the door; it had been freshly painted black. Perhaps that was the Sages’ nod to gentrification.