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Clayton Patterson on His Epic People’s History of the Lower East Side - The Local East Village Blog - NYTimes.com


Clayton Patterson on His Epic People’s History of the Lower East Side


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Since 2007, Clayton Patterson, the photographer, documentarian and gallery owner who is the subject of the film “Captured,” has been collecting essays for an anthology, “Jews: A People’s History of the Lower East Side.” Earlier this week, he launched a Kickstarter campaign to get the book published –  with 57 days to go, his promotional video (which you can see above) has raised almost $2,500. We spoke to Mr. Patterson about the project, which he says currently totals 160 essays and 1,500 manuscript pages. In case you’re curious to see which East Village and Lower East Side luminaries will be featured, we’ve posted the table of contents below. 

Q.

How did this project get its start?

A.

It started at Danny Stein’s kitchen table on Grand Street. He’s a local photographer who photographed the Orthodox community. Dr. Mareleyn Schneider, the sociology professor at Yeshiva, was there and we talked about a Lower East Side Jewish history book. Mareleyn and I both worked on the first volume. Her part focuses on the Orthodox community – the courts around where Seward Park is now. She grew up near Bialystoker Synagogue and was loved in that community. Volumes 2 and 3 are much more my concentration – it has Emma Goldman, the music scene, the poetry scene.

Q.

Are you Jewish yourself?

A.

No, but I was involved in saving the 8th Street Shul, the last Orthodox synagogue in the Lower East Side. I have all this documentation of the last place for Orthodoxy in Alphabet City, which used to have a synagogue on every block – sometimes two.

Q.

When you first conceived this, who were some of the people you had to get for it?

A.

Boris Lurie was in his 80s at the time – he was a Holocaust survivor. Boris and his father went through all these work camps. He started NO!art, which I’m considered the western front of. A lot of his art pertained to the angst and experience of the Holocaust, so it’s very powerful, emotional, and disturbing. I gave Boris his first show in thirty years in New York City – he’s one of the most important artists in the 20th century.

Then there’s Lionel Ziprin – a lot of people think he was the most eminent poet of the Lower East Side – much bigger than Ginsberg. He had a studio in late 60s called Ink Weed Arts, where people like Harry Smith, the musicologist, worked. He’s the genius behind Harry Smith’s knowledge. I had documented Lionel by videotape reading a number of his books, so it was important to have him in there. Then there’s Allen Ginsberg; Frank London, who was instrumental in making klezmer music popular again; then of course there were a number of people that played at CBGB – Chris Stein from Blondie, Handsome Dick [Manitoba] from the Dictators.

Q.

Who are the biggest unsung heroes or forgotten artists in this book?

A.

One of them is Ira Cohen, the poet-photographer. Instead of going between San Francisco and New York, he went to Nepal, and then India and Morocco. By leaving the scene (even though he published little booklets and things in these places, because he had the opportunity to publish for cheap) he missed out on being in the right place at right time, so he was never part of the Beat movement per se.

Q.

What do you think about the state of Judaism in the neighborhood today.

A.

There’s a major winding down of the ethnic identity of Jews on the Lower East Side – the Romanian synagogue has been torn down; there are no synagogues left in Alphabet City; north of Delancey, there’s still a small operating synagogue on Stanton, and one on Norfolk just below Houston; there’s a battle about landmarking the one on Sixth Street; and there’s the Community Synagogue as well; and that’s the end of it. There’s so little left of the Orthodox community, and yet you have to remember that a lot of the union movement, and housing movement started with the Jews down here.

Q.

So who’s keeping the spirit alive these days?

A.

There are people like John Zorn with Tzadik records. (He screamed at me on the phone: “Why are you bothering me!” Well, because you’re important!) But there’s not a lot. It really is a disintegrating community in terms of having a visible presence. When you start losing the bakeries, shops, and restaurants (Ratner’s, Bernstein’s) – these places were famous. If a tourist came to town now and said, “Show me the Jewish establishments,” you could say the Eldridge Street Synagogue and the yeshiva on East Broadway – but look at Bialystoker, they’re trying to save that. That’s one more nail being pulled out of the last remaining structure of the Jewish presence on the Lower East Side.

Q.

What writers did you secure who were just perfect for their subject?

A.

Osha Neumann was the stepson of Marcuse, the great sociologist from the 60s. He was the black sheep of this serious German intellectual family, and he came down here and got involved with the radical group with the unprintable name. Then there’s a piece about the beginning of the Rainbow Gatherings, where these hippies would go into government parkland. A couple people from the East Village were instrumental in starting that whole thing, and I got them to write about their own history.

Table of Contents: Volume 1

Table of Contents: Volumes 2 and 3