By Nicole Gartside
Willy Katz wouldn’t recognize what New Yorkers now know as the Lower East Side. It wouldn’t be the same collection of warehouses that Aron Streit found himself in back in 1916. Katz, founder of the famous Katz’s Delicatessen, and Streit, founder of Streit’s Matzos, would remember their neighborhood as a center for Jewish families, with theaters and delis on every block. But now, in its place has sprouted health food stores, a handful of subway stops and even a New York University dorm.
Even as the neighborhood as quite literally changed around them, these two companies have stood their ground, representing the “old New York.” New York University, founded in 1831, used to be a part of this old New York as well. Though originally contained to the Washington Square Park area, NYU has dug its roots deep into the city and expanded as it’s aged, establishing its presence in the Lower East Side with the building of a dormitory; Lafayette Residence Hall.
Though all three establishments have called this city home for longer than most of its living residents, the city hasn’t always been so kind to them. Katz’s Deli has oftentimes struggled to keep up in the ever-changing environment. During the deli’s younger years, everyone from school children to performers would frequent the place. “Delis were just where you ate,” says manager Jake Dell of the store’s opening back in 1888. “’Deli’ has meant something different to every generation.” Best known in the neighborhood for its pastrami sandwiches and salami, this deli has kept its flavors unchanged since the deli first opened. But even as a Lower East Side staple, Katz’s has been through its share of low points as the neighborhood has advanced around it.
Streit’s Matzo has also adhered to the same business ideals of Katz’s: if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Streit’s has been making matzo from the same two ovens housed in its factory for nearly 100 years. Alan Adler, Streit’s Chief Operating Officer, remembers making matzo in the factory with his family at eight years old. “Nothing’s changed,” he says of the process. But for a place like Streit’s Matzo, the changing world hasn’t altered business for them at all. In fact, it’s been even more difficult for this “Mom and Pop” company to keep up with demand. He says that their factory, which runs almost exactly the same way as it did back in the 1920’s, sells everything it makes. “There are people who remember the pink box sitting on their table as kids,” he says of the nostalgia that keeps Streiz’s customers coming back.
Streit’s has learned that the best way to keep up with the changes is to stay the same. But the students in the Lafayette residence hall would beg to differ. Despite the dorms proximity to neighborhoods like Tribeca, Chinatown, and, of course, the Lower East Side, students are often unhappy with the dorm, calling it outdated and inconvenient. “I grew to greatly dislike both the area Lafayette is in and the distance from campus,” said CAS sophomore, Elena Mercado. “I would simply classify it as unpleasant.” CAS junior Nadine Ebo agrees, saying, “I hate the area.” They would like to see the area grow up with the city, more like the modernized SoHo and less like the Lower East Side Katz and Streit would remember.
So where does that leave their old neighborhood? Is it changing? Of course. New stores come in as old ones are shoved out every year. Perhaps the change is too fast, forcing businesses to suffer. Maybe it’s too slow, leaving modern students feel like they’re living in the Stone Age. Or perhaps, it’s just a matter of finding one’s niche in the new New York and changing with the times by staying the same.