By: Sam Kim
Discolored and dilapidated walls enclose the rooms located in the intact tenement housings from the mid 1800’s in the Lower East Side. 23 to 30 layers of discolored and peeling wallpaper line the room–each layer stained with the history of families that once occupied these tenements. Dave Zydallis, a Tenement Museum tour guide, explains the Lower East Side provided a place for immigrants to live a better economic life.
Today, the culture of immigrant families in the Lower East Side can still be seen. The Streit family–who settled in the LES since 1916– has been making matzo in the same factory, using the exact same methods, with the same machines, since the factory’s establishment in 1925. “Not a whole lot has changed,” said Alan Adler, the 5th generation CEO of the family owned Streit’s Matzo Co.
Streit’s Matzo has been rated #1 in various newspapers, and received multiple awards for being the “best” Matzo, according to Adler. What is his secret? Adler remembers growing up in the factory ever since he was 8, and from then he learned how the process that was handed down from generation to generation, ever since his great grandfather Aron Streit started the company.
But businesses like Steit’s are becoming a dying breed. Adler believes in keeping to his roots, but as for the neighborhood around him things are different. “The nature of the Lower East Side is changing,” said Adler.
The physical landscape is seeing a rapid alteration. Companies are looking to build luxury buildings and expand commercial stores, causing costs to skyrocket. The Urban Justice Clinic reported that due to these costs, 64% of surveyed small business stated they would not be able to renew their leases.
The neighborhood is seeing such a drastic change that the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared the Lower East Side as one of the “11 Most Endangered Historic Places” for 2008.
Right next to the fairly new American Apparel, stands Katz’s Delicatessen, which has operated ever since 1888. Katz’s Deli is often known in pop culture for it’s famous “orgasm” scene in When Harry Met Sally. But for locals and those it’s much more than that.
Jake Dell, Top Dog Jr. as it states on his card, the 3rd generation owner of the Katz-Dell family partnership. Believes that the tradition that is Katz has kept them alive all these years.
“There are two very important factors to this place: the food and nostalgia they go hand in hand,” said Dell. “People keep coming here for the taste because it stays consistent, exactly how they remember” they remember when the smells the sounds, and it connects it to this place, and that has helped us carry us through the years.”
Just as Streit’s has kept tradition alive through their methods, Katz’s has devoted themselves to keeping their culture alive.
“It’s the worst business model on the face of the Earth, but if it makes a good sandwich so be it,” Dell said jokingly. “We are sort of scared of change,” Dell said jokingly. “It’s the worst business model on the face of the Earth, but if it makes a good sandwich so be it.”
Katz’s Deli and Streit’s Matzo Factory will keep doing what they’ve been doing, but businesses like these are slowly fading away. Once the people leave, so does the neighborhood and it’s culture. Only time will tell whether these two businesses will be another “museum” of the Lower East Side.