It's fitting that an immigrant should document the history of a neighborhood. Clayton Patterson came to New York from Canada in 1979, where he soon made a name for himself as an artist. His embroidered baseball caps are worn by movie stars like Matt Dillon, and he created a jacket for Mick Jagger. But Patterson's portfolio is multi-faceted. He's known as a photographer, documentary filmmaker, political activist and, above all, local historian.
His loft on Essex Street, originally a sewing factory, is home to his archive of hundreds of thousands of photographs and hundreds of hours of film, as well as all manner of Lower East Side souvenirs, from gang jackets to empty heroin bags, stickers and sketches created by homeless people-no one has documented the history of the Lower East Side since the 1980s in greater detail than Clayton Patterson.
Three-volume anthology: And now comes a history of the Jewish Lower East Side. Titled "Jews - A People's History of the Lower East Side," Patterson has launched a new three-volume anthology. "My point is to tell the story from the perspective of ordinary people," explains the 64-year-old president of the Society of New York Tattoo Artists, whose long beard is reminiscent of a biblical patriarch. "It's a book about ordinary people, written by ordinary people."
Nearly 200 authors have contributed to the 1,200-page documentary, which the Forward calls "the most ambitious project ever initiated to tell the story of the Jewish Lower East Side."
Between 1880 and 1914, nearly two million Jewish immigrants came to New York from all parts of Eastern Europe, and the vast majority settled first on the Lower East Side. About three-quarters of all American Jews have roots on the Lower East Side. "Before the founding of the state of Israel, the Lower East Side was probably the place that received the most Jewish refugees from all over the world," Patterson surmises. "The land of milk and honey was here."
And so the anthology includes several entries from the period of mass immigration, such as the story of the "Forward" building, which was in competition with a Jewish banker to be the tallest building in the neighborhood. In the end, the Yiddish socialist daily won out over the Yarmulovsky Bank, the "ultimate symbol of capitalism." The bank went bankrupt during the Great Depression.
"After 1940, however, the history of the Lower East Side is barely documented," Patterson knows, so he set out to fill that knowledge gap. In his search for authors, Patterson, who is not Jewish, literally went door to door. "I've lived on the Lower East Side for more than 30 years. There are hundreds of Jews in my circle of acquaintances, and some are in my inner circle of friends. So finding authors was not a problem."
Patterson initiated the book project in 2005, and since "almost everyone found someone else who also had a story that needed to be told, it only took two years to write the book."
Leaving the past behind: The ambitious project found no support from the organized Jewish community, even though some authors belong to institutions such as Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy. "But let's face it, those who made it moved out of here, and those who stayed are here because they didn't make it elsewhere." Patterson therefore laments the "after-the-flood mentality," which he believes is very American. "The billionaires with roots on the Lower East Side want to leave the past behind."
When Patterson came to New York, the city was facing bankruptcy. Many neighborhoods, including the Lower East Side, looked like a war had just ended. "The Bowery area in particular was no man's land." But it was also the time when "the grandchildren of Lower East Side Jews were coming back to New York from the suburbs and trying to make it here."
These returnees included Hilly Kristal, founder of the legendary punk rock club CBGB, composer Philip Glass and singer Lou Reed, born Lewis Allen. "People came here because it was cheap. Low rents and cost of living made New York possible in the first place. Jackson Pollock, Madonna or Jimi Hendrix couldn't afford to live and be creative here today. If you have to pay $3,000 a month in rent, as an artist you have no time at all to develop," Patterson laments the development of the real estate market.
It was this development that led to his first collaboration with the Lower East Side Jewish community. Patterson had made a name for himself in 1988 when he used his video camera to document the riots, and especially the police's brutal approach, at Tompkins Square Park. When the 8th Street Shul was pressured by immigrant sharks to vacate the building in the mid-1990s, they turned to Patterson for help. "The first time I walked into the synagogue, I knew immediately that it was a spiritual place," Patterson recalls. The congregation had few members left at the time and the building was in disrepair. Still, they didn't want to sell, and with Patterson's help, a series of events were organized and, most importantly, media interest was developed in the small congregation's struggle to survive. "We tried everything we could to keep the small community alive. " Patterson was even elected to the board of the Orthodox community out of gratitude, and as a non-Jew. In the end, none of it helped. On September 29, 2000, police escorted Rabbi Isaac Fried out of the building, and shortly thereafter the house of worship was converted into a luxury apartment.
Diverse Jewish life: "The book is therefore also about the destruction of the Lower East Side. It recounts what was and what will never come again like this." The end of the 8th Street Shul, and a few years later the collapse of the roof of the Romanian-American Synagogue, once one of the area's most important houses of worship, whose members had unsuccessfully tried to get the building listed, mark a symbolic end of an era for Patterson. "The American dream hasn't existed for a long time."
In November 2011, Patterson decided to find the money to write the book himself. Using the website Kickstarter, the artist raised more than $15,000 from just 72 donors.
The three-volume anthology is now printed and scheduled to go on sale. "It's the largest collection of Jewish stories from the Lower East Side," Patterson insists, "the story is told in memoirs, interviews, poems, musical scores and short plays. Portraits of squatters are found next to a story about Jewish boxers, Yiddish theater greats next to punk rockers, historic synagogues next to restaurants and bakeries. Many aspects of Jewish life on the Lower East Side are covered here.
"The Jewish community was and is very diverse," Patterson knows. The two Lower East Side Jews who influenced him most reflect that reality. "Rabbi Lionel Ziprin, who was a gifted poet, introduced me to the mystical side of Orthodox Judaism. Artist Boris Lurie, who unfortunately never received the attention he deserved, introduced me to the dark side of humanity, the horror of the Holocaust. And I am glad that I could count both of them among my friends."
These, and many other little-known Lower East Side figures are now getting the tribute they have long deserved.
ABOUT JULIAN VOLOJ: Born in Münster on March 6, 1974; his maternal grandfather came from a long-established Münster family; he returned to Münster with his family in 1958 after more than 20 years in exile in Colombia. Studied in Münster (literature) and Brussels (politics). Editor of the literary magazine Bunte 13 and the Jewish magazine Zeitgeist, cultural officer of the AStA of the University of Münster, 2nd chairman of the Federal Association of Jewish Students in Germany (1999-2000), active in the European Union of Jewish Students (board member 1999-2001, chairman 2001-2003), delegate of Forum 2000 (1999), photographer of the Youth Congress of Expo 2000 (2000). Since 2003 Voloj lives in New York, where he works as a photographer (New York Post), for the Research Center of the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Legacy Heritage Fund, among others.