All week, we’re bringing you a series of deep dives into the surprising histories of storied addresses. Back to our usual after the New Year.
On a warm June night in 2008 two officers of the NYPD’s 7th precinct picked up actress Tatum O’Neal as she was buying crack-cocaine outside her condo building in the Lower East Side. She told police she was researching an acting role.
O’Neal–famous for being the youngest actress to ever win an Academy Award–was new to the neighborhood. She’d moved in just two years earlier, buying a condo at the corner of East Broadway and Canal. She lived alongside celebrities like Spike Jonze and America Ferrara in the Jewish Daily Forward Building, a behemoth Beaux-Arts structure that features reliefs of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels on the second floor. Inside, 1,500-square-foot units sold for $1.5 million.
Not surprisingly, the building–with its communist icons on the facade–was never intended to house the city’s well-to-do. It was built nearly 100 years earlier in 1912, to be the headquarters for New York’s vibrant left-wing Jewish labor movement.
By all accounts, 1912 was a good year for the Jewish Daily Forward. The paper’s circulation hit 120,000, socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debbs (endorsed by the Forward) won nearly a million votes, and the newspaper put the finishing touches on its new 10-story headquarters in the heart of the then-solidly Jewish Lower East Side.
It was also a big year for Abraham Cahan, the newspaper’s charismatic and controversial editor-in-chief. With the Forward’s new building still covered in scaffolding, Cahan toured Europe with his wife. In France, he interviewed the Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus, whose imprisonment had sparked a European wave of anti-semitism that foreshadowed the Holocaust. Cahan also met with Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in Krakow, then the editor of the Russian communist paper Pravda, who 5 years later would lead the 1917 Russian Revolution.
As Lenin and Cahan sparred over the finer points of socialism, craftsmen carved reliefs of Marx and Engels into the facade of the new Forward building, nearly 4,000 miles away.
Almost exactly 30 years earlier, a young Cahan had fled the Russian Empire under duress. An active socialist, Tsarist police targeted him after political radicals assassinated Russia’s Tsar Alexander II in 1881. He joined a wave of nearly two million Eastern European Jews who made the journey to America between 1881 and 1925. And like 75 percent of these new immigrants, Cahan settled in New York’s Lower East side, which then housed over half of New York’s slums.
The scion of a rabbinic family, Cahan was a quick study. During the long steamboat ride to Philadelphia, he taught himself English with a Russian dictionary. After a brief stint editing a Yiddish anarchist paper Naye Tsayt (New Time), he found a job as a writer and later became editor at the more prominent Yiddish paper Arbeiter Zeitung (Worker’s Newspaper).
Cahan was very much at home on “Yiddish Newspaper Row,” a group of Yiddish publications, scattered in between garment factories and tenements along the stretch of East Broadway between the Brooklyn Bridge and Delancey Street. In a few blocks, The Jewish Day-Morning Journal, the Arbeiter Zeitung, and a constantly changing constellation of Yiddish press outlets all jockeyed to be the mouthpiece for Jewish New York.
The completion of the Forward Building in 1912, in the heart of Yiddish Newspaper Row, was a personal victory for Cahan and solidified his position as a leading newspaperman of the Jewish left.
He’d beaten back an organized group of Jewish radicals, who opposed the ambitious building plan. Some of Cahan’s critics considered the 10 story structure too ostentatious for socialist publication: “The socialist movement in New York will be buried under this ten-story Capitalist building,” wrote Henry Margoshes, a critic of Cahan and garment workers, in a widely-read pamphlet. A rival plan for a more modest three-story building circulated, and Cahan along with his proposed-building schematics were ridiculed as too ostentatious.
Since before the Forward’s founding in 1897, Cahan found himself at the center of a pitched battle over the direction of the Jewish press and, by extension, the trajectory of Jewish politics. Cahan’s main rival was a wealthy Jewish Venezuelan immigrant named Daniel DeLeon, who led the Socialist Labor Party and exercised serious influence over Arbeiter Zeitung, where Cahan had worked as an editor.
Though a committed socialist, Cahan wasn’t as dogmatic as DeLeon. He wanted to work at a newspaper that was more than a propaganda outlet for Yiddish labor leaders. So in 1897, Cahan and like-minded Jewish socialists met at 53 Orchard Street, at Valhalla Hall, to launch a new publication to broaden the base of the socialist movement.
It was there — just a few blocks from the dilapidated tenement building that would be home to the Forward for the next decade — that the newspaper was born and named. Cahan was appointed editor.
The birth of the Forward, however, didn’t end the internecine disputes among Jewish socialists. Just four months after he co-founded the Forward, Cahan was forced to resign by rival editors who opposed his vision. Cahan would carry on a career-long rivalry with Forward co-founder Louis Miller, who went on to work for the competing Yiddish Daily Varhayt. Millner often lampooned Cahan in print for his lack of commitment to serious socialist ideals.
By 1902 Cahan muscled his way back into the Forward. He began to write his famous advice column for incoming immigrants, known as the “Bintel Brief” and oversaw a massive expansion in readership from 6,000 to nearly 100,000 in 1910.
Near the turn of the century, he commissioned the architect George Beoum to build an office building to accommodate the paper’s growing staff and replace the tenement building that the paper already used as makeshift offices at the corner of East Broadway and Canal, across from Seward Park. Just a decade earlier, the park had housed the city’s most notorious slums. At the edge of the park stood the Ludlow Street Jail, where Boss Tweed did time in 1876 on corruption charges.
In 1912, the newly built Jewish Daily Forward building was the only “skyscraper” in the Lower East Side — it towered above the surrounding tenements, sweatshops, and garment factories where immigrants for Eastern Europe lived and worked in conditions not much different from the Jewish ghettos they fled in Europe. As a New York City factory inspector observed in 1888, in the Lower East Side, “there exists a system of labor which is nearly akin to slavery as it is possible to get.” No doubt, these working conditions made the neighborhood a hotbed of labor unions activism and left-wing politics and furnished the Jewish Daily Forward with a growing and passionate readership.
Many have pointed out that Boehm’s design for the 1912 Jewish Daily Forward building resembled the Old Evening Post headquarters on Vesey Street in the Financial District. A Beaux Arts facade, ornamented with classical pillars, torches, and a clock-tower parapet, the 10-story building dominated Jewish labor life in the Lower East side for the coming decades. As New York Historian James Sanders wrote, the building appeared to be perched “bestride the lower east side like a colossus.”
The Forward building also loomed large in the imagination of Lower East Side Jews. The writer and public intellectual Alfred Kazin wrote that each time he crossed the Brooklyn Bridge as a young man in the 1930s, he remembered glimpsing “only the electric sign of the Jewish Daily Forward, burning high over the tenements of the East Side.” In that decade, circulation would peak at over 275,000.
The 10-story building housed the Forward’s editorial offices, its printing presses and a group of like-minded organizations. According to the New York Times, the Butcher’s Union Local 509, the Jewish Socialist Verband (Organization), the Naturalization Aid League, and the offices of the Workmen’s Circle, all rented office space in the building. The Jewish Daily Forward also hosted the first conference of the Workers Liberty Defense Union, “defending members of the I.W.W., the Socialist Party and the unions jailed for the opposition to the entry of the United States into World War I.”
When the Italian American anarchists Nicolas Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti found themselves on trial for murder in 1920, leaders in the New York anarchist scene quickly organized a committee to fund Sacco and Vanzetti’s legal defense — they met at the offices of the Jewish Daily Forward.
The Forward’s reign as tallest building on the block only lasted two years. A year after its completion, workers broke ground on the soon-to-be 12-story Jarmulowsky Bank building just two blocks away at the corner of Orchard and Canal Streets. Though the construction of the bank, founded by the Jewish entrepreneur Sender Jarmulowsky, was announced in the pages of the Jewish Daily Forward, the two structures were perceived by many to represent rival ideas: the Forward, a center for Jewish socialism and labor organizing, the bank a symbol of the steamroller of American capitalism.
By 1963, demand for Yiddish-language news slacked and the Jewish Daily Forward began to publish a weekly English-language supplement. The demographics of the neighborhood began also begin to shift. In 1968, the U.S. Government raised quotas on immigrants from China, and Lower East began to host a new wave of Asian immigrants. In 1974, the Chinese American real estate family the Laus bought the Jewish Fairy Forward Building, and the newspaper moved uptown to 49 East 33d Street.
In the 1970s, East Broadway became a haven for immigrants from China’s Fujian province — locals even began calling the wide boulevard “Fouzhu street,” after the capital of Fujian. The Lau Family rented out the bottom floor of the Forward Building to the Ling Liang Church, an evangelical Chinese Christian organization. Ling Liang reportedly printed Chinese-language bibles on the second floor. The top floors were kept vacant.
In the 1980s, the Laus tried to transform the building into a hotel, but in 1986 the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the site a historic landmark. The commission wrote that the building “serves as a vivid reminder of the Lower East Side when it was a center for Jewish Immigrant Life. ”
In 1997, the Lau Family began to convert the building to residential lofts, removing the faces of At the time, Stephen Lau told the New York Times that he hoped to attract a wide range of new tenants: ”We hope to have people from SoHo or Wall Street, not just Asians — it’s a bit out of Chinatown,’ he said. But the project never got off the ground, and in 2004, developers Ronald Castellano and Christopher Hayes bought the building from the Laus.
Castellano and Hayes flipped the building, and began selling luxury condos in 2006. That’s when O’Neil moved in. The advertisement for new vacancies read: “the building’s cultural significance parallels the important revolutionary, socialist-democratic values its Yiddish-language newspaper espoused.” These days the condos rent for $9,000 a month.