This week and next, we present a series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.
You could spend a night at Blue and Gold Tavern without ever hearing a single word of Ukrainian, but the beloved bar embodies the East Village’s enduring reputation as a hub for New York’s Ukrainian diaspora. It’s owned by three generations of the Roscishewsky family, and takes its name from the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
Also, you won’t find Russian vodka or even PBR on its shelves. When reports emerged in 2014 that Moscow-linked Oasis Beverages had acquired Pabst Blue Ribbon, as, meanwhile, Russian-backed separatists seized Ukraine’s Crimea, Blue and Gold stopped carrying the beer, as well as Stolichnaya. Subsequent news stories clarified that PBR’s new owner, Eugene Kashper, was a naturalized American, but Michael Roscishewsky dismissed that, since Kashper sat on the board of Oasis.
Roscishewsky downplays the role his Ukrainian heritage played in the switch from PBR to Genesee. “Most of New York, I would think, would stop carrying PBR when it was bought by the Russians,” he said. But trace the history of 79 East 7th Street and the building’s history as a focal point of diaspora politics becomes clear.
* * *
The lot on which Blue and Gold now sits was among the tracts of former farmland owned by the Stuyvesant family. The Stuyvesants held it until, at the latest, 1845, when a famous shipbuilder named Theodosius Secor was its owner, city records suggest. In the ensuing decades, the lot and the three-story, single-family brick residence on top of it passed between several owners, including the powerful developer James R. Sparrow, who built much of Greenpoint across the East River.
A city Landmarks report shows the building was owned in 1876 by a Charles Bernhard; tax records for 1846 show a residence on the lot owned by Sparrow and worth some $7,800. In 1876, Bernhard’s architect, William José, converted the single-family, three-story building to a four-story tenement with an entrance at the basement level. Just three years before, José had been hired for an ill-fated conversion of another three-story building into a tenement: while men were working on 321 West 11th Street, the roof collapsed, killing seven people and mangling as many, most of them workers. Such incidents were relatively common at the time. “Hundreds upon hundreds of workmen have lost their lives either from the parsimony or carelessness of their employers,” read an article on the incident in the New York Times, “and the tragedy of yesterday comes with a fresh weight of horrors to swell a long list of disasters.”
Bernhard is just one of the many Germanic names associated with the building in the second half of the 20th century, along with other owners and tenants like Hoffman, Feiner, Stern. At the time, the neighborhood — which would continue to be called the Lower East Side until a century later — was swelling with so many German immigrants taking refuge from the failed 1848 revolution that it was called Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany.”
Its ethnic makeup began to change around the turn of the century as many Russian, Ukrainian and Polish immigrants, many of them Jewish, flooded into the neighborhood, fleeing persecution and unrest. In 1912, the rabbi Solomon Scheiner, a resident of 79 East 7th Street, co-founded the Federation of Bessarabian Jews, an organization dedicated to looking out for Jewish immigrants from the Russian province of Bessarabia, where deadly anti-Semitic pogroms had taken place in 1903 and 1905.
Four months later, Scheiner hosted in his apartment the Jewish conversion ceremony of Rufus Perry, who was, at the time, “probably the most prominent” black lawyer in the United States, in the words of the New York Tribune. Perry was born in 1867 to a slave from Tennessee who became a baptist pastor. The younger Perry studied law at NYU and later practiced law in Brooklyn, where his father had moved. In 1895, Perry was recommended to serve as consul to Liberia, but President Grover Cleveland instead appointed the African Methodist Episcopal preacher William Heard, citing Perry’s age. A few months later, though, Perry was redeemed, at least in part. A Brooklyn judge successfully submitted a position, signed by every other judge in his borough, requesting Perry be appointed assistant district attorney, the Tribune reported.
Perhaps Perry’s own glimpse at what might have been — an odyssey to Liberia, the colony of freed American slaves, people like his own father — motivated him to convert to Judaism, a religious tradition animated by themes of homeland and return. “I believe we will all be in Jerusalem eventually,” he said, “and for months I have been studying the religion and considering the question of becoming a Jew.”
With that, Rufus Perry became Raphael. As a kind of religious pioneer, Perry was his father’s son; the senior Rufus Perry had published a popular tract in 1887 called The Cushite: Or the Children of Ham, which argued that despite the seeming arbitrariness of racial distinctions of civilization, those distinctions stemmed from three biblical categories: the sinful descendants of Japhet and Shem, and the noble, dark-skinned Cushites, who founded the earliest civilizations. In his writing, the senior Perry was part of a strong tradition of black nationalist thought in the United States of the 19th century.
Scheiner, the rabbi of 79 East 7th Street who oversaw the younger Perry’s conversion, told reporters that to his knowledge, Perry was the first African-descended American to convert to Judaism (a dubious claim). Later in life, in 1935, Scheiner’s family was touched by tragedy when his 45-year-old son, Jacob, awaiting trial on a grand larceny charge in a Brooklyn jail, used two neckties to hang himself to death from the bars of his cell.
Among the more curious owners of 79 East 7th since the passing of the Stuyvesants is Giovanni Cannistraci, who, records suggest, leased the building from Hyman German in the winter of 1915. Cannistraci was arrested for bootlegging almost exactly a decade later as part of a crackdown by crusading U.S. Attorney Emory Buckner, the New York Times reported. Cannistraci, who lived at the time just around the corner from 79 E 7th at 126 1st Avenue, was allegedly working for his 25-year-old daughter, Francis, known to authorities at the time as “Queen of the Bootleggers.” Her lucrative operation brought in some $2,800 a day, thanks to the deal she had with the Olivet Distributing Company, which carried a license to produce industrial alcohol. In 1932, the owner of that business, Joseph Bloom, was reportedly killed by unknown gangsters and dumped into the ocean, his body sealed in a cement drum.
A citywide crackdown on liquor distribution under the Volstead Act also touched 79 East 7th. A physician living in the apartment named M. Kuppersmith was one of 97 doctors accused in 1931 of writing false prescriptions in bulk so that medicinal whiskey — “medical liquor” — could be checked out, also in bulk, from pharmacies.
That year, Sidney Mann, an ex-convict turned butcher, and a former tenant of the building, was reportedly kidnapped and extorted. When the perpetrators let Mann go, it was only on the condition he let them keep using his car. It was in that car that the three convicted kidnappers were first stopped by police. Perhaps the alleged kidnappers had heard of the Mann family’s relative prosperity in 1926, when Mann’s father Samuel died and left $25,000 to his wife Babette, who lived at 79 East 7th, along with more to his brothers and sisters.
Or perhaps the whole thing had been a set-up; in requesting an appeal for his client, one of the lawyers for the convicted kidnappers argued that Mann, an acknowledged friend of the detectives investigating the case, had conspired with them to set up the three alleged kidnappers, on the grounds that otherwise the unproductive detectives would be sent out on patrol duty. The judge, unmoved, upheld the convictions for the kidnappers as well as their 50-year prison sentence.
In 1946, the building was acquired by the Slovak Welfare Club, a fraternal organization founded in 1933 and devoted to the aid of Slovak-Americans. The bar at 79 East 7th was named “Tatra,” for the mountain range in Slovakia. The only remnant of Tatra today, aside from a photograph of the facade of 79 East 7th, is the plaque in Tompkins Square Park dedicated in 1942 to Milan Stefanik, a lionized Czechoslovakian general. As Michael Cude, one of two historians of the Slovak-American diaspora, put it, most “fraternals” faded after a generation or two as immigrant communities began to assimilate into American society.
In 1942, when Tatra dedicated its plaque to Stefanik, the club also organized a corresponding rally in honor of the general. A letter went out to President Franklin Roosevelt asking for moral support in the form of a letter or telegram. A representative for the president sent back a polite and perfunctory response. Meanwhile, New York City council member Meyer Goldberg wrote the State Department: “May I have the benefit of your kind advice as to the nature of General [sic] Stefanik’s career and particularly if he may be regarded as a friend of democracy.” A response from a State Department official for European Affairs warned of a small, but nascent trend of Slovakian separatism from what was then Czechoslovakia.
“Now the Slovak Welfare Club may be perfectly innocent politically… On the other hand it may be seeking a ‘front’ behind which could be staged an anti-Czechoslovak demonstration. The maneuver would be clever, since the Czechoslovak Government could not protest about a ceremony in honor of one of its heroes… You see I am suspicious of it,” the official wrote.
There is no evidence the rally involved any commotion; as Cude notes, most Slovak fraternal clubs existed mainly to provide insurance for their members and to arrange cultural activities. Whether for reasons of diaspora politics or not, the bar that would become Tatra and later Blue and Gold was an occasional source of mischief; a detective dispatched there to investigate an assault in 1945 was stabbed in the neck when he showed up.
A decade later, 79 East 7th was purchased by business partners Constantine Liszczynsky and Michael Roscishewsky, Sr., whose grandson Michael owns the building today. The Roscishewskys’ tenure as the owners of 79 East 7th coincided with another neighborhood transformation. What was once a largely Ukrainian area, the diaspora population having surged in the aftermath of World War II, was becoming more diverse, as rising crime pushed down rents and sent thousands of Ukrainian-Americans to the outer boroughs and suburbs. A 1969 New York Times article noted that while statistics on the size of the Ukrainian diaspora there were hard to come by, the neighborhood anecdotally seemed to be increasingly peopled by African-American and Puerto Rican residents as well as a legion of hippies, the latter famously concentrated on St. Marks Place. Illustrating the decline in the Ukrainian population, a pastor from the St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic Church at East 7th and Hall Place told the Times that half of its congregation was commuting from outside the neighborhood.
Falling rents contributed to the East Village’s growth as an artists’ neighborhood even as a solid Ukrainian population held on. As if to symbolize the area’s dual status as an ethnic enclave and a hipster destination, the post-punk band New Order played one of its first shows in the city in the Ukrainian National Home on Second Avenue in 1981.
In 1990, Roscishewsky worked the day shift. When he got to the door at 9am, he said, retired police officers, firefighters and municipal workers from the neighborhood would be waiting for him. “They’d get up at 6am, still,” he said, and “by 9am or 1pm they come in here, they’d have two beers — some would have three beers, some two beers — and then, 12pm or 1pm, they’d empty out.”
“This was a neighborhood bar for professional drinkers,” he said.
Over the 1990s, the bar’s face changed, as artists, writers and musicians displaced regulars, “and then sometime in the late ‘90s it just changed into, like, this NYU, frat kind of mentality,” Roscishewsky said. Today, Blue and Gold frequently makes best-of bar lists and is variously described as a dive, a dump, or just a “great place to go on a bender.” Roscishewsky doesn’t seem to mind too much.
“We never really steer this place one way or the other,” he said, allowing for one exception— its jukebox. The bar was lauded in 1995 by reporter-turned-pickup-artist Neil Strauss as one of just a few New York watering holes that still had a working vinyl jukebox. (It was retired in 2000, Roscishewsky said, upon the retirement of the mechanic who knew how to fix it, and the bar switched to CDs.)
While Blue and Gold is Ukrainian mainly just because of its ownership, its heritage still asserts itself. As evidence, take the mural on the bar’s eastern side, its greens and blues stained red and orange by 50 years of nicotine stains. Blue and Gold, just like the East Village, is still Ukrainian. The St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church is just a block away. Up Second Avenue are the storied diner Veselka and the Ukrainian National Home restaurant.
And Blue and Gold, Roscishewsky said, continues to get some of its regulars in. “We still get our neighborhood people on the weekdays. The day drinkers are fewer.”