This week, we continue our series of deep dives into the histories of storied addresses.
The building at the southeast corner of Second Avenue and Second Street that now houses the Anthology Film Archives has always been a crossroads, both symbolically and literally. This “international center for the preservation, study and exhibition of film and video” came into being in 1969 as a counter-thrust to Hollywood, making its focus American independent and avant-garde cinema.
This month, the archive is honoring a crossroads of another sort for Jonas Mekas, one of Anthology’s founders. His 95th birthday is being celebrated with a retrospective of his films from Dec. 18-22. “I’m like the last leaf of a big tree,” Mekas told the Village Voice in an interview published before the weekly ceased its print publication.
Anthology, like Mekas, attained its legendary status long before 1988, when it moved from earlier downtown locations to its current space in what was once the second location of the Essex Market Courthouse. Before 1919, when the new courthouse was built, a pair of residential buildings with storefronts occupied the lot. The plot itself, over the past couple of hundred years, has seen plenty of theater of its own.
The earliest city records show that the land rested between two farms, two lots, and two wards. Like the rest of the neighborhood, the block was blueprinted at the top of the Boweries, large chunks of land on the northeast of New Amsterdam, separated from the city by Bowery Lane to the west. The Boweries belonged to officers of the Dutch East India Company and in the years of the Revolution, Philip Minthorne bought it and sliced it into plots for his heirs. What is now 32 Second Street was in between two lots.
Eventually, the two lots became the property of Augustus Wynkoop, a Dutch merchant who bought up much of the area over the next 30 years. Upon Wynkoop’s death, his daughter Henrietta inherited 32-34 Second Avenue and then immediately leased out the properties for terms of 21 years with annual rent to be paid in quarterly installments.
Over the next half-century, a long succession of tenants occupied the structure or structures on the property, in apartments located above businesses. Among them was Mrs. Eliza Ann Conklin, whose contract in 1867 specified that she would, over the course of three years, have new “substantial brick buildings” constructed to cover the width of the block. Yet a year later, she appears to have abandoned the task, and a German family took over.
The lease was again transferred to a couple of families, among them some of first Jews to immigrate from Europe in the 1880s. But none appears to have stayed long. In 1888, for example, the Dorstes, with their six children and servants, gave up their bakery, which was to be used as a “bakery lunch room.”
Change appears to have been a constant. Of the residents who lived at Nos. 32 and 34 in 1880, not a single one remained by 1900, when the number of occupants in the building grew to 19 families, crammed into the same space that six families had shared before. The neighbors came and went so fast that more ghosts than people seemed to have occupied the building’s small rooms. They included beggars, shoemakers, and a stunning number of widows.
John Krauter, a widower, beggar and boarder of 32 Second Avenue, died in 1901, buried by the undertaker across the street, Joseph Hoffman, who was soon arrested for running a scam. He asked payment from the city for the burial of an estate-less man, but one whose widow had already paid Hoffman for the funeral. Dorste’s own neighbor, the piano maker Christian Spring, shot himself twice with a revolver and then slit his own throat. Still alive, Spring was taken to Bellevue Hospital.
Soon, Second Avenue became a crossroads of commotion, densely populated with overcrowded tenements, lively cafes and dance halls, and candy and cigar stores that were often illicitly functioned as hangouts, dens, dives and saloons that sustained one business at their core: gambling.
Any number of cafes were in the area, including one on 34 Second Avenue. It was registered as a cigar store and belonged to a dive owner known as Purits. He was a man to be dreaded, a “liquor dealer and all around politician, whose ‘pull’ in the Essex Market Police Court was a matter of notoriety.” He was described as knowing how to use “the force.”
His real name was Max Hochstim. In addition to a number of other cafes in the area, he owned an infamous saloon at Suffolk and Delancey that served both as his headquarters and residence. Cigar store owners and widows were among Hochstim’s regular victims, whom he robbed and attacked frequently in his empire of gambling dens. It led to arrests.
In 1894, both the press and the city’s social reformers launched probes in the neighborhood. The New York Herald, bragging about its primacy in the investigation of city corruption, published a profile of Hochstim that exposed the nefarious business that would make him a “prisoner in his own stronghold.” In the years that followed, he was arrested repeatedly.
One of these arrests, in 1896, happened at his cafe at 34 Second Avenue. A plainclothes detective identified the site as a gambling den. Hochstim denied ownership of the space and avoided arrest in that instance by saying he only held a mortgage on the property. He was less fortunate in 1901 and was said to have turned “deathly pale” on hearing for the first time his name and the word guilty in the same sentence.
The era of gangsters of Hochstim’s ilk was clearly reaching its denouement in the first decade of the 20th century. So was the old Essex Market Courthouse, one of the landmarks of Lower East Side life. A new Essex Market Courthouse would be built in the space formerly occupied by numbers 32 and 34 Second Avenue. It would take years to come to fruition. Talk of the new facility was in the press as early as 1905, but the city did not purchase the property at 32-34 until 1914.
The Rev. Dr. Charles Henry Pankhurst, a social reformer, was among those who pushed to see the Essex and Ludlow Street courthouse moved to new quarters. He joined a chorus of those who considered conditions in the deteriorating facility “harmful for everyone, including prisoners.” Once, in November 1906, a three-foot long eel entered the water pipes and almost scared an inmate to death.
On another occasion, a doctor allegedly got a throat infection from breathing the court’s air, and meetings were suspended for fear of a pneumonia outbreak. In general, the court was too small, the most unsanitary in the city and yet the busiest, with an estimated 1,000 people passing through it each day.
In 1906, Hyman Rosenschein, the head of the Essex Market Bar Association who was better known as Rosey the Lawyer, quit his position after 35 years of service. He expressed indignation that the traditions of his “noble profession” were being “shoved aside,” the New York Times reported him saying.
Around the same time, the anticipated abandonment of the old court was in the news, a development that brought Lower East Side residents (but not the land owners) to tears. For old-timers, Essex Street would soon be “like the earth deserted by the sun.” Referring to an inscription on the brick wall of the “soon to be no more” courthouse, Henry Ripper, a friend of Rosey’s who was “born and bred” in its shadow, said that it had “looked down upon more peoples of the nations of the earth than any other stone” and made no exception to “the Pyramids, nor even the Coliseum in Rome.”
The southeast corner of Second and Second would reappear with its arched windows designed by architect Alfred Hopkins for its inauguration in 1919. The new court was inspired by prisons in Holland, England and Germany, and was meant to be 14 stories high, with 100 detention cells, good ventilation (no more bad air) and “provision for roof exercise by prisoners.”
Yet despite these grand initial plans, the Renaissance revival building never extended beyond three floors. The jail authorities in the European countries visited by Hopkins gave him “pointers” on how he should build the courthouse, advising him to refrain from inside cells and the general American tendency to cage “prisoners like monkeys.”
In the next 10 years, at least five inmates escaped from the new jail, sometimes simply just by walking out to freedom.
The new court was as busy as its predecessor, so much so, in fact, that moments of idleness immediately made the papers.
On Valentine’s Day in 1922, as if out of a Beckett play, for the first time in history “nothing happened,” all the newspapers reported. Literally no one showed up the entire day. The court clerk occupied himself by reviewing a century’s worth of records in an attempt to find a similar occurrence.
At around this time, Prohibition ironically provided the conditions for newly profitable organized crime. If the majority of old Lower East Side gangsters had dropped out of the life for a calmer existence, bootlegging drew to the neighborhood and others in Brooklyn, a new generation of gangs and hitmen. Over the next 20 years, as Albert Fried recounts in his book, The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America, recession in the garment industry brought the city’s gangs to the fore in labor relations. Communists and Socialists fought with each other over union control, and gangs were the weapon of choice. Cases of extortion and conspiracy reached the Essex Market Court, which along with the rest of the legal system was fighting those “Bolshevik” elements.
Probably the most famous incident linked to the courthouse’s second revival actually happened outside the cells or the courtrooms. By the time the courthouse opened its doors, Kid Dropper, responsible for a couple of dozen of the worst murder cases New York had ever seen, was being released from prison. Dropper’s gang soon became one of the two most notorious Jewish gangs on the East Side, together with the rival gang of Anthony Cafano, known as Little Augie.
When the “Dropper” was finally arrested, local police Captain Cornelius Willemse recounted that an agreement was made for him to be escorted to the train station and out of the city to the West. On his way out of the Essex Market Court, the “Dropper” was shot in the back of the head. The policemen that were supposed to defend him actually facilitated his shooting, by providing the killer those few minutes between the door of the court and the cab waiting on Second Street where the “Dropper” was, for once, unarmed.
The New York Times reported that the last words the Dropper heard were those of his wife. “Tell me that you were not what they say you were,” she said.
With the “Dropper” out of the way, Little Augie was now preeminent in gang world, although he would soon find it hard to go around breaking people’s bones any longer.
The courthouse closed down in 1946. It was reopened only briefly in 1948 and, as had happened several times before, a prisoner escaped within 10 minutes of the opening of the doors.
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Little is clear about the use of 34 Second Avenue until 1979, when Mekas bought the building. Because of renovation, it took until 1988 for Anthology to move in.
In the opening scene of Robert Frank’s 1988 film, Candy Mountain, there is a shot of the building pocked with graffiti and in an abandoned state. The character goes up the steps to ask a man dressed as a cop to give him back his guitar. Much has been written about Jonas Mekas and his career and he has written a lot about himself as well. A book containing his diaries, I Had Nowhere to Go, came out this summer; it chronicles the life of the man behind the artist, his journeys from Baltic Europe to New York and his struggles as an immigrant.
Mekas told Bedford + Bowery last March that he would like to see some of those once-envisioned additional stories added to the Anthology Building. Alternative filmmakers, he said, “don’t have as much reach as Harvey Weinstein. Harvey Weinstein should build the library himself.”
For lovers of experimental cinema, Mekas and the Anthology are still important references with real reach. As for Weinstein, perhaps his has gotten a bit shorter.