Photographers Janet Russek and David Scheinbaum both grew up in Brooklyn, and regularly spent time on the Lower East Side, shopping in the Orchard Street stores for new school shoes, or picking up bagels, lox, and knishes. Although they later relocated to New Mexico, they still returned to visit family. When, in 1999, they took their son to the Lower East Side to buy a tallit prayer shawl for his bar mitzvah, they realized that the Jewish heritage seemed to be disappearing from the neighborhood.
“That’s when Janet and I first noticed that the place was changing very rapidly, a lot of the old businesses were starting to close, and new high-rise buildings were being built,” Scheinbaum told Hyperallergic. “We took some photographs that trip, but it wasn’t until a few years later that we really set out in earnest to photograph and capture the flavor of the Lower East Side that we grew up with before it’s gone.”
Remnants: Photographs of the Lower East Side, recently released by Radius Books, features these images, which highlight businesses still open like Russ & Daughters, Economy Candy, and Katz’s Delicatessen, as well as those now shuttered due to escalating rents and shifting demographics. “Since we started working on a book, I’d say about a third of our book is gone,” Scheinbaum said. For instance, Streit’s Matzo Factory was replaced with luxury condos; the formerly thriving district of Judaica stores on Essex Street has faded.
“We were trying to photograph the Lower East Side that we knew before it disappeared,” Scheinbaum stated. “We didn’t photograph much of the new, we really concentrated on photographing much of the old, the traditional places, the traditional stores, not only the synagogues and the food purveyors, but the fabric store and the shoemaker and all the local places where many New Yorkers would go and get their needs met.”
This is the third book on which the husband-wife duo has collaborated, following Ghost Ranch: Land of Light (1997) and Images in the Heavens, Patterns on the Earth: The I Ching (2004). For Remnants, Russek photographed in color, and Scheinbaum in black and white, giving the sense of shifting time as viewers flip through the book. Some images frame details like a hand slicing cold-smoked salmon at Acme Smoked Fish (now operating in Brooklyn), or take in whole street scenes, such as an elderly man wearing a fedora pushing a grocery cart by a window, which displays a historic image of the neighborhood when it was a hub for new immigrants.
“Unlike the photographs of their predecessors that underscore the overcrowded streets and bustling activity of a vibrant community, Russek and Scheinbaum focused their lenses on the remaining vestiges of the Jewish enclave, from historic landmarks, museums, and synagogues to family businesses including bakers, candy shops, delicatessens, eateries, and haberdasheries,” writes Sean Corcoran, the curator of prints and photographs at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), in a book essay.
MCNY recently had an exhibition on the photographs of Jacob Riis, who documented the 19th-century squalor of the tenements, including those on the Lower East Side. Because of Riis, and later photographers like Weegee and Helen Levitt, the crowded streets of the Lower East Side are familiar.
“For many American Jews, the Lower East Side is a place of origin, a Plymouth Rock, the neighborhood where it all started,” writes Amy Stein-Milford, deputy director of the Museum at Eldridge Street, in Remnants. “So deep is its lure and lore that this vision of the Lower East Side resonates, regardless of whether or not they — or their ancestors — have ever stepped foot there.”
There is no reversing the changes that have already altered the character of the neighborhood, yet the photographs are reminders that all of this history is not gone, and can be preserved. Notably, the back cover of the book features a photograph of the Essex Street Market, seen through a translucent dust jacket that gives the building a ghostly quality. The Essex Crossing development now underway will relocate the old food hall, with sleek glassy architecture rising where once there was low brick.
“The book kind of serves as a memory,” Scheinbaum said. “It honors the past, it honors the people who came and the people who were there, it honors a time, and I think as you move forward in time and you look back and reflect upon a place, it becomes a visual record of what was, and it’s not necessarily a statement about destruction. We try to make a record of things that we feel are important, and in a way our photographs might help to preserve their memory before they’re totally gone.”