LESPI Newsletter Spring 2020

LESPI Newsletter Spring 2020

Vol 11

70 Mulberry Street’s Uncertain Fate

On January 23, a terrible fire broke out at the Chinatown community center at 70 Mulberry Street, diagonally across from Columbus Park in the middle of Chinatown’s historic core.  This was a real blow to the many community groups who occupied the building, most significantly to the Museum of Chinese in America, whose important archive of 85,000 items related to Chinese American history were stored there – although many items have been salvaged, the loss and damage are substantial. Constructed in 1893 as Public School 23, 70 Mulberry was the first NYC school designed by renowned school architect CBJ Snyder.  He would go on to design some 170 public schools for the City, many if not most still in use.  For a wonderful history of the building, see HERE. The building retains a strong architectural presence at the corner of Mulberry and Bayard, and has wonderful carved brownstone ornament at the lower floors.  It is listed as a contributing building to the Chinatown and Little Italy National Register Historic District. 

Mayor De Blasio has promised to restore the badly damaged building.  However there’s now talk of demolishing the structure and constructing a 20 story tower on the site.  LESPI has been in communication with local activists, elected officials, the State Historic Preservation Office, and the Dept. of Citywide Administration services to try to confirm the current work scope and assure the building’s restoration.
LESPI has requested that, as a first step, the City take the following actions:

  • Verify the funding sources of the work.  If state or federal funding is involved, the NY State Historic Preservation Office is required to regulate building alterations. 
  • Retain a structural engineer specializing in historic preservation to recommend repairs that allow for minimal building demolition, in order to retain as much historic material as possible. 

A Town Hall Meeting is currently being organized regarding plans for the building, and Community Board 3’s Land Use Committee is scheduled to review the building’s status on Thursday, May 14.  We’ll keep you posted!

May is Lower East Side History Month

Lower East Side Preservation Initiative – LESPI – is proud to participate again this year in Lower East Side History Month.  Sponsored by FABNYC and involving organizations from all over the LES, this celebration is now in its 7th year.  LESPI’s events – which for the first time will be both virtual and free – include: 

  • Trivia Night – May 9: Join LESPI and Village Preservation in a fun evening of virtual trivia of New York City on Saturday, May 9 at 7:00PM.  Register at info@LESPI-nyc.org.
  • Virtual Tour of Lower East Side district – May 26: Accompany LESPI and the Historic Districts Council on a virtual tour of the proposed Lower East Side historic district on Tuesday, May 26 at 5:00PM. Register at info@LESPI-nyc.org.
  • Virtual Tour of Oliver Street district – May 28: LESPI celebrates the district of wonderful historic buildings around Oliver Street where former Governor Al Smith lived for over 50 years. Join our virtual tour on Thursday, May 28, 6:00PM, by Zoom. Register at info@LESPI-nyc.org
  • LESPI on Instagram LESPI will be posting a series of great LES shots throughout May – follow us!  

For questions contact us at info@lespi-nyc.org or 347-827-1846. 


We at LESPI hope that you and your loved ones are managing as well as possible through these very challenging times, as our city – and world – faces the new coronavirus. During the crisis, LESPI is continuing to work – remotely – toward the preservation of the historic Lower East Side. Although our in-person meetings and events remain on hold for now, we’re continuing to move ahead on several fronts, including:

  • Designation of new NYC historic districts in the Lower East Side. 
  • Researching and prioritizing our list of historic buildings that we’ll be proposing for NYC Individual Landmark status. 
  • Preservation of the East River Park’s historic buildings and the fire-damaged 70 Mulberry Street. 
  • Creating “virtual” LES-related events. 
  • Publication of our latest book in our “Lens on the Lower East Side” series, on the LES below Houston Street (our other two books in the series are on Chinatown and the East Village).

We thank you for your support for LESPI, and look forward to emerging from this crisis in an even better position to help preserve our historic streetscapes and buildings in the historic LES: Chinatown, East Village, Lower East Side below Houston Street, the Bowery and Little Italy.  We need these historic areas to remain intact – not demolished by developers – when life in NYC returns to normal. 

We at LESPI will keep pushing for preservation. In the meantime, we wish the best for all of you.

‘Ghost Signs’ Reveal the Lower East Side’s Commercial Past

Despite the tidal wave of development on the Lower East Side, “ghost signs” – faded reminders of businesses that have long vanished – still abound. A new book, “Ghost Signs: Clues to Downtown New York’s Past” by Frank Mastropolo, highlights many hiding in plain sight on the Lower East Side. 

Orchard Street has been home for immigrants and new citizens since the 19th century when Jewish, Italian and Irish immigrants, among many others, arrived from Europe. Two existing ghost signs recall Orchard Street as the commercial artery where Jewish immigrants parlayed sidewalk pushcarts into successful clothing and fabric stores. 

Samuel Beckenstein was a Polish immigrant who sold odd lots of fabric he bought from clothing manufacturers. Beckenstein, who started as a pushcart merchant, established Beckenstein’s Men’s Fabric in 1919 and moved to the former New York Telephone building at 130 Orchard Street in 1945. Beckenstein created a business that catered to men who could not afford a new suit when the pants wore out; he made pants that would exactly match the jackets of men’s suits. 

Max Feinberg sold ready-to-wear children’s clothes from the storefront at 86 Orchard Street. Feinberg purchased the building in 1928 from the Shearith Israel Sisterhood, which operated a settlement house there to provide for newly arrived Sephardic immigrants. The second floor was used for Feinberg’s office and the third floor for storage. 

Preserving our Lower East Side historic buildings gives us the opportunity to glance back in time, to experience the great variety of people, institutions, and businesses who were here before us.

What’s Next for PS64 / CHARAS El Bohio?

To the chagrin of neighbors, community activists, and preservationists, the fate of the old PS 64 building, also known as CHARAS / El Bohio at 605 East 9th Street, is still up in the air.  Meanwhile this grand, landmarked structure, designed by renowned school architect C.B.J. Snyder in a French Renaissance Revival style and built-in 1904-06, remains empty and unused.  It has deteriorated to the point of creating a blight on the neighborhood and unsafe conditions for the public. 

The community, city officials, and local preservationists have been actively seeking to reverse this situation for years.  Here’s a short history of a longstanding problem: 

The building originally functioned as an elementary  school.  In 1977 it became a community and arts center – later run by the groups CHARAS and El Bohio – that focussed on revitalization and empowerment of the then-struggling East Village / Lower East Side / Loisaida neighborhood. 

Problems started in 1997 when the city auctioned the property and it was purchased by a private developer, Gregg Singer.  He quickly litigated to evict CHARAS, and developed a plan to build a 29 story tower on the site.  Subsequently, in 2006, the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the building an Individual Landmark, but not before Singer had obtained permits to remove facade ornamentation.  Since then a lot of the Renaissance-inspired ornament has been removed from the north facade or allowed to deteriorate beyond repair.

Singer has been in litigation with the city, local preservation groups, and other interested parties regarding his plans for the building, which involve converting it (at least temporarily) into dormitory space. The City has held up approvals because the plans do not comply with the City’s Dormitory Rules. Due to its ever-deteriorating condition, the NYC Dept. of Buildings and Landmarks Preservation Commission have issued violations and significant fines – hearings on these violations have been rescheduled for July. It appears that there’s a vacate order on the building and that the property may go into foreclosure. For the community, it’s a tragedy that this beautiful building is slowly deteriorating, mired in litigation with no resolution in sight. The neighborhood continues to hope that the property will be returned to serve the public as a community cultural center – as promised by Mayor de Blasio in 2017- an amenity that’s currently lacking in Manhattan’s Loisaida neighborhood. The city, community, and preservation activists need to keep pushing to save this building. We’ll keep you posted.

Giving through AmazonSmile

We love small local businesses.  But if you happen to shop at Amazon, you can choose AmazonSmile, which will donate a percentage of each sale to the charity of your choice – we hope you’ll pick Lower East Side Preservation Initiative (LESPI)!

Join more than 2,500 people who have signed LESPI’s petition for a new Lower East Side historic district below Delancey Street, in the blocks around the Tenement Museum.  This is one of the city’s and country’s most important communities, due to its unique immigration, artistic, cultural and architectural history, and the formidable role it has played in our city’s and nation’s development.  The only way to protect the historic Lower East Side from complete demolition and redevelopment is city landmarking.  Sign the petition HERE!

Support LESPI and look good doing it with a LESPI t-shirt!  All proceeds benefit LESPI’s work. Only $25 (including shipping and handling). Send a check made out to “LESPI/FCNY”, and send to LESPI, 93 Third Avenue, #1223, New York, NY 10003.  Available in crew neck only; indicate which shirt and size (contact us at info@LESPI-nyc.org or 347-827-1846 with questions).  Unfortunately we cannot offer returns or exchanges.

Great Reading!

LESPI’s “East Village: Lens on the Lower East Side”
LESPI’s “Chinatown: Lens on the Lower East Side”

LESPI’s books “East Village: Lens on the Lower East Side” and “Chinatown: Lens on the Lower East Side”are each fascinating histories of their respective historic communities, accompanied by the work of six boldly contemporary professional photographers who capture the areas’ special streetscapes, people and spirit.  All contributors have ties to the local community.  The East Village book is available at McNally Jackson on Prince Street and The Source on East 9th Street; the Chinatown book is available at Museum of Chinese in Americaon Centre Street, the Strand Bookstore on Broadway, Jackson McNally on Prince Street, and Pearl River Mart at Chelsea Market and Broadway in Tribeca.

You’re contribution will help us protect our historic LES buildings and streetscapes!

Lower East Side Preservation Initiative
93 Fourth Avenue #1223 | New York, New York 10003 347-827-1846 | info@LESPI-nyc.org