The Lower East Side of Manhattan will always be remembered as a place of Jewish beginnings in contemporary American Jewish culture. Escaping from Czarist pogroms, harsh anti-Semitism and stifling shtetl life, many Jewish American families began their new lives in die Goldene Medina by alighting from boats on Ellis Island and setting up homes in this traditionally impoverished New York City neighborhood. Today, the Jewish imprint on the Lower East side is greatly diminished as economic progress, rapid gentrification and other factors have led to the exodus of most of the neighborhood’s traditional Jewish residents to more fashionable Manhattan addresses and cleaner suburbs. The synagogues have been mostly replaced by fancy condos and the Jewish delis by upscale eateries. No one has played stickball on the streets of the LES since 1962.
It seems as if the same thing that happened to the LES is about to happen to Murray Hill. Located within East 34th Street, East 40th Street, Madison Avenue, and Third Avenue, Murray Hill was a sleepy, kind of run-down neighborhood when it was discovered by real-estate developers in the late 1990s. Since that time, real-estate prices have increased by over 500%, yet the rents have remained slightly cheaper than in more fashionable nearby parts of Manhattan. These conditions made Murray Hill an ideal place for young Jews fresh out of college to begin their adult lives and the neighborhood soon became inundated with young Jewish professionals, many of whom worked on Wall Street, corporate offices, publishing, PR etc. Unlike their LES predecessors, these Jewish immigrants were not poor or uneducated. They didn’t come to New York via boat, but rather via bridge and tunnel. Soon a raucous restaurant-and-bar scene developed along Third Avenue that catered to this relatively well moneyed and very entitled group.
However, despite living the good life, the Jewish immigrants of Murray Hill, like those of the LES, are not immune to powerful societal forces. As the US economy continues to tank, and as investment banks and large businesses continue to close and fire employees, many of the Jews of Murray Hill find themselves out of jobs, forced to relocate to Mom and Dad’s basement back in Seacaucus or wherever it was that they came from. Many of their parents, used to financing their children’s lavish lifestyles, are no longer able to do so because they too have lost their jobs, or invested the family’s savings with Madoff. Less people are dining on Third Avenue, the crowds at the Joshua Tree are noticeably thinning. It’s really just a matter of time before the only remaining vestiges of Jewish life in Murray Hill will be discarded, outdated and tattered Birthright Next and JEC posters, unused gym membership cards, and access passes to bankrupt brokerage houses, strewn in dumpsters as the last broken hearted resident makes his or her way back to New Jersey.
Luckily, one “DJ Lubel” chronicles with song and video the dying days of Murray Hill’s Jewish ghetto so that no matter what happens, we will always be able to remember how things used to be. Sigh.
Hat tip to Larry!