Life

Before Essex Crossing, a ‘Temple of Eden’ With an Incendiary History

This week, we continue our series of deep dives into the histories of storied addresses.

From Fire and Water Engineering, 1907.

The Essex is the tall, glassy residential and commercial building that looms over Broome Street between Essex and Norfolk. It is more a promise of the neighborhood’s future than a relic of its past, all visual traces of which disappeared when the block was razed in 1967. The new 26-story building fills in the blank of what in recent years was a vast and vacant parking lot that gave no indication of a block was once dominated by New Irving Hall, an active site of civic life in the Lower East Side.

On July 24, 1899, thousands of newsboys gathered at New Irving Hall at 214 – 220 Broome Street, only days into what became a two-week strike against New York’s rival afternoon newspapers, the New York Evening World published by Joseph Pulitzer and the New York Evening Journal published by William Randolph Hearst.

The strike came at a time when both publications were selling papers by innovating a new style of writing called yellow journalism. The sensationalist rhetoric and trumped up stories of the genre caught readers’ attention and propelled the United States into the Spanish-American War. Nobody could give voice to those frenzied headlines better than the newsboys hawking the papers. Their cries of “Extra! Extra!” could be heard over the carriages, competing salespersons and passing conversations at the busy plazas and street corners where they sold their goods.

Before the war, Hearst and Pulitzer devised a plan to increase their profits by raising their wholesale price from 5 cents to 6 cents for every 10 papers sold, producing a surplus of 10 cents for every 100-paper bundle the newsboys bought. In war time, the circulations of the two papers swelled and the price hike went undisputed. But in the summer of 1899, sales decreased and the newsboys, many of whom were orphaned children or came from poor families, felt the brunt of the losses. On July 19, 1899 the “newsies,” which included women and girls among their rank, decided to strike.

On July 22, 1899, Don C. Seitz, business manager of the New York World, wrote a memo to Pulitzer, now in the rare books and manuscript library of Columbia University. It began: “The newsboy’s strike has grown to an extensive and menacing affair.” Two days later, as the rally of newsboys gathered at New Irving Hall, packing the building’s entryways and window sills, Seitz sent a telegram to Pulitzer noting that the situation was “serious but improving,” although the paper had incurred $80,000 worth of circulation losses.

Kid Blink, a popular one-eyed newsboy and de facto leader of the strike, delivered the most memorable speech at the New Irving Hall meeting, in which he stoked the newsies’ resentments about the rise in paper wholesale prices.

“Ten cents in the dollar is as much to us as it is to Mr. Hearst, the millionaire. Am I right boys?” he asked his fellow strikers. “We can do more with ten cents than he can with 25. Is it boys?”  

Along with the higher cost of papers, the newsboys denounced the scabs hired to sell the papers in their place and the publishers’ refusal to compensate the newsboys for papers they did not sell. After two weeks of protest, the publishers and newsboys came to a compromise agreement. The cost of the papers stayed the same but the newsboys won the right to receive refunds for unsold papers.

By the strike’s end, the boys had demonstrated their indispensability to the publishers who depended on them for circulation, and New Irving Hall reinforced its reputation as a one of the city’s cultural and political hubs.

New Irving Hall at Broome Street began to appear in newspaper stories and advertisements in the early 1890s. On Sept. 23 1893, anarchists held a musical concert to raise funds for Emma Goldman, who was going on trial for what some reports called an “incendiary” speech she gave at an Aug. 21 rally encouraging workers to take bread if they are hungry. “Financially the concert was not a success, for one reason because Anarchists do not part easily with money,” reads a report in the New York Times. The following month Goldman was found guilty of aiding and abetting an unlawful assemblage for her speech. At Christmas of that same year, the hall was used to distribute gifts to children of poor families organized by the publication The Evening World.

New Irving Hall became popular at a time when there were “thirty different halls between Houston and Grand streets, east of the Bowery – i.e., one every two and a half blocks,” writes Mario Matti in his book Gateway to the Promised Land: Ethnic Cultures on New York’s Lower East Side. New Irving Hall set itself apart as a meeting place for the surrounding Russian and Jewish immigrant communities. (At the time of the 1890 census, New York County had 1.5 million residents, 42 percent of whom were born in other countries.) Sabbath school anniversaries, weddings, and cultural events were held in the building. On July 12, 1895, it was there Hebrew citizens gathered to protest against the Board of Education, which “did not appoint a Hebrew as a school trustee for the Tenth Ward,” according to a report in the New York Times, even though “nearly 95 per cent of the children attending the schools in that ward are Hebrews.”

The venue was a dance hall that gained a reputation for its criminal and prostitute clientele. In the hall’s employ was the notorious New York gangster Monk Eastman, who worked as a bouncer and kept order with “the huge bludgeon he carried, the blackjack in his pocket, and the brass knuckles on both hands,” writes Neil Hanson in his book Monk Eastman: The Gangster Who Became a War Hero.

Unions and laborers, leftists and radical groups used the hall as a place for strategizing and organizing on their behalf. In 1894, cloakmakers met there to organize a strike of 12,000 garment workers to demand higher wages and a nine-hour work day. In 1901, thousands of Russian nihilist sympathizers met at the hall to denounce Russia’s government as “the most tyrannical in existence.” On May 4, 1902, there was a rally held at the hall for the German anarchist leader Johann “John” Most. Most was celebrating his last night of freedom before turning himself in on a conviction for an article in his paper Freiheit (Freedom) that “advised revolution and murder,” writes author Milton Cantor in his book The First Amendment Under Fire.

A year prior, In the case People v. John Most, Most was found guilty of misdemeanor and sentenced to one year in penitentiary for his writing. Most appealed the decision. In 1902, New York state passed the Criminal Anarchy Law, which made it illegal to advocate the violent overthrow of the government and set the precedent for state laws criminalizing political advocacy across the nation. Under this new law, the court of appeals upheld the original decision. The meeting at New Irving Hall took place before his sentence began, and thousands of people showed up in support of Most for what they called a farewell ceremony. At the rally, Most was arrested along with William MacQueen, editor of the paper Liberty. Riling the excitement of the audience, police reported that MacQueen made a speech in which he said, “To hell with the laws of America; to hell with the government. I am an anarchist.”

A few days later, on May 15, 1902, the hall was the site of a rally to support a kosher meat boycott. Women who frequented area butcheries had grown irate at the rise in prices in meat and a long day of tensions gave way to mob law. Protestors wrecked butcheries and set piles of meat afire in the streets of the Lower East Side.

New Irving Hall was just as popular with campaigning local politicians. In 1901, William Travers Jerome spoke at New Irving Hall in his successful run for district attorney. He served in the position for seven years from 1902-1909. In 1903, the hall was one of the first campaign stops for Mayor Seth Low as he ran for a failed second term in office against Democrat George B. McClellan Jr., who became the city’s 93rd mayor. In these years at the start of the 20th century, the hall was a place of unbridled agitation and impassioned political and labor discourse. In a few short years, the building’s fiery ending mirrored its trailblazing role in a bygone era of New York City.

In Moses Richin’s book The Promised City: New York’s Jews, 1870-1914, New Irving Hall is “the largest, most convenient, and most beautiful place on the Lower East Side” described as a “true temple of Eden.” That depiction of the hall is a far cry from the building’s description in a 1907 publication of  Fire and Water Engineering, a periodical on fire protection, water supply and sanitation in the city. In the publication, a fire report described New Irving Hall as “simply a fire trap” when the “old and combustible” building went up in flames on Feb. 25, 1907.

The fire started in the early the morning after a wedding ceremony and reception. The guests had long returned home, but news reports estimated that up to 5,000 residents were displaced from the tenement homes located at the rear and sides of the hall. The snow and rain from the day before left the roads icy, making it difficult for firemen and their horses to access the building, allowing the fire to do more damage. Miraculously, no casualties were reported, but there was no conclusion as to the cause of the fire.

For several weeks after the fire, congregants of local synagogues would sweep the ashes of the building’s ruins looking for pieces of sacred scrolls, which they had been allowed to store in the building. The remains of the recovered charred scrolls were delicately wrapped in a white cloth and stored for a ritual burial.

Three months after the fire, Zirchru Toras Moses Synagogue held funeral and burial ceremonies for the holy scrolls. Mourners could pay $1 to place one of the remains in a coffin, and once all the remains were placed in the coffin, there was a funeral procession from the synagogue, at 183 East Broadway, across Williamsburg Bridge all to Washington Cemetery. It is said to be the first time the observation of genizah, the secret hiding place for damaged or unused documents, was performed in the U.S.

In 2012, the story of the newsboys’ strike and their meeting at New Irving Hall was brought back into popular attention with the Disney musical Newsies, but otherwise there is nothing that remains of the building. After the fire, there is no mention of New Irving Hall in newspaper headlines. The lot continues to be comprised in part by tenement housing and small businesses, but it is no longer a site for political organization.

(Photo: Aleesa Mann)

In the late 1950s, the city designated the block as part of a slum clearance project that would displace almost 2,000 families. Since then, the site has been a source of contention and debate over its use and the need for affordable housing. Public documents detail potential uses for the area between the city and the local community. In 2013, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans for a mixed-use development called Essex Crossing. The project spans 1.65 million square feet and includes over 1,000 housing units, a three-block market for food and small business retailers, a movie theater and major retailers Target and Trader Joe’s.

The Essex sits amid a construction site, surrounded by barriers and fencing, but project developers Delancey Street Associates plan to start moving tenants into the building this month. The larger project, expected to be completed in 2024, is one of a bustling community, not unlike the one that spanned the area in the not too distant past, before the parking lots and vacant space, when the area was dominated by businesses, housing tenements and New Irving Hall.


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