From its inception, the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy has been dedicated to the preservation of sacred sites. In mid-1998, the main sanctuary window of the historic Beth Hamedrash Hagadol synagogue blew in during a summer storm and its congregation needed help. Joel Kaplan, Executive Director of the United Jewish Council of the East Side, Inc., and Holly Kaye, who became Founding Executive Director of the Conservancy, secured a $2,500 emergency assistance grant to help replace the window.
They realized that Beth Hamedrash Hagadol was not alone in struggling with the physical deterioration of its historic structure. Virtually all of the historic synagogues and many other organizations on the Lower East Side are housed in buildings more than 100 – and some almost 200 – years old. All of them were experiencing problems with their physical structure to the point where the future of several of these sites was threatened. Securing funding for these endangered historic synagogues and other Lower East Side structures became a major impetus for the Conservancy’s establishment.
Since 1998, the Conservancy has reached out to almost all of the nearly two dozen active synagogues south of 14th Street, which include some of the most historic sacred sites in New York City; established working relationships with congregational and religious leadership; and conducted needs assessments with them on the state of their physical plant and other areas where Conservancy assistance could be helpful.
Through these surveys and discussions, the Conservancy’s technical assistance program was crafted, driven by the needs of the historic properties themselves. The Conservancy provides fundraising support and technical assistance in historic preservation and construction management resources. It also provides marketing and promotion, capacity building, revenue generation and use of volunteers to serve historic sites throughout the Lower East Side.
The urgency of the Conservancy’s historic preservation program has increased as the Lower East Side continues on its trajectory as the “hottest” gentrifying neighborhood in New York City. Until a decade ago, the aging “built environment” of the community remained generally intact and unrenovated. The change in housing laws in the late 1930s to prohibit toilets in hallways and bathtubs in kitchens created dozens of 60-year old “time capsules,” as owners sealed the upper stories of the tenements and relied on the income from their ground-floor retail renters to get by.
However, these trends have reversed themselves: property values have increased between 10 and 20 times. Every building that can be renovated is being renovated, and wherever possible, being torn down to create featureless new construction seeking to maximize allowable bulk and density. Air rights are being assembled and transferred to small lots to build tower buildings in excess of 23 stories – sharply contrasting with the present five-story norm.
The waves of “hipification” and “Yuppification” coming to what The New York Times called “Soho East,” are threatening to submerge the delicate fabric of the area’s unique “built environment” and ethnic identity, thus making the Conservancy’s preservation efforts especially critical at this time.
Projects that the Conservancy has implemented have resulted in many positive outcomes. The Conservancy has: