Sadly, another storied institution is leaving the Lower East Side. This time, it’s Streit’s Matzo Factory, which has been a landmark since 1925. This is disappointing. I fear the once historic Lower East Side is losing its character.
I was surprised because I attended a panel at the Tenement Museum just two years ago with one of the current founders of Streit’s Mazoh. He noted with pride that his family has owned Streit’s throughout the generations and that it would not be leaving the neighborhood. Though they received generous offers for their space, they were dedicated to the neighborhood.
A lot can change in two years.
I remember when I would walk down Rivington Street at Suffolk, I would smell the matzohs baking. As I strolled down the street, I would be instantly reminded of the neighborhood’s former days. I would peek in the window and catch a glimpse of workers making long sheets of matzos. I’d even ask for an unofficial tour. Sometimes, one could sample new product flavors like muesli and garlic aioli with dill.
It was a connection to the past in an ever-changing neighborhood.
So how did Streit’s begin? The story of this matzo factory began in 1897 with Aron and Nettie Streit arriving from Austria. At 65 Pitt Street, the Streits made matzos in a humble bakery. The family business prospered, and production and demand soared. Automated machinery allowed the budding company to build scale.
The business boomed in the densely packed Jewish neighborhood. It has continually been run in the family. Streit’s often commented that this was a differentiator.
Each series of decades seems to bring its challenges. In the 1950s and early 60s, much of the population was moving out to the suburbs. Some sites seemed all but abandoned such as the Eldridge Street Synagogue (which continued to hold services downstairs but had no use of the once famed sanctuary). In the late 1960s and 1970s, the issue shifted to crime and urban decay which depressed visitorship. The Lower East Side by night was a scary for place for many. In the late 1990s and into the 2000s, gentrification brought many positive changes like increases in quality of life. But it also came with escalating real estate prices driving out smaller shops and independent businesses. Happily, there is the counter-balance of today’s emphasis on historic preservation and landmarking.
In the case of Streit’s, the decision may have been more about business needs like space rather than escalating rents. Still, its departure is alarming. Other examples include the collapse of the First Roumanian-American Synagogue in 2006, the loss of Kadouri Nuts and Gertel’s on Hester Street, Gus’s Pickles and the Garden Cafeteria.
They will be missed.