Lower East Side Development Spells Decline of Old Jewish Power Brokers

Seward Park Project Signals End of Era in Old Neighborhood

Location, Location: The development of an unimpressive looking stretch of the lower East Side after decades of delay signals a political changing of the guard in the fast gentrifying area of Manhattan.
ari jankelowitz
Location, Location: The development of an unimpressive looking stretch of the lower East Side after decades of delay signals a political changing of the guard in the fast gentrifying area of Manhattan.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published March 04, 2013, issue of March 08, 2013.
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That’s changed.

“People don’t live forever,” he said.

If Rhodes is the new Grand Street, Heshy Jacob is the old Grand Street. Jacob isn’t just a building manager. He’s also the head of Hatzolah, the Jewish volunteer ambulance company, and the chairman of the United Jewish Council, the umbrella group for local Jewish organizations on the Lower East Side.

“If you’re the person that somebody has a problem and he goes to [you] day and night, you take the time and effort to help them, then they think you’re in charge,” Jacob said. “They go to Willie, they go to Heshy, they go to Shelly.”

The three men make an odd set. Rapfogel is clean cut and professional, a highly compensated not-for-profit CEO with a winning smile. Jacob, a Hasidic Jew with a beard and a white shirt, is known as a verbal brawler. Silver, for decades among the two or three most powerful men in New York State, operates behind the scenes, his fingerprints easy to miss.

The men are seen as allies. They all pray at the Bialystoker Shul on Willet Street, and Rapfogel’s wife, Judy, works as Silver’s chief of staff. Rapfogel, however, rejected the notion that the three formed some sort axis. “We don’t even speak that often,” he said.

The men have been in the neighborhood for decades, and they remember a time before gentrification when Rivington Street, now full of restaurants, was a dangerous place to be at night. Rapfogel said that the opposition of the old-school Jews of Grand Street to low-income housing in the neighborhood was rooted in that dangerous past.

“Many people felt that the most important thing for the community would be economic development on the Seward Park site,” said Rapfogel. “Their fear was that housing on that site would increase crime in an already crime-filled area.”

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