Libby’s Hotel and the Jewish Roaring Twenties

The Ritz with a schvitz!

In 2001, a massive sinkhole opened up on the northeast corner of Chrystie and Delancey Streets in New York City’s Sara Delano Roosevelt Park. A camera lowered into it revealed a forgotten piece of New York City history: a furnished room, with books still on bookshelves, behind a locked door, frozen in time from the late 1920’s. Parks commissioner Henry Stern told The New York Times that the space reminded him of Pompeii. The room belonged to the sub-basement of Libby’s Hotel, a Jewish luxury hotel that once stood on the site.

 

When you think of ‘The Roaring Twenties’, New York’s Lower East Side doesn’t necessarily come to mind. For most people, the Lower East Side evokes images from Jacob Riis’s How The Other Half Lives: poverty, crowded tenement apartments, ‘sweatshop’ garment factories, etc. Though those conditions did exist, the story was never quite as black-and-white as the photos suggest.

 

Libby’s Hotel was opened in 1926 by Russian Jewish immigrant Max Bernstein. His family immigrated to the United States from Slutsk, in modern-day Belarus, in 1900, and his beloved mother Libby died soon after. Max was a devoted son with an entrepreneurial spirit, and he created business after business in his mother’s memory, all named Libby’s: a small candy store, a lunch car, a small restaurant, a big restaurant, and, eventually, Libby’s Hotel, his $3 million tribute to her ($3 million in 1926, is about $47.6 million today).

 

Libby’s was an enormous building, which would have towered over the tenement buildings and even the movie palaces that surrounded it on Delancey Street. It had lavish guest rooms, a grand ballroom, and a portrait of Libby Bernstein hanging front and center in the lobby. The biggest feature was the Russian & Turkish bath, reportedly the city’s largest, complete with an elegant restaurant, a bandstand, and room for 1,000 swimmers. To commemorate the opening of the baths, Max threw a Babylon-themed celebration. This was the middle of Prohibition, so of course there was no mention of alcohol in the news coverage of the party, however the New York Herald Tribune did remark that “at one point in the dance a patriarch became so stimulated that he poured a bucket of water into the saxophone”. The Roaring Twenties were alive and well on the Lower East Side!

 

There had always been luxury among the tenements on the Lower East Side - as early as the 19th century, upscale department stores had lined Broome Street, attracting customers from uptown. Libby’s marked a new era of Lower East Side luxury, though, because it served a specifically Jewish, Yiddish-speaking clientele. Libby’s had an entirely kosher restaurant, for example. To promote the hotel, Max ran ads in Yiddish in newspapers like the Jewish Daily Forward and created the Libby’s Program radio show on WFBH, which can be credited for putting Yiddish radio on the map.

 

In the 1920’s, radios were only just beginning to become a household item, especially for working-class families. Other Yiddish radio existed at the time, but according to Ari Kelman in Station Identification: A Cultural History of Yiddish Radio in the United States, it really wasn’t until Libby’s that an audience for it began to thrive. Libby’s Program was helmed by former Petrograd orchestra cellist Josef Chiarnevsky, who aired an Americanized ‘pop’ sound, blended with traditional Jewish music, on Sunday afternoons. Libby’s followed the model of popular English-language shows: a variety program with a house band, hosted by a luxury hotel. By combining Yiddish-language programming with contemporary American style, Libby’s solidified a Jewish radio audience and got so popular that it eventually expanded to two shows a week. In the wake of its success, Yiddish shows became much more common on New York City radio.

 

The Libby’s Program audience was made up of Jews who, increasingly, didn’t live on the Lower East Side, and may have been listening in part to feel connected to the old neighborhood. Although it had been the most densely-populated place on the planet in 1900, about ⅔ of the Lower East Side’s population had relocated to other neighborhoods by 1905. After the restrictive immigration law of 1924, the neighborhood’s immigrant population was dwindling. New York’s Jewish community started traveling to the Lower East Side to show it to their children or grandchildren, to shop at the pushcart markets, and to see Yiddish theatre. As the neighborhood depopulated, a tourism industry emerged.

 

 Max was in the nostalgia business. All of his business ventures had been about memory. For him, it was about the memory of his mother, but for his customers, it was about their memory of the Lower East Side. At the same time, the hotel’s luxurious facilities challenged stereotypes about the poverty of Eastern European Jews. It was, as Shulamith Berger and Jai Zion put it in in the Yiddish Book Center’s Pakn Treger magazine, “the Ritz with a schvitz”.

 

Like so many tales from that era, the story of Libby’s Hotel ends in 1929. Max had spared no expense and owed a lot of money, including to predatory lenders who wasted no time foreclosing. At the same time, the city bulldozed tenements along Chrystie and Forsyth Streets to widen them and add modern, affordable housing. The Depression stalled development, and Libby’s was one of the last buildings demolished, on account of its size. Instead of building housing, the city opened Sara Delano Roosevelt Park on the seven-block site in 1934.

 

Nostalgia is still big business on the Lower East Side, though Max Bernstein’s story remains largely untold. The room beneath the sinkhole in 2001 was never excavated. The city poured grout into it, filled it up, and paved over it. There’s not even a plaque! Today, countless tourists in search of neighborhood history walk down Delancey Street every day. Beneath their feet, unpreserved, lies an artifact from the Jewish Roaring Twenties. 

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Libby's Advertisement image shown with permission from The Forward; it was first printed in the Sunday, May 23rd 1926 edition.

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Aurora Clare is a historian and educator based in New York City. She completed a Master’s Degree in History from New York University in 2016, with a thesis on domestic space and public housing in twentieth-century New York. Aurora has worked with institutions including the Tenement Museum and New-York Historical Society. More information about her work can be found at www.auroraclare.com!

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