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Traces of the Jewish Lower East Side

Phil Decker | New York City, United States

Spread over us your shelter of peace

I grew up on stories of the vibrant yet impoverished Jewish Lower East Side of Manhattan, the neighborhood my grandparents immigrated to after fleeing pogroms in the early 1900s and the place where my Mom was born and raised in a small tenement apartment. During the summer of 2009, I visited Manhattan to photograph traces of the Jewish Lower East Side, tucked into the current life and cultures of the neighborhood.  For insights, I enjoyed a Big Onion Walking Tour and I visited the Tenement Museum and  the Eldridge Street Synagogue.  I staked out other Jewish traces on the streets and tried to capture the life surrounding those traces.  You have to look carefully to find the Jewish traces on the Lower East Side and in these photos.  The captions will give you clues. 

I grew up on stories of the vibrant, colorful and yet impoverished Jewish Lower East Side of Manhattan, the place where my Mom was born and raised as a little girl in a small tenement apartment. I heard stories of how my Mom’s parents, my Grandpa Alex and Grandma Lena, fled pogroms in Romania, in the early 1900’s, and made their way to America, passing by the Statue of Liberty, being processed through Ellis Island, and then settling on the Lower East Side. My grandparents must have lived and worked there for at least 20 years, until they moved the family to the Washington D.C. suburbs.

I sensed that life on the Lower East Side was bittersweet. It was a great place to be steeped in rich Jewish culture and traditions, while at the same time being battered by crowded living conditions, meager wages, and the realization that the streets were not paved with gold. My family’s story is similar to the stories of thousands and thousands of Jewish families from Eastern Europe who came to America in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  Thus, the Lower East Side has become a significant place of origin for Jewish Americans, a place to connect with our cultural roots and our journey into America.              In the summer of 2009, I photographed traces of the Jewish Lower East Side, tucked into the current life and cultures of the neighborhood.  I enjoyed a Big Onion Walking Tour and I visited the Tenement Museum and the Eldridge Street Synagogue, which gave me more insights.  I staked out Jewish traces on the streets and tried to capture the life surrounding those traces. There is no longer a predominantly “Jewish Lower East Side”; nonetheless, you can still recreate, in bits and pieces, an idea of what used to be there, and you can definitely appreciate the amazing diversity and complexity of the Lower East Side, as waves of cultural groups continue to call this dense urban landscape “home”.    You have to look carefully to find the traces in these photos.  The captions will give you clues. 

Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Tours  http://www.ellisisland.org

Big Onion Walking Tours  http://www.bigonion.com   Tenement Museum   http://www.tenement.org   Eldrige Street Synagogue Museum  http://www.eldridgestreet.org

Phil Decker studied at the International Center of Photography in 1984, in the first year of ICP's Documentary Photography program.  While at ICP in New York City, Phil created documents on his Puerto Rican neighbors and on Jewish immigrant elders on the Lower East Side.  He went on to publish and exhibit photo documents of Haitian migrant farmworkers in his home state of Maryland, and of undocumented Mexican farmworkers in Arizona, in their home state of Queretero, Mexico, and crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Phil then worked for several years as the director for Northern Mexico of a "village banking" program, helping to create 40 village banks and training other NGOs throughout Mexico in the methodology.  

To help raise his growing family, and to continue to support immigrant communities, Phil worked throughout the 90's as a bilingual middle school teacher in San Diego, California and Salem, Oregon.  Since 2002 he has served at-risk communities as an elementary school principal.  

Recently, Phil has returned to his roots as a documentary photographer.  In 2009 he created a photo essay "Traces of the Jewish Lower East Side", which is exhbited at the Oregon Jewish Museum during the summer of 2010.  In the spring of 2010, Phil embarked on his work documenting daily life in El Varal, Mexico, in collaboration with the families of his current and former students, with roots in El Varal.   Chemeketa Community College in Salem will host a photo exhibit on the El Varal work in November 2010.

Phil enjoys life in Salem, Oregon with his wife, four daugthers, and two granddaughters ... not to mention two great son in-laws. 

Phil holds a BA in Philosophy from the University of Maryland, an MA in Latin American Studies from Stanford, a bilingual teaching credential from San Diego State, and an educational administrative credential from Portland State.

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