Notable Residents of the Lower East Side
Bloomingdale’s, Madame Alexander, Captain America: They probably do not come to mind when you think of the Lower East Side. But the people responsible for all of them were among the notable residents of this once-gritty neighborhood.
Brothers Lyman and Joseph Bloomingdale, born in 1841 and 1842 respectively, grew up in the Lower East Side, and their father, a German Jewish immigrant, sold women’s clothing in the neighborhood. Lyman and his father opened a “ladies’ notions shop” here to capitalize on the mid-century craze for hoop skirts. Lyman realized that it was dangerous for a business to rely exclusively on one type of product for its success, and with his brother he opened the East Side Bazaar in 1872, selling a variety of fashions for both men and women. The decision to offer multiple types of clothing in one store was not the brothers’ only daring move. At a time when the upscale shopping district was Ladies Miles in the Gramercy/Flatiron area while the Lower East Side was where the less wealthy shopped, the Bloomingdale brothers opened their original store uptown on Third Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets. Evidently that remote location did not hurt business, as the Bloomingdales relocated their shop to larger quarters at 59th Street and Lexington Avenue in 1886, where the flagship store remains.
Bloomingdale’s was already in its current location by the time Bertha Alexander was born in the Lower East Side, in 1895. Her stepfather operated what was the first “doll hospital” in the country, repairing the fragile porcelain dolls of the wealthy. With World War I came an embargo on German porcelain, which crippled her stepfather’s business. Bertha created a cloth doll dressed like a Red Cross nurse, and she and her sisters sewed and sold enough of them to save the family business. Encouraged by this success, she launched the Alexander Doll Company in 1923. By the end of the decade she was making dolls from a newfangled material, plastic. She also changed her name from Bertha to the more glamorous Beatrice and adopted the title of “Madame” for both herself and the business. Alexander was the first to create dolls replicating fictional characters and real-life people, giving birth to licensed tie-ins. A Madame Alexander Scarlett O’Hara doll, released in conjunction with the movie version of “Gone with the Wind,” is in the Smithsonian Institute.
There is no record of whether Bertha Alexander was friends with Isadore Yipsel Hochberg, but they grew up in the Lower East Side at the same time. Like Alexander, Hochberg changed his name, to Edgar Harburg, though he was better known as Yip. Harburg became lifelong friends with Ira Gershwin while in high school. Gershwin was also born in the Lower East Side, at 60 Eldridge Street on the corner of Hester Street, but he and his brother George grew up mostly in Brooklyn. Nonetheless, a plaque declaring it Gershwin’s birthplace hangs on the Eldridge Street building.
Sheet music for “We’re Off to See the Wizard.” Image: public domain/Wikimedia
It was Ira Gershwin who encouraged Harburg to return to his hobby of writing light verse, this time as song lyrics, as a way to make a living after going bankrupt during the Depression. Gershwin introduced Harburg to songwriter Jay Gorney; their 1932 song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” became the unofficial anthem of the decade. Harburg later moved to Hollywood, where he wrote the lyrics for “The Wizard of Oz,” sharing with composer Harold Arlen the Oscar for Best Original Song for “Over the Rainbow.”
Jacob Kurtzberg, born at 147 Essex Street in 1917, contributed to the movies in a different way. As Jack Kirby, the innovative illustrator created comic-book hero Captain America with Joe Simon and the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Hulk with Stan Lee. Kirby named the Yancy Street Gang, often seen taunting the Fantastic Four’s Thing, after Delancey Street; growing up in the Lower East Side in the 1920s and ‘30s, Kirby did his share of running around with and running away from local gangs.
Jack Kirby (right) with his Captain America co-creator, Joe Simon. Image: Alan Light/Flickr
The antics of the Yancy Street Gang have little in common with the activities of the Lower East Side’s most notorious gang, the Bugs and Meyer Mob. Friends Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky founded it in the early 1920s, when they were still teenagers. Along with extorting “protection” money from lower business owners, the gang fenced stolen goods, bootlegged, ran illegal gambling rings, and murdered anyone who got in their way, a task that Siegel was said to relish. The Bugs and Meyer Mob was the precursor to Murder, Inc., the enforcement arm of the National Crime Syndicate, a confederation of the Mafia, the Kosher Nostra, and other crime organizations. Later Siegel moved west, becoming a key figure in Las Vegas’s transformation from sleepy desert town to global entertainment destination. Though he was in Los Angeles when he was murdered in 1947, he is memorialized in his old LES neighborhood: If you visit the Bialystoker Synagogue at 7-11 Willett Street, you’ll find a plaque with his name on the wall among those of other former congregants who passed away.