Rediscovering the Original Pitt Street Location of Streit’s Matzo Factory [VIDEO]

Posted on: May 22nd, 2013 at 5:33 am by
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[Closeup of Dr. Lee and Mrs. Lawrence with the sign “For Rent: Matzo Bakery” / Photo: Michael Levine]This is part one of a two part series written by Michael Levine, director of the documentary, Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream, which chronicles the history of the Streit’s Matzo factory on the Lower East Side. The film is currently being funded on Kickstarter. See the trailer below and click here to make a contribution to the film.

The series describes the discovery of the Streit family’s original, 100 year old three story high matzo oven in the backyard of a building on Pitt Street, where it has remained hidden for decades.

The Streit’s Matzo factory sits, as it has since 1925, in four low-slung tenement buildings on Rivington Street, quietly churning out 40% of nations’s matzo on machinery as old as the factory itself. While decades of transformation and gentrification have, for the most, relegated the old Lower East Side, the neighborhood that was the center of the Jewish immigrant world, and later a broader immigrant world, to the pages of history, the Streit factory remains, a thriving manufacturing center, a fifth generation Jewish family business, providing jobs for neighborhood residents and immigrants of all faiths and backgrounds.

I was first drawn to the Streit’s story in 2008, amid rumors that the family was selling the property. Offers upwards of $25 million were a regular occurrence at that time, and some were briefly considered. Briefly. In the end, Streit’s did not sell, and the family has in fact become more committed than ever to remaining on the Lower East Side, in the factory purchased by their great-grandfather, and operated by every generation of Streit since. I’ve come to believe this is in fact a more compelling story, and one that I hope may be an inspiration to those who feel that the kind of “progress” that has overtaken the neighborhood is inevitable. For some, at the mercy of their landlords, it may be, but the spirit of resistance, of commitment to tradition and principle that manifests itself in everything the Streit family does, is something I believe we can all learn from.

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[View of 65 Pitt Street from the northeast, during the process of replacing upstairs windows, mid 1950s / Photo: Michael Levine]The history of Streit’s is inseparable from the history of the Lower East Side, the neighborhood where my own family settled (on Rivington Street, in fact) from Russia over 100 years ago. So during filming of Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream, there were murmurs about a Streit’s bakery even older than the present one on Rivington, I knew this was a matter for further research. The problem was, the current generation of Streits knew only that that their great-grandfather, founder Aron Streit, had likely operated a basement bakery somewhere on Pitt Street in the early 1900s, where he produced matzo by hand. The exact address had been lost, it seemed for generations, and unlikely to resurface.

Three weeks ago, in conversation with Anthony Zapata, a longtime Streit’s worker who grew up in the neighborhood, he casually dropped a bombshell: he claimed to know the address of the old Pitt Street bakery! He had heard of its location in the early 1980s when a Streit’s employee who had at that time been working with the company for nearly 70 years, drove him past the building where he got his start, baking matzo with Aron Streit himself in the basement of #65 Pitt Street. Anthony and I walked the three or so blocks to the address to find the building intact, with a half-basement that could have easily served as a storefront for the operation.

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[Dr. Isabella Lee and Mrs. Lawrence in the upstairs apartment of 65 Pitt Street / Photo: Michael Levine]Already in some shock, I posted signs on the door, informing residents of my interest in the building: to document any remaining evidence of the former bakery and bring the Streit family along for a visit.

When I had not heard back the next morning, I decided to take matters into my own hands, and quickly uncovered the name and phone number of the owner of the building.

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[Dr. Isabella Lee and Mrs. Lawrence at the work of renovating the former Streit’s Matzo factory / Photo: Michael Levine]I decided to do a little additional research before making a call and discovered some more of the building’s early history. It had been built in 1850 – some 50 years earlier than the buildings surrounding it, and by the turn of the 20th century seemed to be home to a number of Austrian Jewish immigrants (the Streits themselves emigrated from Austria around this time), housing at once an Austrian Jewish burial society, the headquarters of an Austrian Jewish orphanage, and the residence of a prominent Austrian Rabbi, who ran a Yeshiva in the neighborhood. So, it makes perfect sense that Aron Streit would both find a home here and use the basement for his first matzo bakery.

After Streit’s, the company, moved down the block, and the family to Brooklyn, it seems that Aron Streit’s business partner, Rabbi M. Weinberger, continued producing matzo in the building, an operation that remained until the late 1940s.

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[View down Pitt Street toward Delancey, Williamsburg bridge visible in background / Photo: Michael Levine]A search of the New York Times archives produced an article from 1965, about a woman named Isabella Lee, of Michigan, who, with her husband, and her friends, the Lawrence family, purchased the then-abandoned bakery in 1953 for $9,000, and made renovations to the building including disposing of most of the baking equipment. Photos from the article show a comfortable home with no signs of the Streit’s former business. But in an provocative end to the article, it seems that the three-story oven in the building’s backyard survived the renovations, and a rear building, which had been a part of the Streit’s bakery, had been left untouched.

This story has multiple pages:

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