Exclusive: Streit’s Matzo Factory is Under Contract and Leaving the Lower East Side this Spring

Posted on: January 6th, 2015 at 4:55 am by
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Devastating news from Rivington Street today. Streit’s Matzo Factory – the fifth generation family business and neighborhood anchor for nearly a century – is departing the Lower East Side for good this spring. It’s an extremely heartbreaking turn of events, and we’re reeling. The following dispatch was sent to us this morning by filmmaker Michael Levine, who had been shooting at the factory for his upcoming documentary, Streit’s Matzo and the American Dream, with his producer, Michael Green, when the announcement came.

Since 1925, the Streit’s Matzo factory has stood at 148-154 Rivington Street on New York’s Lower East Side. Here, in four, low-slung brick tenement buildings, five generations of the Streit family, and as many generations of factory workers, devoted their lives to the art of mixing flour and water, and sending these two simple ingredients through a seventy-three foot long oven to create sheets of matzo, the unleavened bread central to the Jewish holiday of Passover.

The last family-owned matzo factory in the United States, Streit’s has endured for nearly a century, continuing to produce 40 percent of the nation’s matzo using machinery as old as the business itself, and employing 60 workers, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, native New Yorkers and immigrants from around the world, all of whom found a livelihood and a second family behind these walls.

Yesterday afternoon, in a cramped lunchroom on the factory’s third floor, workers gathered to hear the news from the Streit family that the factory will permanently close its doors on Rivington Street at the conclusion of this year’s Passover baking season. The four tenement buildings that comprise the factory are now under contract to a developer, whose identity and plans for the site have yet to be made public.

The business itself will remain, as it has been, in the hands of the Streit family, who hope to find a new home for the factory and as many of their workers as possible, though no site has been chosen. Alas, perhaps the only certainty at this time is that any new factory, to be sustainable, will have to be built outside of New York City.

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I personally know that this was an agonizing decision for the Streit family, who despite their many challenges, were determined to keep the factory and its workers employed onsite, even as the phone rang daily with offers from developers clamoring to purchase the valuable real estate. I watched as they turned down offer after offer, until the challenges of maintaining a manufacturing business in a drastically changing Lower East Side, as well as the pressures of increased foreign competition, left the company no alternative but to accept.

The loss is, of course, especially painful for the Streit’s workers, many of whom have devoted 30 or more years of their lives to working here, and for whom, like the millions before them who came to the Lower East Side, found opportunity for themselves and their families in that work.

For the Lower East Side community at large, it is one more in a too long and accelerating line of losses of historic neighborhood institutions and family businesses, forced out against their will in the face of unmitigated hyper-gentrification, which insidiously erodes and threatens to eradicate the social and economic diversity and energy of this neighborhood which have always been its greatest strength, and leaves family businesses such as Streit’s behind.

For the Jewish community nationwide and for the descendants of immigrants of all backgrounds whose families passed through neighborhood over the course of the last century or who remain here, it is the loss of a connection to a Lower East Side that is ever more the domain of museums and memory than of daily life.

[Trailer for the film Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream]

Having spent the better part of the past two years at the factory, filming with the owners and workers, amidst the ancient hulking machinery of this place that was perhaps the most salient living expression of the tradition, values, and community of a Lower East Side that is so quickly vanishing, the sense of shock and loss is truly unbearable. Just as it has for so many of the workers here, the factory has become, for me, a second home, and the owners and workers a second family.

This is not the ending I had hoped for, either for the film, the factory, or the people who work there. The film’s title Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream, was an expression of hope, however naïve, that such a place could continue to exist, out of time and out of place.

After the announcement, I asked one Streit family member if anything could possibly keep the factory running on the Lower East Side. As he sat behind his grandfather’s desk, staring unblinkingly at the family portraits on the walls, he said simply, “it would take a miracle.”

It’s taken a fair share of miracles to keep the factory in the neighborhood this long, so I choose to hold out hope that one more is on the way.

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