When Robert F. Kennedy Campaigned on the Lower East Side (Revisited)
Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. The 42-year-old senator and presidential candidate was assassinated by Palestinian terrorist Sirhan Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles just after declaring victory in the 1968 Democratic California primary.
Just four years earlier – in September 1964 – Kennedy had visited the Lower East Side during his run for the United States Senate. A large crowd (and press) attended the campaign stump outside the former Isidor Theatre of the Educational Alliance on East Broadway. He was elected in the November election that year.
The Downtown Express in 2006 published a piece on this 1964 senatorial campaign. Writer Bonnie Rosenstock recalled her work with the Kennedys:
We were also tapped to accompany the advance team to hand out fliers announcing Robert Kennedy’s impending appearance in a neighborhood. In the black neighborhoods the crowds were large and enthusiastic. They surrounded our cars, climbed onto the hoods and pressed their bodies against the windshield and four windows, almost cutting off our air supply. It was frightening, but friendly.
But more frightening and less friendly was the response on the Lower East Side. At that time the Lower East Side was still very much a Jewish ghetto, consisting of a disproportionate number of low-income elderly whose upwardly mobile children were leaving or had already left for better New York City neighborhoods or the suburbs. Those left behind were Holocaust survivors, relatives of those who did not survive or Jews who had lived through the Depression and both world wars on this side of the ocean. When we two fresh-faced Jewish college girls handed them fliers, they readily took them and returned our smiles. However, their faces changed to frowns of disgust when they read what and for whom it was about. Then the volley of invective flowed from their frail, gray-haired souls.
Bobby Kennedy would return three years later as New York senator with LES native senator Jacob Javits (yeah, that one). The Village Voice covered this high-profile visit in its May 11, 1967 issue. Herewith, some interesting excerpts:
After a Senate hearing on Grand Street to evaluate the War on Poverty and a gefilte fish lunch at Ratner’s, Bobby Kennedy and Jacob Javits spent a rainy Monday afternoon walking around the Lower East Side.
The Senators first visited Javits’s birthplace at 85 Stanton Street. A bronze plaque on the wall of the condemned building glistened. Local anti-poverty workers had cleaned it hours before to erase an unkind remark about the Senator.
Javits said that his boyhood neighborhood had changed. “It’s not as teeming as it used to be,” he said. “It’s much poorer now, not in actual monetary terms but in its feeling, its ride.”
The Senators stopped at 114 Stanton Street to visit the tenement home of Manual Silva. Garbage was piled in the hall, and the stairs were dark. The building was on rent strike.
As the Senators, anti-poverty officials, and newsmen climbed the four flights of stairs, bewildered tenants stared through half-opened doors. They walked through Mrs. Silva’s kitchen, where dinner steamed on the stove, into the living room of the $57-a-month apartment. The furniture was covered with clear plastic. In the corner sat a 24-inch television set.
“It’s not satisfactory to have housing,” he [Kennedy] continued, “if you don’t have jobs. It’s not satisfactory to have education if you don’t have recreation.”