If you’ve ever got a little free time in Chinatown, take a stroll towards the East Broadway F stop and look for a regal, 10-story Beaux Arts building of yellow brick and marble. Wedged between an evangelical church and the pricey cuisine of Mission Chinese is a link to East Broadway’s past as the heart of the Yiddish Newspaper Row: the former home of the Jewish Forward, America’s longest-running socialist newspaper.
This is largely thanks to Abraham Cahan. Russian by birth and socialist by belief, Cahan fled the motherland at the age of 21 after a pair of left-wing radicals assassinated Czar Alexander II in 1881. The assassination sparked a wave of pogroms and political persecution across eastern Europe. Between 1881 and 1925, almost 1.5 million Eastern European Jews left their homes to settle on the Lower East Side.
After working at several smaller Yiddish papers, Cahan started writing for the Jewish Forward in 1897. At first he wrote just a few freelance articles, but by 1903, he was a permanent member of the staff. He insisted on straightforward vernacular instead of the political gobbledegook a lot of socialists deployed at the time. Under his leadership, the paper fought for union rights, demonstrated against America’s entry in World War I, and defended Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in the popular press. But he also offered practical assistance to readers in his column A Bintel Brief starting in 1906, where newly-arrived immigrants asked for advice and shared stories of navigating the treacherous social, religious, and economic terrain of the New World. “Under your tenement roofs are stories of the real life-stuff,” he wrote, “the very stuff of which great literature can be made. Let us read in this book together. Let us write more of it together.”
As Cahan’s influence on the paper grew, so did the paper’s popularity. Circulation rose from 60,000 in 1906 to over 250,000 in the 1920s. By the 1930s, over 275,000 Americans read the Forward, more than twice the number of copies sold by its closest Yiddish competitor. Thousands more tuned into the Forward’s radio station WEVD, “the station that speaks your language.”
To accommodate the paper’s growing needs, Cahan commissioned George Boehm to design a new office on East Broadway, the heart of Yiddish Newspaper Row. Pulling from Greek Revival and Beaux Arts, Boehm finished the 10-story structure in 1912, complete with a giant clock on the top floor, a decorative cartouche below the broken pediment, and 4 terra cotta bas reliefs of famous socialists. (Three of them are Karl Marx, Ferdinand Lasalle, and Friedrich Engels, but no one can agree on who the fourth one is.) At the time, it was the tallest building in the Lower East Side, though at least one writer found fault in its size. Henry Margoshes believed “the socialist movement in New York will be buried under this ten-story Capitalist building.”
He wasn’t entirely wrong. In 1974, the Forward moved offices uptown and sold the building to the Lau family in 1974. After several decades of printing Chinese-language Bibles, the Laus converted the building into residential lofts in 1998. Nowadays it’s a fancy apartment building for celebrities like Spike Jonez and America Ferarra. One can only imagine what Cahan would say if he saw the $2.5 million-a-unit price tag.