This is the story of New York City’s Ageloff Towers at 141 East 3rd Street, its people, and the immediate neighborhood.
Every old apartment building in New York has a story that contains the history of the people who lived there. It is the story of a block and a neighborhood. It is a story of the city.
My family moved into the Ageloff Towers, 141 East 3rd Street, on the Lower East Side in 1962. My mother, who passed away in her apartment on January 16, 2023, lived there for 60 years.
The building has 12 stories and 100 apartments and is located on the northwest corner of Avenue A and 3rd Street. There is an adjoining 12-story Ageloff apartment building on East 4th Street.
The building was completed and opened early in 1929. Unlike the surrounding walk-up tenements of the area, the new Ageloff was modern. There were two elevators. Each apartment, most of which had one or two bedrooms, had its own bathroom. The art deco lobby still has its original geometric gold detailing along the ceiling. Above the entrance to the building, there is a frieze depicting lions with chains around their necks pulling men who look Egyptian.
The developer, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, Samuel Ageloff, intended his new tower to be the first luxury building in what was a very poor neighborhood. Unfortunately for Mr. Ageloff, the October 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression that followed meant that rather than becoming a building that attracted the affluent, 141 East 3rd Street instead became a destination for people, already living in the area, looking to escape slum housing.
An apocryphal story I heard as a child claimed that Mr. Ageloff, distraught about having overextended himself in building his Tower, committed suicide by jumping from the roof. In fact, he had a long career as a real estate developer, building homes in Coney Island and Bensonhurst, and died at age 88 in 1972.
As Samuel Ageloff was leaving his mark on Avenue A, one of his daughters was playing a leading role in one of the most infamous assassinations of the 20th century. On August 20, 1940, Ramón Mercader, an agent of the Soviet secret police acting on the orders of Josef Stalin, murdered Leon Trotsky in the Mexico City suburb of Coyoacán.
Mercader was able to gain entry to Trotsky’s heavily guarded compound thanks to his lover, Sylvia Ageloff. After briefly conferring with Trotsky in his study, Mercader stuck an ice pick into his head.
Despite their father’s wealth, or perhaps because of it, Sylvia Ageloff and her sisters, Hilda and Ruth, were ardent communists. During Trotsky’s exile from the Soviet Union, Ruth served as his personal secretary in Mexico City. Sylvia, who through Ruth was trusted among Trotsky’s circle, had a master’s degree in psychology from Columbia University and was fluent in Russian and French. She had met Mercader in Paris.
For many years, the story told by journalists and others was that Mercader duped Sylvia, passing himself off as sympathetic to Trotsky. The homely Sylvia, in this telling, was seduced by the cunning Soviet secret agent. More recently historians have suggested that Sylvia was herself a Soviet secret agent and a willing participant in the plot. After Trotsky was killed, Sylvia was arrested as an accomplice to murder by the Mexican police. Family members, including her father Samuel, rushed to Mexico, and after a short period she was released and returned to New York, and from then on lived a fairly anonymous life. She died in 1995.
Enough about the Ageloff family. This is a story about 141 East 3rd Street, its people, and the immediate neighborhood.
Growing Up at Ageloff TowersWhen I was a toddler, my mother would take my twin brother and me to the shady interior courtyard of the First Houses, a public housing project made up of eight detached four and five story buildings, directly across the street from our building, running along the south side of 3rd Street. The development was given its name because it was the first public housing built in the United States. When it opened in 1935, Mayor LaGuardia and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attended the dedication. The city had acquired the land by eminent domain, and tenement buildings that had been on the site were knocked down. What went up in their place was by comparison idyllic. Back when I was a kid, the development was still integrated, by which I mean there were still a few white people living there. My mother remembers being there one day and seeing the mother of a kid named Vinny, whom I sometimes played with, crying. She went up to the woman and asked, “What’s wrong?” This is how my mother found out that President Kennedy had been assassinated.
In the 1960s and 70s, the Ageloff was largely populated by retired Jewish people living on fixed incomes. For one reason or another—many didn’t have enough money to leave and others were creatures of habit—they hadn’t made the post-World War II exodus to the suburbs. 141 East 3rd Street was a rent-controlled building—meaning rents were regulated. Rent control had had gone into effect in 1943. So apartments were relatively inexpensive, and especially so for long-term residents. If you’d been living there long enough, it probably meant you couldn’t afford to live elsewhere.
Throughout my childhood there was a line of elderly women who, even in cold weather, would spend the day seated on aluminum lawn chairs on the sidewalk just outside the building, keeping sentry and watching disapprovingly at everyone going into and out of the building. The old ladies knew everyone and acted as a kind of security system. On most days there was also an old man who dressed in a suit and a fedora who spent hours standing on the sidewalk smoking cigars.
The few families with children who lived in the Ageloff were of modest means. Our next-door neighbor was an electrician. My parents’ best friend in the building was a social worker, and the father of my younger brother’s friend was a butcher. I babysat for a book salesman whose wife worked in textbook publishing. There were nurses who worked in hospitals and several teachers employed in the city public school system. Our family was unusual in that my parents had an academic bent. My father was teaching English at Staten Island Community College and, in those years, still taking night classes on his way to getting his Ph.D. from NYU. Until she gave birth to twins, my mother had been teaching French and Latin at a series of New York private schools.
The SupersFor a child living in a New York City apartment building, it was understood that the superintendent had a position equivalent of that to a mid-level god of Greek mythology. He was talented in certain areas, mercurial, unreliable, and, in the realm of the building, responsible for making sure things worked. He was powerful and flawed.
Until I was maybe ten years old, through the 1960s, our building super was Andy. He could fix things. Not all supers can. On Halloween, he would take the few children living in the Ageloff trick-or-treating—out of 100 apartments there were only about ten kids and usually five of us went through the building. Andy was also frequently drunk. Even as a small child, I recall grown-ups complaining that he was an “alcoholic.” I didn’t know what the word meant, but understood that it wasn’t good. During the years that my family lived on the 12th floor, I remember firemen coming to our small apartment. I was maybe five years old. Steam had been pouring out of the radiator and rapidly filling the kitchen. After their arrival, Andy, who had showed up belatedly, and my father started screaming at each other. Both of them could really bellow, and the yelling went on for some time. Andy was upset that the fire department had been called without his approval. “My family lives here!” my father shouted. As he was leaving the apartment, I remember Andy saying to my mother, “I apologize for yelling at your husband.”
On the Avenue A side of our building, there was a social club frequented by Andy and other surly red-faced men. I suppose many of them were Korean War and World War II veterans. They had a softball team and sometimes practiced in the large 3rd Street schoolyard that our apartment looked down on. Seeing grown men throw a ball around was unusual. In those days, teenagers had the run of the adjacent basketball courts and would often walk off with any ball that belonged to younger kids. Older and stronger boys stealing a ball or bat from the younger kids was habitual. One day a teenager was walking off with the basketball of a kid in our building when Andy, observing this, walked up to the boy, said something and slapped him in the face. The teenager burst into tears and returned the ball.
It was maybe 1969 when we got a new super. Tommy was overweight with slicked-back hair. In his white t-shirt, he looked a little like Elvis Presley. He was congenial, and in a slightly mocking, but not unfriendly tone, always addressed my father as “professor.” Tommy lived with his wife and two children in the building, until he got a new job as a custodian at P.S. 63, which was the elementary school on the block. My dad sold our car, a green Plymouth Valiant, to Tommy when his family moved to Long Island.
I have only vague memories of the next super, who was from Puerto Rico and had a much older wife with dyed blonde hair. He was unfriendly and his wife often appeared in the lobby sporting black eyes. I can hardly remember him, but my twin brother, who recalls him vividly, had a strong dislike for him.
The super that followed was Oswaldo, a congenial but unhappy fellow who liked to put his arm around you. My mother’s best friend in the building was waiting for the M14 bus on Avenue A, directly across the street from the building, when Oswaldo jumped out of the window and killed himself.
The building’s supers in recent years are Albanian immigrants and, of course, they don’t have the mythic quality for me that the supers did when I was a child and living in the building.
The StaffUnder the supervision of the super, 141 East 3rd would always have a staff person on duty. He’d be responsible for mopping each floor during the day, running the service elevator, which went down to the laundry room and basement storage area, and dealing with the trash. When I was a kid, there was an incinerator chute on each floor and you’d drop the garbage down it. You would periodically during the day smell smoke as fire consumed the waste.
Max, Emile, Goldie, Junior, Walter, Eddie. They all had stories. Max was a cheerful old-timer. He would sometimes surreptitiously smoke a cigar in front of the building. Junior ended up marrying a beautiful woman who lived in the building. Eddie worked at 141 East 3rd for over 30 years and only recently retired. Even at age 60, he looked like he was 25. Everyone loved him. When my father died, Eddie and the building super, Hassan, came up to my parents’ apartment to pay their respects. Eddie had tears in his eyes. “Your father was a great man,” he said. That was an exaggeration, but his sentiment was greatly appreciated.
I was always partial to Walter, a quiet and hefty guy with dark hair and a thin mustache, because he’d rescued my father from a mugging. One afternoon my father was returning home from the post office on 3rd Street between Avenue B and C. This was during the 1980s, when 3rd Street around Avenue B was overrun with heroin addicts and drug dealers. My dad, already a senior citizen, was jumped and tackled by two young men. As they rifled through his pockets, Walter, on his way to work, emerged from his Chevy Monte Carlo waving a club and yelling “Get off him, you motherfuckers!” and chased off the assailants.
In later years, when I’d be visiting my parents and the regular elevator was out of service, Walter would sometimes take me up in the service elevator and we’d give each other a silent nod. We never discussed his rescuing my father. There was in those years, always conspicuous to me, a blackjack hanging from a peg in the service elevator.
The JudgeMy family’s life in 141 East 3rd is improbably tied to the story of the building’s most distinguished tenant. Judge Edward Weinfeld was a Lower East Side boy, born in 1901. He grew up in a tenement, went to law school at night, and opened his own practice, while being active in the Democratic Party and becoming a protégé of Governor Herbert Lehman. In 1950 Weinfeld became a federal judge, after being nominated by President Truman on the recommendation of Lehman, who by this time was a U.S. senator.
Judge Weinfeld served on the federal bench for nearly four decades, until shortly before his death in 1988. He would arrive at work at 6:00 a.m. every morning and was widely thought to be one of the greatest trial judges in the country. U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan once said of him, “There is general agreement on bench and bar throughout the nation that there is no better judge on any court.’’
The Judge and his wife, Lily, lived on the tenth floor when my family moved into the Ageloff. The 1940 census lists the building as his address, so they’d been living there a long time. His two daughters were grown and had moved out many years earlier.
While all other apartments in the building had a single bedroom, with the exception of the H and F Lines, which had two bedrooms, Judge Weinfeld lived in the building’s one grand apartment, having combined 10E and 10F into a single unit. His tenth-floor apartment had three sizable bedrooms; a large living room, with windows facing east that looked out on the bridges crossing the East River; and an equally spacious dining room with southerly facing windows. There were two full bathrooms, and on the E side, what had once been the kitchen had been converted into a library and study. So while the corner of Avenue A and 3rd Street may not have been considered a location befitting a residence for a federal judge, it is not altogether surprising that the judge chose to stay in the neighborhood where he had grown up. And unlike Manhattan’s more elegant precincts, where the other judges of the Southern District lived, the Lower East Side was relatively close to the federal courthouse where Judge Weinfeld presided.
Notwithstanding the judge’s fondness for his apartment and the neighborhood of his youth, his time in the Ageloff was not entirely peaceful.
Salesman Knifed in Place of Judge
The New York Times, May 14, 1957
A former model thinking her target was Judge Edward Weinfeld stabbed and wounded a garment salesman on the Lower East Side. “You ruined my life,” she cried, as she plunged her knife into Sam Smith, age 57, thinking he was Judge Weinfeld. The jurist lives in the same building at 141 East 3rd Street near Avenue A.
The woman had brought a case against four psychiatrists and the city several years earlier, charging she had been mistreated. Judge Weinfeld presided over the case, which was dismissed…. After Mr. Smith was attacked, police followed up on a tip and arrested the woman, who gave her name as Judith Morgan, at her hotel at 240 West 49th Street… “I’m sorry I hit the wrong man,” she told detectives. The police found a 12-inch carving knife in her room. Mr. Smith, who was treated at Bellevue Hospital, was confronted by the woman and identified her as his attacker.
Several years later, in July of 1964, Judge Weinfeld’s neighbor, Irving Silberfarb, from down the hall, was killed just a block from the building when he was struck in a hit-and-run. The driver of the car, who was dressed in a checkered shirt, fled on foot.
And then, just three months later, there was another incident involving the judge that was also reported in The New York Times, on October 19, 1964.
U.S. Judge Weinfeld Is Beaten by Porter In Apartment Lobby
Federal Judge Edward Weinfeld was beaten in the lobby of his Lower East Side apartment house yesterday morning by a porter from a neighboring building. The judge suffered black eyes and a bloody nose.
The assailant, 22-year-old Charles Thompson of 187 Rivington Street, later cut his throat in the detention cell at Criminal Court and was sent to Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric study.
Judge Weinfeld was attacked at about 8 a.m. as he returned to his apartment at 141 East Third Street after buying newspapers. He said Thompson, who works in another apartment house on East Third Street, brushed against him, yelled obscenely and punched him in the face.
Other tenants waved down a passing police patrol car. Thompson was arrested and taken before Judge Morton R. Toleris in Criminal Court. Judge Weinfeld appeared to make the complaint.
It is understandable that a couple of years after this attack Judge Weinfeld and his wife decided to leave the neighborhood and move to an apartment on the Upper East Side.
The timing couldn’t have been better for my family, and if not for Charles Thompsons’s bizarre attack on the judge our lives might have been quite different.
My mother was about to give birth to her third son, and we were already overcrowded in our small apartment on the 12th floor. My parents had applied for an apartment in Village View, a newly built 1,200-unit development of subsidized housing running from Avenue A to 1st Avenue and 2nd to 6th Street, but there were very few three-bedroom apartments, and the prospects of getting one were remote. Then, in something of a miracle, our building super, Andy, alerted my parents that Judge Weinfeld’s tenth-floor apartment would be opening up, and when the building agent approved their application, the rent control apartment that had formerly belonged to the judge was ours.
The 1970s and 80sOn the Lower East Side the tumult of the 1960s slid into the gutter of the 70s. Entire blocks in the neighborhood were being abandoned. Buildings burned and were reduced to skeleton shells. Empty lots, where tenements had a few years earlier housed families, were filled with rubble and garbage. Between 1970 and 1980, the neighborhood, from Avenue A and points east, between 14th to Houston Street, lost half of its private housing. The neighborhood’s population declined by 40 percent. Wailing fire trucks and the smell of smoke assaulted the senses. It was thrilling, terrifying, and strange for a kid growing up in the middle of it. Except for going to school at a yeshiva on Avenue B and playing baseball on the fields along the FDR Drive, Avenue A was a border that my friends and I didn’t cross. The streets to the east belonged to heroin dealers and drug addicts whose need for a fix led them into criminality. The teenagers who remained on those blocks were territorial. This all seemed completely normal. We were kids, and being frightened was a part of childhood. 141 East 3rd was an art deco fortress. Safe, secure, and spacious.
Immediately across the street on the east side of Avenue A there were, in the 1970s, three dilapidated and boarded-up tenement buildings. One still had a store, Lichtenberg’s Furniture; its dirty windows, illuminated by lamps, displayed sofas wrapped in plastic. Lichtenberg’s always seemed empty, and I never saw anyone shopping there.
The landscape changed one day in July of 1981. My parents were in Vermont at the time, and I was staying at the apartment. I’d been to a nightclub called the Peppermint Lounge where a punk rock band from Northern Ireland called Stiff Little Fingers played songs about barbed wire love and bombs going off in Belfast. After the show, I was back at the apartment with a friend from college, a Midwesterner from a small town in Ohio visiting New York for the first time. It was early in the a.m. hours, and we were carrying on in conversation when she stood up and looked out the window. After a minute, she turned to me and said, “Wasn’t there a building standing on the corner when we went out tonight?” It was hot and hazy, and lots of alcohol had been consumed, so I didn’t think much of the question. But when I looked out of the window I saw that the tenement on the corner had largely collapsed, and that there was a large pile of bricks where the building had been. The next day I was told a car, being chased by the police, had crashed into the building at high speed. The occupants of the car remarkably escaped without a scratch.
In the 1970s pre-gentrification Lower East Side there were also changes at 141 East 3rd Street. As many of the older Jewish residents died or moved out, several families with children moved into the large F Line two-bedroom apartments. The three Velazquez boys were on the second floor. The Bonilla kids, whom I knew by their nicknames— Boo Boo, Windy, and Lot—moved onto the fifth floor; and in another apartment there was a gentle kid named César and his sister. The boys were all a bit younger than me, but I got to know them from playing ball in the large schoolyard that the building’s west-facing windows looked down on. 141 East 3rd, which in the 1960s had been nearly entirely occupied by elderly Jewish people, very gradually was becoming integrated.
At the same time, many of the working-class Jewish residents, holding on to their rent-control apartments, remained entrenched in the building. Some were not so wholesome. Joel Schwartz, who lived on the third floor, wasn’t exactly Meyer Lansky or Bugsy Siegel, but he was rumored to be involved in various illicit activities. He had a hair weave, wore his shirt unbuttoned to show off his chest hair, and there was often a glazed, druggy expression on his face. He was often in the lobby scowling and arguing with his mother, Tillie, who walked with a terrible limp and had her own apartment in the building. Joel’s sidekick Yummy, a morbidly obese balding man with a short ponytail, was often stationed out front of the building watching who came in and went out.
Five Seized Here in Police Bribery
The New York Times, May 21, 1975
Five men who allegedly paid $5,200 to policemen posing as rogue cops in an effort to buy protection for topless and homosexual bars were arrested yesterday….
According to the office of Maurice H. Nadjari, the special state prosecutor, the indictments reflect a purported scheme of systematic weekly payments ranging from $50 to $800 to the policemen who represented themselves to be corrupt.
In return, it was alleged, the defendants expected that if laws were violated in the bars, the police would prevent prosecution and also would prevent revocation of liquor licenses….
All of the defendants were described as owners or managers of the bars. They were charged with a total of 23 counts of bribery: each defendant faces a maximum sentence of seven years in prison on each count if convicted.
The defendants were identified as Alan Gertler, 35, of 141 East Third Street; Joel Schwartz, 33, of 141 East Third Street….
The bars in question were identified as the Rouge et Blank, 341 West 41st Street; the New Camp Bar, at 309 East 60th Street: Adrian’s Bar, at 133 West 33rd Street; Forbidden Fruit, at 260 West 35th Street, and The Abbey, at 42 West 35th Street.
I assume the defendants managed to avoid prison because Joel and Yummy remained fixtures at the building for many years after their arrest.
Adjacent to what was Lichtenberg’s furniture store on the southeast corner of 4th Street, across the street from our building, there is a large supermarket, Key Food, which has been a mainstay of the neighborhood for over 50 years.
The store at the location prior to Key Food, according to my mother, was Klinghoffer’s hardware store. Years later, Leon Klinghoffer, the owner of the store, would be murdered by PLO terrorists and thrown overboard from the Achille Lauro cruise ship into the Mediterranean. People in the neighborhood remembered Mr. Klinghoffer as gruff and not especially friendly. A highly acclaimed and controversial opera by John Adams titled The Death of Klinghoffer has been performed at leading opera houses throughout the world. Klinghoffer’s daughters protested the 2014 performance at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, claiming the opera was anti-Semitic and romanticized the death of their father.
The Key Food that succeeded Klinghoffer’s was central to the lives of the residents of 141 East 3rd. It is where we shopped for all our groceries. As my mother got old and her memory faded, there were a very small number of stories she would recite to me. One involved her hearing gunshots and looking out the window and seeing the manager of Key Food, who’d just been shot dead by a disgruntled employee of the store, lying on the street. She would later read in the newspaper that after the store manager died and before his body was delivered to the morgue that his wedding ring and other personal belongings had been stolen off his body. “Can you imagine? They took his wedding ring,” my mother would repeat again and again during my weekly visits.
Whatever lingering memories suggest, one thing of which I am certain is that my parents loved their apartment. They knew how to have fun and there were always people coming over for coffee in the morning or dinner at night. Their friends were World War II refugees from Europe, writers, professors, and men my father had grown up with in Boston or spent time with in the army. My parents went out every weekend and sometimes during the week. There were movies, concerts, museums, theater, and long summer vacations. It was a good life, and their decision to stay on the Lower East Side, after a brief period of looking at houses in New Jersey, was something I never heard them second guess. There were others who moved into the building who felt similarly.
ConversionAs the 1970s turned into the 1980s, the first wave of gentrification came to the city. Money was being made. There was the advent of junk bonds and leveraged buyouts. Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky become infamous due to insider trading scandals. The stock market had its best decade since the 1950s. People were actually beginning to move back into New York, and even on to the Lower East Side, which north of Houston Street was now commonly called the East Village. The process of change was complicated by the AIDS epidemic—several tenants of 141 East 3rd Street died from the disease—and then by crack cocaine, which hit the neighborhood with terrible ferocity. But those calamities were not enough to halt landlords all over the city who, seeing the chance to make a killing, began converting apartments into co-ops. Over the course of the decade, this happened in over 3,000 rental buildings in New York, and over 250,000 apartments became owner-occupied. The process accelerated in the final three years of the 1980s, when over 100,000 rental apartments were converted. There was human drama in the conversion of each building.
When, towards the end of the decade, the owner of 141 East 3rd informed residents of its intention to convert the building, the residents formed a tenants’ committee. Many feared they might be evicted. Others saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to buy an apartment at a steeply discounted price. Under New York law, for the building’s owner to evict tenants, 51 percent of the residents would have to agree to buy their apartments. A non-eviction plan, in which renters would be allowed to remain, only required 15 percent of tenants to buy their apartment for the conversion plan to take effect.
Most tenants were paying $400 or $500 a month, and many lacked the ability to buy their apartment. A number of the residents agreed to chip in and hire a lawyer, and after negotiations a non-eviction plan was approved. Several tenants were given money to move out, and some moved to Florida. The remaining renters received new ovens and refrigerators as part of the deal. My parents chose to continue renting, rejecting my suggestion that buying their apartment at the discounted insider price would be a great investment. “We aren’t going anywhere. Why should we pay a monthly maintenance triple what we are paying every month in rent?” my father told me. But for others the decision to buy worked out well. My parents’ friend Marjorie, who had lived in the building for nearly 20 years, bought her third-floor apartment for $52,000. Sixteen years later she sold it for $435,000.
Over time, as people died off or moved, more and more apartments went on to the market. Eventually, Ageloff Towers became a building of people with money—lawyers; millennials working in tech or finance; successful literary agents; Europeans, who on my visits to see my parents, I’d hear speaking French or German in the elevator; and others who didn’t seem to work at all, but must have had family money and inherited wealth. The building became popular with musicians who’d hit it big. A member of The Strokes lived on my parents’ floor and another one was on the floor below. The wife of the bass player for Fine Young Cannibals, who was a friend of a friend, called me on the phone to get the lowdown on the building. As wealthier residents moved in, improvements were made to the building. The lobby was renovated, and its faded art deco details restored. Elevators were upgraded. One management company attended to the needs of people who owned their apartments, while the remaining renters were required to go through a separate building agent. Of course, the newcomers, some of whom, now a generation on, are hardly new anymore, had little interest in the building’s history. Why should they? Eventually, the transformation will be complete. 141 East 3rd Street’s apartments, like hundreds of thousands of others, will be completely removed from the city’s rent roles forever, and the Ageloff’s colorful past will be a fading memory. The end of history.
Except history doesn’t end. Stories remain untold. The future is unwritten. A pandemic comes to New York and during its first year most residents of the building flee the city. For many months in 2020, my mother’s caregiver tells me that nearly all the apartments on her floor are empty. During this time my mother’s beloved next-door neighbors, Michael and Phillip, who visited her every day, retire and move up to Mount Desert Island in Maine. I’m happy they have escaped, but it’s a tragedy for my mother. As her memory and health decline, she is increasingly isolated. Eventually some people return, and there are also new tenant-owners moving into the building.
The neighborhood, though, seems forlorn. Dining sheds go up along Avenues A and B and side streets. Many of them are used by homeless people as shelter after the restaurants close. There is still plenty of money floating around, judging by the crowds congregating for outdoor dining at expensive restaurants, but they share the streets with people who are in the throes of mental illness and drug addiction. It seems to be a strange in-between time. Will things get better or worse?
On a Monday afternoon in January of 2022, the Essex Card Shop, a stationery store on the Avenue A side of my mother’s building, catches fire. I learn about this as the fire is still happening, when a chronicler of the neighborhood who has dubbed himself EV Grieve, posts a video on Twitter of the building engulfed in heavy smoke. It is one day after a fire in the Bronx killed 17 people. My mother, who only walks with great difficulty, makes it down ten flights of stairs, and she and others take shelter in the pharmacy on the corner.
The stationery store, which has been on Avenue A since 1923, is completely destroyed, and days later a 14-year-old boy is arrested for having set the fire. When I was a teenager, the store was owned by an orthodox Jewish family, the Mayers. I’d go there to buy a spaldeen to play stickball and get my school supplies. The family’s five children worked in the store, and the father, always wearing a fedora, would be behind the cash register. Stephen Mayer, a big hefty kid a couple of years older than me who could dunk a basketball, was one of the best basketball players on a local neighborhood team that won a city championship in 1976 in the Young Israel league.
In 2000, the store was taken over by Mr. Aslam, a Pakistani, and Mr. Patel, from India, and members of their families worked there. These new proprietors are friendly and popular. And after the terrible fire, amid the gloom of the pandemic, something lovely has happened. The neighborhood comes together to help them. Nearly 2,000 people contribute to a fundraiser that takes in nearly $100,000, allowing Muhammed Aslam to make the repairs needed to reopen the store.
PostscriptSeveral years back—it was 2015 to be exact—two red-tailed hawks built a nest on top of a Frigidaire air conditioner sticking out of the window on the 12th floor of 141 East 3rd, just two floors above the apartment where my mother still lived.
The nest consisted of twigs, leaves, and other plant material that the hawks gathered from Tompkins Square Park. The expectant mother and father, dubbed Christo and Dora by neighborhood birders, took turns incubating the eggs laid by Dora. The hawks’ adventures at the building and on the surrounding streets were recorded on the blog of a local photographer, Laura Goggin. After 50 days, three chicks hatched. Every day their parents would bring back food—small birds, squirrels, and rodents—and the mother, standing on the air conditioner, would feed the babies in the nest. The father hawk, Christo, was often spotted looking down on Avenue A while perched on the cross atop the Most Holy Redeemer Church, directly across the street. He and Dora would do most of their hunting in Tompkins Square Park. At some point, Christo began using the roof of Most Holy Redeemer as a kitchen table, delivering food there, and forcing the juvenile hawks to fly across the street to get fed. When the three fledglings were first learning to fly, one had difficulties, crash landing on his first flight onto an 11th-floor air conditioner, and later on flying into the flower section of the bodega on the corner and crashing into a window of the Two Boots restaurant. Eventually the fledglings moved on a few blocks north to Tompkins Square Park.
Over five years, Christo and Dora raised ten baby hawks. After one year on the 12th floor at the Ageloff, they moved on to other neighborhood nesting spots. Several years ago Dora left the East Village, but Christo and his new mate, Amy, can still be seen wandering the neighborhood. The cross atop the dome of Most Holy Redeemer Church still seems to be a favorite spot for Christo and, after all these years, he still finds sustenance in his old haunts. As for the babies who hatched at the Ageloff, they have moved away, presumably finding living quarters friendlier than those found on Avenue A.
Read Jacob Margolies’s Letter to America, “When the Queen Spoke,” in Terrain.org.
Special thanks to the photographers whose work accompanies this essay:
Rich Allen is a photographer and film maker who lived on East 3rd Street in the 1970s. His photographs of kids on the block where he lived capture the time and place as it was for children.
Laura Goggin has been chronicling the East Village / Lower East Side red-tailed hawks, Christo, Dora, and Amelia, as well as other New York City wildlife since 2007.
Joost Heinsius is based in Europe (Amsterdam) and works in the area of entrepreneurship and the arts; he lived in and photographed the East Village during the 1980s.
The photos of Don Pollard have appeared in most of the world’s leading newspapers. In 1980 he spent 10 nights sleeping on a cot in a 10th floor apartment of the Ageloff Tower.
Header photo of the entrance to Ageloff Towers by Don Pollard. Photo of Jacob Margolies by Don Pollard.