Inside 70 Hester Street, a Former Lower East Side Synagogue
"70 Hester Street," a short documentary playing at the Tribeca Film Festival, takes us inside director Casimir Nozkowski's historic childhood home.
In “70 Hester Street,” a short film that’s currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, filmmaker Casimir Nozkowski chronicles his childhood home at 70 Hester St. on the Lower East Side. Over the course of its life, the building has been a synagogue, a Prohibition whiskey still, a raincoat and shower factory and, finally, home to Nozkowski's artist parents, who rented the upper-floor apartment for $100 a month back in 1967. When the building was sold in 2012, Nozkowski's parents were forced to move. Not before Nozkowski took one last visit with his camera, though.
“70 Hester Street” is just one of many NYC-centric documentaries that Nozkowski has shot. In his short films, which you can view on his website, he examines aspects of city life that all New Yorkers can appreciate — whether it's a film about bodega cats or an exploration of the economic benefits (or lack thereof) of the city's wildly expensive new stadiums. To view some of our favorite Nozkowski films, check out our gallery below.
Nozkowski spoke with FrontDoor about "70 Hester Street."
What inspired you to make this film?
My parents were moving out of this really unique building that I grew up in that I took for granted. I thought for sure it was going to be knocked down once they were gone and I literally had no choice: I had to start documenting it. What it turned into was this personal meditation on the nature of remembering your childhood home and how you remember it. Do you remember how it was at the end? Or do I remember the fonder times in the middle that I didn't really take note of when I was a kid?
What sort of research did you do? How did you go about learning the history of the building?
At first I had this kind of anecdotal understanding of it from my parents, and because the building was still so intact, you could really see the synagogue, you could really see the whiskey still. There was this sliding door with a peephole. You could see where there had been these gas jets at the turn of the century before there was electricity in the building. So at first I didn't really do any research. I was more focused on capturing my own experience there. Then when I was editing the film I got very interested in making an official [timeline]. When was it a synagogue? When was it a whiskey still? What else was it after that? When did the woman who rented it to my parents, when did she buy it and how much was it? So I hired an historian, this guy Andy McCarthy, and he did a really nice job of tracking down a lot of deeds and a lot of articles.
When did you become aware that you were living in this piece of New York City history? As you say in the film, most of us take our childhood for granted.
I feel like once I moved out, once I went to college in ’94. I moved to an apartment in Williamsburg I was sharing with friends. That was the first apartment I moved to. I had the tiniest room and I was paying more rent than my parents were paying. So I was like wow, they really are living in this incredibly neat place. Just kind of by comparison and almost by comparison of the rent, in a weird way, that brought it into the clearest juxtaposition.
See 7 Short NYC Films From Casimir NozkowskiView All 7 Photos
Can you talk about some of your favorite details in the loft?
The stained glass star at the back — that to me is so beautiful and unique with the light streaming through it. That was something begging to be filmed. And then the sliding door is just cool when you’re a kid. I was excited by the idea of secret passages, things like that, in houses. I felt like I had a secret passage because I had this sliding door, I had this peephole. It made this very dramatic sound when you opened it.
Were your parents renting it the whole time? They never owned the place?
They were renting it for 45 years from this family. They rented it from this woman Sarah Feifer. From what my parents tell me, she was a Communist or at least had Communist leanings. She rented it to them at a rate that artists could afford. And then I think she passed away and her daughter took over. Her daughter was the landlord for the majority of our time there and she was very nice. She's still available but she's in a nursing home now. Her kids took over and the second they took over they just sold the building. I can be cynical about them, but honestly it makes perfect sense. They sold it and rightly so made a ton of money because the neighborhood’s blowing up.
In the film, you don't seem to harbor an overly NIMBY, cynical attitude about the sale of the building.
As my dad says in the film, it's so rare that you can spend 45 years in one place. So the fact that the rent that they gave us allowed my parents to do that really is not a tragedy. The one thing that I would say was super lame of them was they gave us a 30-day eviction notice. There is something so crass about after 45 years of being solid tenants, to get that kind of notice without any warning.
Are they still living in the city?
No, they moved upstate. When I was growing up we had a house upstate about two hours north of the city. So they just moved up there full-time. They're still working artists so they come into the city all the time.
What was their rent back in '67?
I think it was a hundred dollars a month when they first moved in. Just for the top two floors. There were two other units in the building. When I was a kid, those other two units were fabric stores. That was a really big neighborhood for fabric stores back in the day.
How do you feel about the building becoming a cafe and gallery?
I feel very happy that the building is going to continue standing. They're renovating it. The facade of the building is still there. I thought for sure it was going to be knocked down and turned into a luxury condo. So on the one hand I feel excited that it's going to keep living and become these new things. On the other hand, I guess I feel a little dubious because they're renting it at, like, $15,000 a month for the gallery. I have a feeling it's not going to be your traditional art gallery. It's gonna be a kind of more fashion-y, hip gallery.
What was the neighborhood like when you were growing up there and how has it changed?
It was an incredibly diverse neighborhood with a really happy intersection of all these different cultures. I loved it. I went to elementary school in Chinatown and at a pretty young age I was cruising around by myself, going to buy some baseball cards here, play arcade games at the secret arcade back here. Some of it still looks the same, but there is definitely a gentrification that has happened. I think it's better than what happened to Soho. When I look at Soho, that to me is really a bummer because it's just like a big chain mall now. I used to love Soho. I loved all the art and it had that authentic quality. Soho is probably the neighborhood in New York City that depresses me the most when I think of how it's changed.