I always thought I would meet women like Rebecca Lepkoff when I moved to NYC in 1980, but it wasn’t until 1992 that our paths crossed. I was working at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum at the time, fascinated by the Lower East Side and its hold on the historical imagination of New Yorkers and Americans. Susan Fleminger of the Henry Street Settlement knew Rebecca and thought we would get along famously, and she was absolutely right. Rebecca’s photographs covered the exact time period of my work. I fell in love with her photographs and we became friends.
Rebecca Lepkoff was born on the Lower East Side in 1916, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants. As a teenager growing up during the Great Depression, she struggled to make a life for herself. Her mother never adjusted to America and had a nervous breakdown, leaving six children to fend for themselves. Her father was a skilled tailor who worked long hours. At first Rebecca found her passion and her salvation in dance. But when she was hired to dance at the 1939 World’s Fair, she used her earnings to buy a camera on a whim. The camera became her new passion. Her artistic vision transformed from choreography of the body to the choreography of the streets around her.
Rebecca Lepkoff joined the Photo League in 1947. Created in New York City in 1936 by photographers Sid Grossman and Sol Libsohn, the Photo League had originally been part of the Film and Photo League. The Photo League members believed that photographers should “illuminate and record the communities in which they lived.” And that is exactly what she did.
Her path to becoming an internationally known photographer began on the Lower East Side, the subject of her photographs and her muse for over half a century. Earlier historians addressed the period most associated with the Jewish and Italian immigration—the late 19th century. But in 1935 the Lower East Side remained one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in NYC, second only to East Harlem. During this period, in many ways the neighborhood became an area of resistance to Americanization. Many of the remaining Lower East Side residents were still non-citizens, although most had been in America for at least two decades. Over half spoke only a foreign language at home. The five square blocks between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges continued to be particularly heterogeneous throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s: It was Jewish, Italian, Irish, Greek, and Spanish. The babble of Russian, Yiddish, Spanish and Italian filled the streets where Lepkoff trained her lens. Peddlers proliferated. Children played on the stoops. A root beer cost 5 cents.
Lepkoff was both sensitive to her subjects and at the same time tenacious. That she was a woman photographer made her both able to appear innocuous but also perhaps more vulnerable. She was fearless in order to get the shot she wanted, and confrontations were not infrequent. Lepkoff described, quite simply, her choice of subjects: “People ask me—how did you know what to take? I didn’t even have to think. I just went outside, and there were the streets of my mother, of me, and whatnot. Very alive, full activity, with people.”
With the advent of immigration restriction laws in the mid-1920s, social theorists and reformers had predicted the immediate demise of the dreaded “slum.” They could not comprehend its remaining residents’ deep attachment to the neighborhood, a vibrant and close-knit community that defied outsiders’ descriptions of the community as a locus of broken dreams, delinquency, decline, and personal failure. Many middle-class reformers saw street life as a reflection of apathy and leisure. Why were women sitting on their stoops and standing on street corners idly chatting instead of staying inside their homes? But on the Lower East Side, the street and the stoop were extensions of tenement living rooms. Children played on the stoop under the watchful eyes of parents, grandparents, and neighbors. As Mario Puzo wrote in The Fortunate Pilgrim about a similar NY immigrant enclave in the same period, “each tenement was a village square.”
Lepkoff took many photographs of the block she lived on with her husband, Gene. She recalls Cherry Street as filled with:
Mothers with children. People would hang out of the windows and talk from the windows. They would sit outside and clean the windows. You’d get photographs of that. Or they’d sit on the fire escape when it was hot, and they’d sit on the stoops and talk. Really, the social climate was still very much the same as when I was little. Kind of friendly.
Like other Photo League photographers, she was interested in the profane, the everyday, the vernacular, and a broad, humanist outlook. The best possible place for encountering this material was literally on her street.
The merchants and shopkeepers of the neighborhood were part and parcel of the street and so were their storefronts. Lepkoff said of her photographs of them,
You would see the [shop keeper] working, and sometimes they’d come out and sit in the chair, very relaxed...So I would take [a photograph of] them in front of their store. And you see the store and the kind of lettering. And them sitting there. A piece of the street. I thought that was important. I thought that was really nice to see—a man running the store. A shoemaker with all his equipment, and the shoes; the design of the shoe. The articulation…And he lays out all his equipment. I thought that was distinguished. These shops were so beautiful to look at, the way they were arranged. That’s why I took them.
When housing reform began to take effect in the mid-1930s, many tenements were simply condemned and torn down. People who lived in the neighborhood wanted to remain in the same apartment houses they had lived in for years with family and friends in the same building and on the same block. Many families were evicted from their condemned tenements. They simply picked up and moved to other buildings together. In the 1940s and ‘50s, this neighborhood rapidly became an area of first settlement for migrating Puerto Ricans and African-Americans. During this period where others saw only change and decline, Lepkoff captured continuity.
In 1948, the attorney general’s office listed the Photo League as a Communist-front organization, and the league was forced to close in 1951. In 1950, after the birth of the Lepkoff’s first child, the family left Cherry Street and moved a few blocks away to Knickerbocker Village on Madison and Monroe. Knickerbocker Village was a housing project that opened in 1934 to accommodate the Lower East Side’s growing white and pink-collar community. Her old home on Cherry Street was torn down to make room for public housing.
But her work remains. Her photographs have been exhibited, published, and collected both in the United States and abroad. A book of her photographs that I co-authored from Princeton Architectural Press was published in October, 2006 called Life on the Lower East Side: The Photographs of Rebecca Lepkoff (1937–1950). It is the first published collection of her work of the neighborhood she was born in and lived in for almost fifty years. The book generated great interest and reviews. It is in its fourth printing.