November 3, 2021 Building series: Eastern District High School
Site: Eastern District High School
Location: 227 Marcy Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11211
The story of Williamsburg cannot be told without talking about the Eastern District High School building. It is, decisively, one of the most striking architectural buildings in the neighborhood. I owe this blog some recent pictures I plan to take to complete the entry. In the meantime, come and read the tremendous story of the building.
During the 20th century, there was a battle for the soul of Williamsburg. Some residents wanted to create institutions to preserve and promote religious culture and practices while others wanted to leave this immigrant religiosity behind, to assimilate and pursue the American dream. The Gothic building on Marcy avenue started serving the latter cause as a highly successful co-ed high school. Time would turn it into a bastion of the former, a building for Satmar girls to be trained in modesty, piety, and the best ways to fill their future roles of wife and mother.
PART 1: 1907-1950 / A POPULAR HIGH SCHOOL
The school was opened in 1900 in a temporary location and, in 1907, was moved to this Gothic-style building located on 227 Marcy Avenue (Marcy and Rodney), next to the local library.
The Eastern District High School was one of the only four High Schools in Brooklyn, according to Brownstoner. It was inaugurated at a time in which high school education was not yet compulsory nor normalized. In fact, it was reserved for the privileged classes. The students from low-income families were expected to leave school after middle school and find work to collaborate with the household. To put this in perspective, there are currently 377 public schools in Brooklyn.
In Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, this school building is used to demonstrate that attending high school was a privilege denied to many. The protagonist, Francine Nolan, is one of two school-aged children in an impoverished immigrant family living in the Williamsburg slums. When she graduates eighth grade, only her brother is allowed to continue his school. He goes on to attend Eastern District. Despite Francine’s dreams of continuing her education, she leaves school to help her mother by taking a factory job in Manhattan. We see her bittersweet last day in school:
She went back to say good-bye to her classroom teacher.
“We’ll miss you, Frances,” said Teacher.
Francie got her pencil box and autograph book from her desk. She started to say good-bye to the girls. They crowded around her. One put her arm around her waist and two others kissed her cheek. They called out good-bye messages.
“Come to my house to see me, Frances.”
“Write to me, Frances, and let me know how you’re getting along.”
“Frances, we have a telephone now. Ring me up sometime. Ring me up tomorrow.”
“Write something in my autograph book, huh, Frances? So’s I can sell it when you get famous.”
“I’m going to summer camp. I’ll put down my address. Write to me. Hear, Frances?”
“I’m going to Girls High in September. You come to Girls High, too, Frances.”
“No. Come to Eastern District High with me.”
The Eastern District High School boasted all sorts of clubs, societies, and other extracurricular activities, all while hosting prominent staff. I have the yearbook for January 1945, and the life the school had radiates from the pages, filled with jokes and hand-drawn art. You can sense the crushes and intense emotions of boys and girls doing theater together, the intensity of their sports teams, the enormous dreams that some of them might one day be famous.
And quite a few did get famous. Of the long list of famous alumni, we count celebrated author Henry Miller, who met his first love at school: Cora Seward. The picture below shows Miller’s 1909 class.
The famous Jewish comedian Mel Brooks also attended Eastern District, and as I wrote in another post, he lived on Lee Avenue. His ambition was to go from Lee Avenue to the White House.
PART 2: 1939-1960 / COMPETING SCHOOLS
While the school was in its heyday during the first half of the 20th century, many Jews sent their children there, hoping they’d go on to be doctors and lawyers and “make it” in America. But over the years the neighborhood also attracted religiously inclined Jews for whom education was something different. They wanted their kids to be taught tradition and values. The divergent directions were already felt by the 1930s. As per “New York Jews and the Great Depression,”
During the 1930s, the Williamsburg community emerged as a center of Orthodoxy. At least fifty synagogues, several Yeshivot, Talmud Torahs, and leading Orthodox organizations such as Agudath Israel and Young Israel made their homes in Williamsburg.
For these tradition-inclined families, the Bais Yaakov parochial girls’ school opened in 1937. For a while, it was housed right across the street from Eastern District. It was not even in a school building. It was in the home of Vichna Kaplan, an immigrant from Poland and student of Sarah Schenirer.
Below is a 1940s photo of 240 Keap Street facing the Gothic school, where Kaplan ran her religious school. Notice the Stars of Davids in the window and inscription above.
Imagine being enrolled in this haphazard upstart, while on the other side of the street a loud mass of students piles into the established, bustling high school. One student’s dismay at the shabby conditions at Bais Yaakov is relayed in the biography on Vichna Kaplan:
Father and daughter walked up the steps to the second floor of the two-family house. They were warmly greeted by Rebbetzin Kaplan, though Chana was too distracted to notice…
“This isn’t a school, it’s an apartment!” Chana noticed with dismay.
The classes were housed in the bedrooms, where tables and chairs had been set up.
In fact, the religious narrative of the origin of the Bais Yaakov involves its enviable secular competition. In the Kaplan book, Eastern District is described in glowing terms:
Eastern District High School of Williamsburg was a majestic building…In comparison, Bais Yaakov fell woefully short.
The narrative implications are clear: The religious residents saw their difficult conditions as sacrifices and pioneering heroism in contrast with the concessions to materialism at the public schools.
Mrs. Ehrenfeld, a student of Bais Yaakov, told an interviewer about growing up in Williamsburg in the 40s; She went to Bais Yaakov for primary school but attended Eastern District for high school. It was easy to go from parochial school to public school, something that would be unimaginable today. Both welcomed the same families: mostly local Jewish immigrants. But they prepared them for different futures. Eastern District was the track to Americanization.
PART 3: 1960s – 1980 / DECLINE
Williamsburg underwent profound changes throughout the 1950s and 60s. This once safe, working-class neighborhood deteriorated into one of poverty and crime. The Brooklyn Queens Expressway, a Robert Moses project that prioritized cars over neighborhoods, led to mass displacement. This great little blog explains:
“Demolition in Williamsburg began in 1948 and the entire length of the expressway was opened to traffic in 1952. The structure slashed through the business district on Broadway and bisected the cohesive community of Orthodox Jews, Italians, Poles, Slavs, and Russians. It is estimated that about 5,000 people were displaced. People either completely moved out of Williamsburg or moved into the more middle-class areas.”
An influx of impoverished Hasidic Holocaust survivors, as well as new Puerto Rican immigrants, changed the neighborhood further. The Puerto Rican population of Los Sures, South Williamsburg, was drawn to the economic opportunities found in this waterfront neighborhood. Those economic opportunities left when the seaside manufacturing factories left the USA to begin production overseas.
Other changes, such as those in housing, played a role too. A number of “Projects,” public housing developments, were built in Williamsburg, creating a community of low-income housing complexes. This was also a time of “white flight” when many upwardly mobile families moved to the suburbs. Perhaps the most importantly, the Hungarian Hasidim who had come to Williamsburg after the Holocaust and communist persecution were very tribal and wary of their Americanized Jewish neighbors. These Hasidim actively worked to create an insular community within Williamsburg, and this made longtime Brooklyn residents feel like their neighborhoods had morphed into something they no longer recognized. I heard this firsthand from many Jews who grew up in Williamsburg and watched its transformation, including from Philip Fishman who I interviewed here years ago, and Gerald Friedman who I spoke to in 2018.
Like many NYC schools, the Eastern District High School fell on bad times by the 1960s and 70s. It was failing miserably on all of the usual fronts. The Board of Ed changed principals, and instituted many programs to fix it. But none were successful enough to keep the school open, and it closed in 1981.
PART 4: 1980s TO PRESENT / RELIGIOUS REVIVAL
Following its decline and closure, the Satmar Hasidim bought the building. In the 1980s it became home to the sects’ pious all-girls school. The Satmars never considered this building majestic: It was an ugly old behemoth that was run-down and haphazardly modified for the Satmar needs. The courtyard came to hold an above-ground swimming pool during the summer months. The auditorium became a wedding venue and lunchroom. The labs and gyms were converted into simple offices or classrooms because most extracurricular activities were not kosher.
My grandparents lived across the street from the school when I was a child in the 80s and 90s. I remember watching this imposing building and the many girls who poured out at dismissal each day. Their home was two doors down from the home that once housed the fledgling Bais Yaakov.
Here is the irony: The Satmar school — even as it had no interest in churning out world-renown graduates — also has a famous alumna. Their former student and teacher Deborah Feldman, nee Sarah Berkovic, wrote the bestselling memoir Unorthodox. Almost anyone to whom I speak to about Williamsburg knows of her.
As a student in this school, Feldman wrote an essay describing Hasidic Williamsburg with earnest piety.
The intensely religious environment keeps me on the straight and true path, protecting me from foreign influences and temptations. I will always be thankful for its direction.
In her memoir, she is no longer thankful. She tells of her childhood and then leaving. This building, the headquarters of her indoctrination, features prominently. She remembers the Gothic gargoyles, the “crumbling stone” building, and the red library across the street — a secular institution verboten to her and her classmates. Her testimony often contains inaccuracies, but it is still illuminating:
Our new classroom is large, and its walls have white-tiled patches all over them; the others say it used to be a bathroom before it was converted into a classroom. The plumbing features are still there, cut-off pipes extending from various points on the walls. This building used to be PS 16, the Eastern District public school, before the neighborhood was completely overrun by Satmar families and the zoning collapsed as a result. The empty building was appropriated by the United Talmudical Academy of Satmar and turned into a private school for girls.
This massive Gothic structure, whose gargoyles were pronounced idols by the rabbi and summarily chopped off, encompasses a full square block and boasts over eighty classrooms. Nearly half a century has passed since it was first purchased, and it has become severely overcrowded, with many of the classrooms subdivided by pressurized walls and class sizes numbering between thirty and forty students each. As one of the biggest classes in the grade (thirty-seven students), we get one of the larger classrooms, with room at the back to play kugelech, a game similar to jacks, where five gold-metal dice are juggled in various permutations. I am not very adept at such games; I usually don’t last more than three rounds.
I could not verify the story with the gargoyles, but older pictures of the school seem to include some kind of ornament on top of the courtyard entrance, what looks like a lantern perhaps, but now there is nothing there.
The school is also next door to the public library, which the students were not allowed to visit. Of this Feldman writes:
While my classmates prepare the necessary books and supplies for the upcoming lesson, I inspect the view; I’ve never been on this side of the building before. From the window of my classroom, I can see the overpass of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and the tiny triangular block situated in the middle of the overpass that houses the public library. The stately redbrick building stands alone, draped and encircled by thick strands of ivy and surrounded by a high wrought-iron fence. The entrance is on Division Avenue, overlooking the highway, with three tiers of wide stone steps leading up to its looming Gothic doorway. I know that Satmar students who must pass the library on their way to school take care to walk behind it, and the block on which its entrance is located is rarely trespassed. We are forbidden to enter the library.
And so, I conclude the paradoxical story of this once-glamorous Gothic building. It was built to prepare youths for the American dream, yet every year it sends hundreds of graduates off to a life that’s very local, very traditional, very domestic, and busy with children who soon go off to the very same school.