- Who Built New York?Jewish Builders in the Interwar Decades1
In 1925, an ambitious New York Jewish builder, Irwin Chanin, decided to visit Paris. Born in Brooklyn, Chanin had spent his youth in Poltava, Ukraine, before returning with his parents to settle in Bensonhurst.2 After graduating with an engineering degree in 1915 from Cooper Union, the city’s free architectural and engineering school, Chanin worked for several years on the New York and Philadelphia subways. When the United States declared war in 1917, he entered military service. During the war, Chanin helped construct poison gas facilities in Cleveland. Back in New York as a civilian, he built his first two single-family houses in Bensonhurst, scraping together capital for the project. This experience proved financially successful, so Chanin brought his younger brother, Henry, into his budding construction business in 1919 to handle the finances.3 Soon Chanin was not only building single and two-family houses in Brooklyn, but also buying larger properties to flip, such as 26 Court Street, the old Garfield Hotel in downtown Brooklyn. In this case, he sold the building to a group of three other Brooklyn Jewish builders—Abraham Bricken, Isidor Friedman, and Leo Schloss—who announced plans to construct a 26-story office building on the site, the largest office building at that time in Brooklyn.4
Chanin’s timing was propitious. The end of World War I released a flood of construction in New York City—residential, commercial, and industrial. During the 1920s, New York City, housing a small fraction of the American population, accounted for twenty percent of new residential [End Page 311] units in the United States. Encouraged by ten-year tax abatements, builders covered vast tracts of land in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens with a mix of one, two, and multi-family houses. At the same time, substantial sections of Manhattan, such as the Upper West and East Sides, along with Washington Heights, attracted builders eager to erect both upper-class and middle-class apartment buildings in place of single-family brownstones and private luxury houses. Jewish builders, who entered the city’s real estate and construction industry in the nineteenth century, often building and remodeling tenements for the enormous influx of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, expanded their activities even as newcomers like Chanin joined their ranks.5 Jeffrey Gurock’s masterful history of Jews in Harlem, for example, uncovered how Jewish involvement in construction often led to Jewish residential concentration.6 As the pace and extent of construction increased, Jews gradually moved from being outsiders to the industry. They became insiders within their own extensive and burgeoning ethnic network that included architects, mortgage firms, and building-supply companies. Apartment buildings, 39 percent of new residential construction in 1919, soared to 77 percent during the peak year of 1926. Jewish builders participated in this transformation of New York from a city of mansions and tenements to one that offered a wide array of housing choices geared to a tenant’s socioeconomic standing.7 They also built up significant segments of midtown Manhattan, fashioning a new cityscape in response to changing trends in diverse industries where large numbers of Jews worked.
Construction remained Chanin’s passion and he soon shifted his focus to Manhattan, erecting a new center for the fur industry in 1924 in what was becoming the heart of the needle trades in midtown. Then, he decided to build theaters in the emerging theater district around Times Square. Chanin “enjoyed the city and mass culture. He had nothing to lose,” observed Diana Agrest, “and everything to gain, and so he did.” This “love for the multifaceted aspects of city life” informed his most important [End Page 312] contributions to New York’s cityscape. As Agrest notes, “theater is an essential component of the life in the city, both as a reflection and creation of the spectacular.”8 Commercial entertainment also attracted many Jews as producers and owners of theatrical chains.9 Theatrical flair undoubtedly influenced Chanin’s other buildings as well, especially the desire to create “a world of fantasy in which the architectural styles were there to be used in the...