The center of
immigrant cultural life was the cafe, which developed and nurtured
the Lower East Side's loose, informal network of writers, artists,
politicians, and other intelligentsia. In the cafes, ideas and news
were exchanged and work was solicited.
In this excerpt
from his book about the Jewish ghetto on New York's Lower East
Side, Hutchins Hapgood, a non-Jewish journalist, gives his impressions
of the cafes that were located on Canal Street at the turn of
East Canal Street, in the heart of the East Side, are many
of the little Russian Jewish cafes . . . where everything
is clean and good, and where the conversation is often of
the best. The talk is good, for there assemble, in the late
afternoon and evening, the chosen crowd of intellectuals.
The best that is Russian today is intensely serious. What
is distinctively Jewish has always been serious. The man
hunted from his country is apt to have a serious tone in
thought and feeling.
It is this combination -- Russian, Jewish, and exile --
that is represented at these little Canal Street cafes.
The somber and earnest qualities of the race, emphasized
by the special conditions, receive here expression in the
mouths of actors, socialists, musicians, journalists, and
poets. Here they get together and talk by the hour, over
their coffee and cake, about politics and society, poetry
and ethics, literature and life. The cafekeepers themselves
are thoughtful and often join in the discussion -- a discussion
never light but sometimes lighted up by bitter wit and gloomy