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Friday
Jan162015

« The Last Factory? »

Last week the news came down that Streit’s Matzo factory, which has been producing its crisp Jewish flatbreads on the Lower East Side of Manhattan since about 1915, is leaving New York sometime this spring. They've sold their site for an undisclosed amount of money. Developers will probably turn it into some sort of glass-façaded enormous condo building with apartments "Priced from the two millions.” 

People, myself included, get seriously sad about old places closing, the general purging of Old New York, and how expensive the city has become. In the case of Streit’s it’s important to acknowledge that most of the “Jewish” Lower East Side abandoned ship long ago. True, some of the old businesses remain (Katz’s Deli, Israel Wholesale Judaica, and Global International Menswear — to name a few). And yes, the Tenement Museum stages period reënactments that make for a marvelous history lesson about how people lived in the area during the period of time from the late 19th through the mid-20th century. But most remnants of the old neighborhood by now exist solely in the form of the buildings themselves and the old signs still intact outside of what are now trendy boutiques, bars, and restaurants. 

I have no special passion for matzo except that I eat it, somewhat agnostically (mainly because I like it) during Passover each year (it’s good with butter or as the “bread” for a tuna salad sandwich). It reminds me of Carr's Water Crackers, but it's sold at a much lower price. I feel slightly connected to Streit’s itself only because I lived half-a-block from it back in 1990, when the neighborhood was still quite dangerous. In those days I heard gunshots often, the corner deli ran a numbers racket, and tiny plastic drug bags and vials were always visible along the gutters and sidewalks; I departed for good on April 14, 1991 when my apartment was broken into and burned down by heroin addicts who also robbed my roommate and me of our electronics.

Despite my (unrealistic) desire for all the old places to always remain, I find it difficult to be disappointed in the Streit's family for deciding to leave Manhattan. To state that they’ve remained true to their roots for 100 years and so cut them some slack if they should decide to leave totally understates the level of devotion they’ve had to their business, their location, their employees, their immigrant roots, and to the Jewish and local communities. Throw in the fact that the business persisted for decades in the midst of true danger — and seriously, who can blame them for leaving town. Cash talks, people walk: I get it.

**

I’ve been reading Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything,” an excellent book about the environmental crisis. We need major changes to the way we live and how we conduct the global economy. First and foremost — and this really is no joke — we need to replace the digging for oil and gas and coal with the harnessing of sunlight and wind and waterflow. A path does exist by which all of our energy needs could come from these types of renewable sources.

So when an old factory like Streit’s decides to shut down the old plant and move to New Jersey, this is an opportunity. The current ovens burn at 800 degrees all day long during most days of the year and are fueled by natural gas. Streit’s could decide to build itself a new factory that is fueled entirely by renewable energy sources. Likewise, whatever gets built by developers on the current site of Streit’s could incorporate all sorts of modern technologies (such as well-sealed passive house construction — which leads to tremendous decreases in energy inputs for cooling and heating — and solar power panels on the roof). In other words, a duel-construction situation of this magnitude (new factory + new condo building) has the potential to make immediate change, and to show others how truly modernized facilities can operate efficiently and be green at the same time. I called Streit’s to ask them if this is something they would consider. It didn’t sound as if they’d given the question of energy supply even a minute of consideration. But they should.

**

Meanwhile, there’s still some time remaining to see for yourself this marvel of a factory. It turns out that anyone can visit Streit’s and see firsthand how matzo gets made. And it’s free! You just have to call to make an appointment.

I visited Streit’s in 2013 as part of my research for a book I did about great New York places to visit with children, and was immensely stricken by its beauty. To state the obvious: places like this factory don’t really exist anymore in New York City.

The two parallel ovens each employ a conveyer system to bring in uncooked dough and send out the finished matzo— 75 feet and two minutes later. As the cooked matzo emerges, a couple of employees break it apart, portion it into correct quantities for boxes, and load it as stacks of squares onto racks that move along a mechanical track to an upstairs area where workers fill and seal matzo boxes, group them into multi-packs, and package those into bigger boxes for distribution. It’s fascinating to watch — so much so that when I was there I made a short video of some of the action. Mesemerizing stuff. Click the top photo to see it. (Larger version viewable here.)

**

Streit's Matzo Factory & Retail Store: 148-154 Rivington Street, at Suffolk Street. Free tour of factory must be scheduled in advance. Tel. 212-475-7000. Tour hours are Monday-Thursday 9am-3pm. Retail store hours (to purchase matzo goods) open Monday-Thursday 8:30am-4:30pm. Map Streit's. Final closing date TBA, but it will be sometime in the spring of 2015.

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