Abe Lebewohl & His Park
This spring marks the 30th Anniversary of the St. Mark’s Greenmarket and Music at Abe Lebewohl Park. The joint milestone got us a little nostalgic (okay, we know, when are we not nostalgic?) and we decided to take a walk down the memory lane of this neighborhood staples’ home- Abe Lebewohl Park. If you’ve ever walked up 2nd Avenue in the East Village you’ve undoubtedly passed this charming, triangular plot of land which occupies the northwest corner of 2nd Avenue and East 10th Street.
It was originally acquired by the city in 1799 for street-pattern reasons and was developed into a sitting area in 1938 by the WPA and called St. Mark’s Park. By the 70’s it had become filthy and full of drugs. Marilyn Appleberg, President of the 10th and Stuyvesant Streets Block Association, did her homework and found that this land was actually under the Parks Department auspices and they were responsible for its upkeep. In 1980 she, along with Beth Flusser and Abe Lebewohl, began a petition to save the park. Ms. Flusser was a fellow neighborhood activist and friend of Appleberg who ran the public programming at the nearby Third Street Music School Settlement.
Mr. Lebewohl was born in the Ukraine in 1931 and he and his family immigrated to New York in 1950. He worked as a waiter at a small deli on 10th Street and 2nd Avenue which he subsequently bought, expanded, and nurtured into a world-renowned New York institution . The 2nd Avenue Deli was known for its delicious array of Ukrainian and Jewish menu items. Joe DiMaggio, Bob Hope, Joan Rivers, and Muhammad Ali were just some of the deli’s dedicated customers. Abe did much more than make a delicious sandwich, though. He often fed those in need or donated food and time to neighborhood events. He paid strong homage to his roots and the 2nd Avenue Yiddish Rialto by creating the Walkway of Yiddish Actors outside of his restaurant. He was a face that everyone in the East Village knew and loved.
Part of Ms. Appleberg’s plan was to change the way the park was being used. She convinced the nearby liquor store to stop selling pint-sized bottles of hard alcohol. In 1981 the Greenmarket was invited to set up. She and Beth Flusser developed a summer concert series (now called Music at Abe Lebewohl Park) and Abe Lebewohl was the first in line to sponsor the event. Things were starting to look up for the park.
On March 4, 1996, Abe Lebewohl was shot and killed while handling a bank transaction at a neighborhood bank (read more about his life and legacy here). More than 1,500 people attended his funeral service at the East 6th Street Community Synagogue. That same year the park underwent a long awaited renovation by the Parks Department. Appleberg fought to have the name of the park changed to honor Mr. Lebewohl and she again won. It is now hard to imagine the East Village without this thriving neighborhood gem.
In 2006, due to rent hikes, 2nd Avenue Deli closed. The Walkway of Yiddish Actors still remains in front of what is now a bank (click here to see each square individually). It is a lovely reminder of the once-thriving Yiddish Rialto in the East Village.
The Greenmarket returned last Tuesday for its 2011 season (it is held every Tuesday from May through December) and a new season of music kicks off with a Klezmer concert on June 2nd. Roses bloom in a garden surrounding the park’s memorial flagpole erected by the Ukrainian American Society. All of this is in the foreground of historic St. Mark’s Church, a site protected under NYC landmarks law- a protection that GVSHP is hoping will come soon for more of the East Village.
A special thanks to Marilyn Appleberg for editing and research & to Nancy Morgan for research.