Milton Fechter is a nonagenarian—he’s 95-and-a-half years old—he’ll turn 96 in September.
I met Milton in a roundabout way through a friend of a friend and he happens to live in the same co-op building as I do on the Lower East Side of New York City.
In late January 2017, I interviewed Milton for the New York Public Library’s LES Oral History Project. I discovered a vibrant man who loves to read books on philosophy and political theory. In fact, his apartment is brimming with books. He lent me one which I’m still trying to get through—it’s a pithy tome. He doesn’t watch TV and he enjoys cooking for himself.
One of those most fascinating parts of our conversation was Milton describing the East Village neighborhood he grew up in, what the Lower East Side used to be, and a city that is very much different than it is today. I found him a remarkable source of information on everything from the types of Jews that lived in Lower Manhattan to what food used to cost.
Milton was born on 100 Avenue C between 6th and 7th Streets which we would now consider the far East Village or even “Alphabet City”. He moved with his family several times to apartments on 8th St., 9th St., 6th St., Norfolk St., and 2nd St. When he got married in 1951, he moved uptown to 53rd and 1st Ave. and in 1960, he moved into the newly opened Seward Park Cooperative—a complex of four 20-story buidings—where he now lives.
Milton described the Jewish population of his youth in the East Village and Lower East Side as distinctly divided into four groups.
“From 14th St. to Houston St. and from the East River to 3rd Ave, there were Hungarian Jews who only spoke Hungarian. They had two synagogues on 3rd St. The Hungarian Jews were of two types—if they were religious, they were fanatically so, if not, they were not. There was no in between.”
The Hungarian Jews, Milton told me, were tie-makers, cigar-makers, and they were in the fur trade. When Milton and his family moved to 9th St. in 1928, they were the only non-Hungarians in their building. He remarked that the Hungarians were “good cooks” and hinted that his mother’s cooking improved a lot by living in and among them.
The second group were the Galician Jews who came to the U.S. from Austria, Poland, and Galicia. They lived on Houston St. down to Grand St. and dealt in menswear.
The third group, known as the Litvaks, Russian Jews, who lived on Grand St. all the way to the East River. They were in the garment trade, mostly ladies wear.
Milton referred to the fourth group as “Levant”, or Jews who came from Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece. They lived from Houston St. to Canal St., and on Allen St. west to Eldridge, Forsythe, and Chrystie Streets. They had their own synagogues.
Milton’s father, an accountant, came from Austria at the age of two; his mother, a bookkeeper, came from Russia/Poland at the age of 12.
Growing up, he remarked: “Kids lived in the streets, it was very safe. Jews and Gentiles mixed. We played Irish street games like ‘Pussycat’ where you took a pebble and put it in the gutter, put a little peg down and then hit it with a stick and it went in the air. All the street games were from the Irish kids,” he said.
“I used the Tompkins Square library but we always had books in the house.” Until the age of five, his parents only spoke Yiddish in the house even though they were both fluent in English. After the age of five, his parents spoke English to Milton, and then his sister and brother.
One of his first schools was on 6th St. between Avenues B and C—it was a Children’s Aids Society school. At the time, it was common for such Societies and Settlement Houses to run school. Milton recalls that he went to that particular school because his grandparents lived next door and he could go to their apartment for lunch.
When the family moved to 9th St. he attended P.S. 36, then to P.S. 64, also on 9th St., and then on to Stuyvesant High School, City College, and then Brooklyn Polytechnic. He majored in mechanical engineering. Milton was already hammering at the age of four. He recalled going to a hardware store at 7th St. and Avenue C and buying nails for his mother—three cents for a pound.
His first job was working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard designing and fixing ships’ engines. It was during World War II and he worked on the Battleship Missouri.
“The Germans had smashed the engines on a lot of the freighters and we had to fix them.” After 18 months, he went into private industry, working for engineering firms that designed and built canons for the Army; he also designed power plants, chemical equipment, and machinery for moving things: “I liked sitting at the drawing board.”
Before the FDR Drive was constructed, the area along the East River was full of factories, bakeries, boiler factories, and buildings that pre-dated the Civil War. “There were lots of little streets and we kids loved those streets because that’s where all the old cars were dumped. The East River was still maritime. There were machine shops that made parts for ships, specialty hardware stores for ships called chandlers, and coal was still delivered by horse and wagon,” he recalled.
Milton recalled that a ton of coal was $6. A ticket to see a show at the Yiddish theater was $1, “a sum of money” in those days. A pound of bread was five cents, 25 pounds of potatoes was 25 cents, a dozen eggs was 12 cents, and fish was five cents a pound. A kosher chicken was 16 cents a pound, and non-Kosher was 10 cents a pound. Meat, Milton said, was 26 cents a pound. “The average girl made $7 a week.”
As he grew up, because he was mechanically inclined, Milton helped his uncle who was in real estate management. Among the buildings his uncle managed—13 and 15 Essex St. on the Lower East Side. The rent on apartments in those buildings was $35 a month but the average rent, he said, usually hovered in the 20s. “Today, it’s a joke”.
Right across the street from his current apartment, is the Mayflower apartment building where the rent was $45 a month at one time—which was high—he said.