Bobby Kennedy Takes a Walk on the Lower East Side
A Political Walk: Poor Man's East Side
By Don McNeill
After a Senate hearing on Grand Street to evaluate the War on Poverty and a gefilte fish lunch at Ratner's, Bobby Kennedy and Jacob Javits spent a rainy Monday afternoon walking around the Lower East Side.
"What's the occasion?" one local resident asked another as the Senators and their entourage strolled down Stanton Street amid a crush of reporters and television cameras.
"They're going to visit a tenement," he replied.
The Senators first visited Javits's birthplace at 85 Stanton Street. A bronze plaque on the wall of the condemned building glistened. Local anti-poverty workers had cleaned it hours before to erase an unkind remark about the Senator.
They posed for pictures with Senators Joseph Clark and Claiborne Pell in first of the building.
Javits said that his boyhood neighborhood had changed. "It's not as teeming as it used to be," he said. "It's much poorer now, not in actual monetary terms but in its feeling, its ride."
Although Javits was as close to home base as he could get, the spotlight, as usual, was on Kennedy.
"Who's that?" a kid asked his friend.
"Senator Javits and Bobby," his friend said.
At the corner of Ludlow Street, Javits briefly broke away from the Kennedy crush to talk to old neighbors. Few followed him. Minutes later, the man who hopes to be Vice-President had to push his way through reporters and fans surrounding Kennedy to get in range of the microphones.
The Senators stopped at 114 Stanton Street to visit the tenement home of Manual Silva. Garbage was piled in the hall, and the stairs were dark. The building was on rent strike.
As the Senators, anti-poverty officials, and newsmen climbed the four flights of stairs, bewildered tenants stared through half-opened doors. They walked through Mrs. Silva's kitchen, where dinner steamed on the stove, into the living room of the $57-a-month apartment. The furniture was covered with clear plastic. In the corner sat a 24-inch television set.
While Javits spoke with Mrs. Silva in broken Spanish, newsmen asked Kennedy what he thought of rent strikes as a means of protest. He was noncommittal. "I have sympathy for the tenants," he replied. "I think tenants frequently have their complaints ignored. It would be much better if we had an ombudsman and more legal help."
The same question was put to Javits. He called the rent strike "an extreme measure of desperation. It is certainly not the best way because it results in deplorable neglect of the structure."
Because of the rain, the Senators proceeded by limousine to Mobilization for Youth's Vocational Education headquarters at 214 East 2nd Street. They toured a workshop where girls were making jewelry and young men were learning office skills. Kennedy did not seem to be impressed.
"I want to know," he snarled at a Mobilization official, "how many instructors do you have? How much do they get paid? If they start in on one of these things," he gestured at the jewelry, "can they switch to typewriting?"
He turned to the television cameras.
"We need job training programs so the head of the family can have the means to raise the family in dignity.
"It's not satisfactory to have housing," he continued, "if you don't have jobs. It's not satisfactory to have education if you don't have recreation."
Javits spoke to a Puerto Rican girl making jewelry. "Do you like it?" he asked. "Do you like what you're doing?" The girl nodded. She didn't look up.
"We want to encourage you," Javits said. "That's what we're here for."
"The solutions of the 1930s are not the solutions of the 1960s," he said to the cameras. "We've learned a lot, but the old ways won't do and we have to get into the new ones mighty fast."
It was clear that no one left the scene enchanted with what he saw.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]