Corned Beef Row savors past but hopes for a fresh start

July 09, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN THE Kibitz Room at Attman's Delicatessen, on Lombard Street, there are photographs resembling artifacts of a vanished civilization. They show this block in its bustling, zesty, disheveled youth when the aroma of corned beef wafted like lilacs through the air, and chicken fat dangled gracefully from fingers, and the customers lined up at the secondhand clothing store and the public bath. In history's rearview mirror, poverty never looked so good.

Seymour Attman, who got away from us a week ago at 76, was the last remaining family link to that era. The others -- Tulkoff's Horseradish, Pastore's Italian Grocery, Stone's Bakery, all the founding fathers and mothers who created Corned Beef Row early in the last century and turned it into one of the city's most storied strips -- have all gone now.

They have either died or closed up shop, or handed the business over to newcomers. One or two hold onto the old names for nostalgia's sake. But a new generation, knowing vaguely of the neighborhood's history, is left to wonder: Where does the block go from here?

Attman was the last true carrier of the old days, the man who harked back to a time of street-corner culture, when the sidewalks were filled not only with shoppers, but with kids at play, with worshippers on their way to synagogue, and with those from nearby Little Italy arriving on the street and creating a cosmopolitan mix.

At Attman's funeral last week sat Vince Pastore, whose Italian grocery was next-door neighbor to Attman's deli only for about 40 years. Vince and Seymour grew up together on this block. Pastore's people came here from Italy, and Attman's from Russia, and both started out scuffling to make their way through the dispiriting Depression.

But Pastore remembered teen-age basketball and dice games, and the two of them, Seymour and Vince, hanging out afternoons at the Jewish Education Alliance maybe 60 years ago.

"None of us had a nickel," Pastore said, "but we had laughs."

The block's energy, and its needs, and its mix of people defined these men. Their parents sometimes worked 20-hour days and slept in the back of their businesses. That sounds unbelievable now. But at his funeral, there were memories of Seymour working 16-hour days late into his life. His parents started the deli, someone noted, but Seymour became the deli.

He was the one telling customers, "You had the hot dog? So wash it down with a little corned beef." A few days after he died, such sentiments were echoed by a guy behind the deli counter calling out to a customer, "You can't make up your mind? So take one of everything."

At 11 in the morning Friday, the line at Attman's was already 20-deep. A couple of visitors from the hinterlands of Queens, N.Y., were already kvelling over the corned beef, and a couple from Prince George's County was asking, "Why can't we find anything like this where we live?"

They were talking about the food -- but there was a time when the atmosphere on this street was inimitable, too. But that was years ago. Corned Beef Row has reached a crossroads.

The former Flag House high-rise projects, the failed attempt at public housing that shadowed Lombard Street and contributed so much to its decay, have been blown apart. What remains is a plot of land, directly between Lombard Street and Little Italy, on which mixed-income housing is to be built. The initial plans call for 338 units to be built, at a cost of about $65 million, including 108 townhouses and 40 low-rise condominiums.

And though only three delicatessens remain on Lombard Street, there is talk of new business moving in. Some of the old structures remain. And last week, there was new construction at two locations.

What happens here resonates on a few levels: the potential commercial rebirth of Lombard Street itself, and the rebirth of a healthy, secure, vibrant link between that block and Little Italy; and the signal it sends to the rest of the city that even the bleakest areas, abandoned by many and seen mainly as a nostalgic relic, can indeed come back.

Seymour Attman was there through all of it, good times and bad. At the funeral last week, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg recalled how the deli was Seymour's life. Eighteen months ago, Seymour's second wife died.

"Let's face it," Wohlberg said, "in the last year, he was really beginning to run down. And, when they told Seymour he couldn't drive any more, he said, `If I can't drive, how am I supposed to date?'"

At 76, Seymour Attman was still an optimist -- about his life and the life of his street, Lombard Street, Corned Beef Row. On the walls of his deli, there are photos of bustling, energetic days past. But maybe they're a vision of the future, as well.

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