Have you walked by the narrow triangle park where East 2nd Street, East Houston Street, and Avenue C all meet? This small, fenced-in sliver of green may seem unremarkable, but it’s named for someone who played a rather large and inspiring role in the lives of so many in our city.
Gustave Hartman, a Jewish municipal court judge, educator, activist, and philanthropist, spent most of his life in this neighborhood, and it’s his name which this tiny green memorial now bears.
Born in Hungary on August 12, 1880, Gustave Hartman immigrated to the United States with his parents, Sarah Luchs and Kalman Hartman, while still a young boy. He attended P.S. 22 on Sheriff Street (now Columbia Street), the College of the City of New York, and received his law degree from New York University in 1905. After teaching for several years at P.S. 22, Hartman was appointed municipal court judge in 1913. In 1914 he was elected to serve a full term. Hartman also served as a judge in the City Court from 1920 to 1929. He ran for Justice of New York Supreme Court 1st District in 1924, but was not elected.
Hartman’s greatest passion and longest relationship was with his Israel Orphan Asylum, which he founded in 1913 and ran until his death. Hartman financed this project out of his own pocket and through aggressive fundraising. The Asylum was located just across the street from the Gustave Hartman Triangle, at 274 East 2nd Street between Avenues C and D. It served the needs of children ages one to six, and eventually was able to welcome and serve girls up to 14 years old. The majority of the children the Asylum served were orphaned by World War 1.
In 1928, Hartman married May Weisser, superintendent of the asylum. The couple had two children and remained in the neighborhood, living on East 3rd Street and East 4th Street. Mary was born to Russian immigrant parents in what was then called the “New York Ghetto,” the Lower East Side, in 1900. At the age of fourteen, she went to work for an orphanage known as the Hebrew National Orphan Asylum, which led to her eventual job at the Israel Orphan Asylum where, in 1923, she was appointed superintendent. After she was married she continued her work as the Asylum’s chief administrator even after her husband’s death.
In 1960, May wrote her autobiography, “I Gave My Heart,” where she described her entry into the world of caring for orphans. Excerpts of the book can be found in the collection “The American Jewish Women,” and they illuminate what it looked like to start such an organization, May wrote of her first job in 1915:
Into the Lower East Side, swarmed not only Jewish immigrants but Italian immigrants, who lived in the tenements on First Avenue and along 13th and 14th Streets from Second Ave to Ave B. They had their markets and pushcarts all along the streets. Many families of German Christian origin lived along Avenue A. On the extreme East near the river were Irish immigrants. The lower West Side of Manhattan was Italian and Irish…
The first to be admitted [to the orphanage] were four pitiful little brothers, parentless and neglected, who were brought in by a very sick grandmother. Since no house staff had yet been hired, the women of the Auxiliary took turns looking after the children.
Each day one would bring in the meals prepared in her own kitchen. Another stayed with the children during the day, until another relieved her in the evening. They rendered this service with love and earnestness.
When I could slip out of the office, I would play with the little boys in the backyard; and I always came around on Saturday to be with them…
With the arrival of more children a superintendent was engaged. Soon a medical staff was set up and we had a complete organization to look after the children.
May also recounted her work with Hartman — who she called Gus — and the popularity that they enjoyed through Hartman’s work in the city and beyond. He attended Republican National Conventions in the 20s and 30s as part of his political work as a judge, but he also took the time to make connections with those who could support his work with the Asylum. In 1932, the Hartmans took to the radio waves in a series of short broadcasts with a local NYC radio station and celebrity guest speakers in support of the Asylum.
When Hartman died in 1936, at age 56, the New York Times reported that community members were so distraught that the “twelve hundred who attended the [funeral] service in the temple refused to leave to make room for invited mourners. . . . The throng was so great on Second Street that 85 policemen were needed to make room for the procession.” Soon after Hartman’s funeral, the Board of Aldermen named this strip of land (then under the jurisdiction of the Board of Estimate) in his honor.
Amidst the upheaval and changes of WWII, the asylum moved to Far Rockaway in 1944, where the Hartmans had a summer home. In 1950 the organization, under May’s leadership, changed its name to the Gustave Hartman Home. In 1957 it merged with the Hebrew National Orphan Home (HNOH), which was located at 57 East 7th Street between First and Second Avenues. Founded in 1914, HNOH House accommodated 50 boys. Later, the home bought a second tenement that backed onto the original building, creating an enclosed courtyard, and doubling the capacity to 100. With another property in Yonkers, when HNOH merged with the Gustave Hartman Home, they became Hartman-Homecrest, which then later merged with the Jewish Child Care Association (JCCA) of New York.
According to the NYC Parks website:
In 1969, Gustave Hartman Triangle was transferred from the Board of Estimate to Parks for permanent use as parkland. The triangular mall is lined with London plane trees, a species known for its ability to survive in harsh urban environments, including dry soil and polluted air… Once populated by Native Americans, Dutch settlers and free black farmers, this Lower East Side neighborhood was in Hartman’s time a largely Jewish enclave. It was home to a flourishing Yiddish theatrical and artistic community, radical intellectuals, and tens of thousands of immigrant families. After World War II, the Lower East Side’s ethnic makeup shifted as the neighborhood became one of the first racially integrated communities in the city. In recent years, the neighborhood’s legendary color and vitality have attracted residents of all nationalities and walks of life.
With London plane trees and a long legacy of supporting those most in need in our communities, Gustav Hartman’s memory lives in our neighborhoods and beyond.
Interested in learning more history about this immediate area? Read about Levi Strauss, the immigrant peddler who created an iconic piece of American fashion, who got his start just feet from Hartman Square, or the remarkable history of 268-274 East 2nd Street, which stood next door to Hartman’s Israel Orphan Asylum.