Kirby's Mean Streets
The Lower East Side of Jacob Kurtzberg
by and © Jon B. Cooke
Kirby Collector #16
Newsboy Legion © & ™ DC Comics Inc.
Karl Kesel inked this drawing of the Newsboy Legion for
the back cover of this issue, which includes a Kid Gang Update section.
You can take the man out of the city, but you can't take the city out of the
man." I don't know who first said that, but it fits when it comes to Jack Kirby.
The New York City area he grew up in, the Lower East Side of Manhattan, always
has a way of showing up as a setting in his stories. Whether as Suicide Slum
of the Guardian, Yancy Street in the Fantastic Four, or even Armagetto in Mister
Miracle, Jack hardly disguises the streets of his youth, giving us a snapshot
of a brutal, harsh, even nightmarish place, though sometimes throwing in a wink
of nostalgia. And we know that many of his most beloved characters - Scrapper
of the Newsboy Legion, Ben Grimm, and Scott Free - are really from those mean
streets; they're simply embellished reflections of the pugnacious artist who
Anyone who met the man will tell you what a gracious, giving and kind gentleman
Jack Kirby was - but what everyone knows from his work is that he was also angry
as hell and tough as pavement, and it was the Lower East Side that made him
that way. To know the man, I figured, you've got to understand where he comes
So I searched for his old neighborhood. I looked for it in his interviews,
on maps, through talks with old buddies, in cultural history books, via cyberspace,
and, finally, on the very sidewalks of the big city itself. Overall, I had little
to go on. Jack didn't mention specific addresses in interviews, but through
his words, and the shared experiences of others who grew up in the real "Suicide
Slum," I got a picture I hope isn't too far from the truth.
On August 25, 1917, Jacob Kurtzberg was born to recent Austrian immigrants,
Rosemary and Benjamin, into one of the most densely populated places in the
world, the Lower East Side - a density of nearly a quarter million people per
square mile. His parents came to America along with nearly two million Jews,
many escaping persecution and economic hardship in Europe, at a time when the
US welcomed immigration to fill industry's need for cheap labor - and most of
these new Americans settled, for a time at least, in the Lower East Side.
Born on Essex Street, Jacob moved with his family a few blocks away into a
Suffolk Street tenement house. The average tenement building contained "20 three-room
apartments... arranged four to a floor, two in the front and two in the rear.
They were reached by an unlighted, ventilated wooden staircase that ran through
the center of the building. The largest room (11' x 12' 6") was referred to
in plans as the living room or parlor, but residents called it the 'front room.'
Behind it came the kitchen and one tiny bedroom. The entire flat, which often
contained households of seven or more people, totaled about 325 square feet.
Only one room per apartment - the 'front room' - received direct light and ventilation,
limited by the tenements that [hemmed] it in. The standard bedroom, 8' 6" square,
[was] completely shut off from both fresh air and natural light..."1
Rent for their Suffolk Street flat was, according to Kirby, $12 a month.2
Poverty was a fact of life. Benjamin Kurtzberg worked in a factory as a tailor.
"The immigrants had to make a living," Jack said. "They had to support their
families, and they did it on very little, so we had very little..." Everyone
who could work, did work to put food on the table; so young Jacob raised what
he could, whether by hawking newspapers ("I was terrible at it... and I'd throw
'em away."2), or running errands for journalists,
to help make ends meet. "The Depression was in full force, and whatever you
brought home counted... whatever you brought into the house made it that much
easier for [my mother] to buy food."2 (The
national crisis truly hit home when Ben became unemployed at a crucial moment
in Jacob's life, as Jack was newly enrolled as an art student at the Pratt Institute.
Whether his father lost work due to Italian sewing-machine operators - non-unionized
and cheap labor - or the highway's access to cheaper production costs in the
country is not known, but it was a sobering time.)
It was the culture of the street that defined the neighborhood, and the boy
Kurtzberg had an eyeful. "It wasn't a pleasant place to live; crowded, no place
to play ball," Jack said. "You became a toreador at an early age, just dodging
the ice wagons."2 The streets were also
filled with pushcarts, itinerant peddlers, and every type of humanity imaginable.
Overall the district was diverse, home to a eclectic mix of neighborhoods: The
East Village, Chinatown, Little Italy, Astor Place, and Knickerbocker Village,
though the area between Delancey Street (true home of the Yancy Street Gang?)
and Houston was predominately Jewish. (The area continues the immigrant tradition
after recent decades as a Puerto Rican enclave, and today, as a Dominican neighborhood.)
The violence of poverty was everywhere, but not everyone lived in hopeless
despair. Kirby-idol and fellow Lower East Side tough guy Jimmy Cagney put it
this way: "Though we were poor, we didn't know we were poor. We realized we
didn't get three squares on the table every day, and there was no such thing
as a good second suit, but we had no objective knowledge that we were poor.
We just went from day to day doing the best we could, hoping to get through
the really rough periods with a minimum of hunger and want. We simply didn't
have time to realize we were poor, although we did realize the desperation of
life around us."4
The desperation was played out amongst the city kids by scrapping. "Fighting
became second nature," Jack said. "I began to like it." Gangs had been a fact
of life in New York since the Revolutionary War. A 1900 "East Side Boy" described
three kinds of gangs: "The really tough gangs... meet at corners to make trouble."
Another kind "hang around a corner to flirt with girls and amuse themselves
with people who pass by." And lastly, there's "just a social gang, formed chiefly
for the purpose of playing games... especially baseball."7
"Jakie" Kurtzberg was part of the Suffolk Street Gang. "Each street had its
own gang of kids, and we'd fight all the time," Jack said. "We'd cross over
the roofs and bombard the Norfolk Street gang with bottles and rocks and mix
it up with them."
"Our heroes were great fighters, soldiers or strongarm hoodlums who were top
gangsters," a Hard-Knocks alumni, Samuel Goldberg, explained. "Wrongly, we tried
to emulate them... we were continually at war between ourselves or with gangs
from other districts that were of different races and religions. The Irish gangs
came from the East Side Waterfront. They invaded our district with rocks, glass
bottles, clubs and all sorts of homemade weapons. Battles would rage in streets,
vacant lots, and even in some parks."5
The Lower East Side turf belonged to celebrity gangster Charles "Lucky" Luciano,
the mastermind behind Murder Inc., a heinous organization Jack recalled in the
unpublished In the Days of the Mob #2. City homicides peaked as crime gangs
reorganized along Lucky's plan. Local son Meyer Lansky saw Prohibition as an
opportunity and formed a gang with Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, the "Bugs and Meyer
Mob," an association that lasted until Lansky okayed the "hit" on Bugs.
Crime had its allure. "Some of my friends became gangsters," Jack said. "You
became a gangster depending upon how fast you wanted a suit. Gangsters weren't
the stereotypes you see in the movies. I knew the real ones, and the real ones
were out for big money. The average politician was crooked. That was my ambition,
to be a crooked politician."3 Gangsters
were a part of history in the district, with one gang, the "Bowery Boys," stretching
back to the 1700s. (Jack recalled the moniker of 1890s thug Kid Twist as his
subject for the ill-fated Mob #2.) But the worst crimes the artist seemed to
commit were rooftop fights, monument shop invasions and just general rowdy behavior.
When he wasn't drawing or sneaking time with a pulp magazine, Jakie seemed
to be fighting. He fought to defend his fancy-dressed younger brother, David.
He fought on fire escapes, rooftops, and on stairways. He was knocked out cold
and laid at his mother's door. As tenacious and angry as the city streets were,
the code insisted that a good knock-down, drag-out was often the proper thing
"About all this street fighting," Cagney said, "it's important to remember
that [we] conformed to the well-established neighborhood pattern... We weren't
anything more than normal kids reacting to our environment - an environment
in which street fighting was an accepted way of life... We had what I suppose
could be called colorful young lives."4
"My East Side slum training stood me in good stead later in my life," Samuel
Goldberg said. "The constant fighting with different gangs toughened me to withstand
the blows that life would deal me."5 Jack
would cite his anger as a catalyst. "Yeah, I think anger will save your life.
I think anger will give you a drive that will save your life and change it in
some manner."2 And Jacob Kurtzberg's drive
was to get out.
"I wanted to break out of the ghetto," Jack said. "It gave me a fierce drive
to get out of it. It made me so fearful... that in an immature way, I fantasized
a dream world more realistic than the reality around me."2
He sought out places that could help him hone his drawing ability, going to
the renowned Educational Alliance - for one day. "They threw me out for drawing
too fast with charcoal," Jack said.2 But
he was accepted into the Boys Brotherhood Republic, a haven (which still exists
today) that encouraged his talents and allowed him the peace to enjoy his beloved
pursuits: Reading and drawing, pastimes so disdained by his thuggish compatriots
on the outside.
"Democracy was practiced here," current BBR director, Ralph Hittman said. "Kids
ran the place... it's a miniature city." The organization, located at 290 East
3rd St., was ruled by boys, teaching them a lesson in self-government and democracy.
Jakie did cartoons for the weekly (then monthly) newspaper "and eventually he
became the editor and grew up."
"It was a great time for me," Jack said. "I made lots of friends."6
One of those was Hittman, who remembers Jakie as a "quiet guy, who played ball
like everyone else, but whose interest was always in drawing and comic strips."
The director remembers an activity called "Fighting for Fun," when Jakie boxed
a boy named Milt Cherry. "And I think he lost! (laughter) Jack looked pugnacious
but he really wasn't."
The BBR still honors the talent and success of the artist. "We have his photograph
up, his drawings up," Recreational Director Peter Doyle said. "The kids all
talk about him... when the kids see the X-Men, or the Avengers and you tell
them that the guy who invented them was a BBR kid, it inspires them. A lot of
them do paintings based on comic books; it's our main stock in trade." The neighborhood
is currently "a very, very violent area," Doyle relates. "In the ten years I've
been here, I know quite a few kids who have been shot in the street... I've
stepped out and seen bodies covered in sheets."
"Kids don't have an awful lot of role models," Doyle said. "You can talk about
Jimmy Cagney, but that was 50 years ago. But Jack is still a role model for
these kids because, well, it's comic books. It's great that this guy who was
here so long ago is still giving kids hope. Many of these kids really feel that
they're going to end up on the street with no future, but when they see that
Jack Kirby, the father of Marvel, went to the BBR, it gives them a little more
hope. That's why we keep his picture up downstairs."
I tried to find the streets of Jacob Kurtzberg's Lower East Side and found
it had mostly dissipated with the immigrants who went onto greater things in
the American frontier. Poverty remains, with a similar mix of hope and despair,
but these are different streets. Most of the old tenements on Suffolk have been
torn down, now empty lots filling up with eccentric, makeshift gardens of green
vegetables and blooming _flowers. Like any decent reporter, I hoped to find
some old neighbor but there were none to be found. Rounding the corner of E.
Houston St., I was struck with the ambivalent mix of growth and decay. Modern
establishments like Kinko's and Blockbusters share blocks with dilapidated Matzo
stores, aging Jewish monument shops, and even the famous Katz's Delicatessen
(the proud originators of the saying, "Send a Salami to your Boy in the Army").
My eight-year-old son Ben grimaced and called the area "ugly." He's right. We
stopped for a cup of shaved ice from a Dominican street vendor and happened
upon a telling sight: A gutted, basement-level comics shop, long since closed,
with fading pictures of Jack's Marvel characters peeling on the cracked window
pane. On the store landing was a pile of still-bundled newspapers and for a
fleeting moment, I imagined a modern newsboy, frustrated with his selling abilities,
chucking away papers and setting off up Houston Street to dream of better, more
The Lower East Side of the '20s and '30s - an era when it was foremost in the
public's consciousness with Warner Brothers' gangster pictures and the Dead
End Kids (who, under various names as the East Side Kids and the Bowery Boys,
went on to be featured in 86 films) - has to receive co-creator credit when
it comes to the King. Rose and Ben conceived and nurtured Jacob Kurtzberg, endowing
him with a sensitivity and genius. But it was the streets that gave him resolve
and fortitude enough to fight the Nazis, create publishing empires, and have
the pure audacity to be Jack Kirby, the toughest comic book artist ever.
1 -The Lower East Side Tenement
2 -Interview, Will Eisner's Spirit Magazine #39, February 1982.
3 -Interview, The Comics Journal #134, February 1990.
4 -Cagney by Cagney, James Cagney, New York: Pocket Books, 1977.
5 -Samuel Goldberg interview, How We Lived, Irving Howe & Kenneth Libo, New
York: Richard Marek Publishing, 1979.
6 -Interview, The Jack Kirby Treasury Vol. 1, G. Theakston, ed., New York: Pure
7 -Portal to America: The Lower East Side 1870-1925, A. Schoener, ed., New York:
Holt, Rinehard & Winston, 1967.
Special thanks to Ralph Hittman and Paul Doyle of the BBR. (The organization
has produced a history that includes Jack's first published work. Please inquire
at Boys Brotherhood Republic, 888 East 6 Street, New York, NY 10009 USA, phone:
+1.212.686.8888. Your help may just inspire another boy to greatness.) Also
thanks to Nat Ronner and Sid Davis, old Kirby friends, and to Andrew D. Cooke
and Patty Willett for getting Ben and I around town.
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