Main image
11th July
2003

First Published in The New York Sun, July 11, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

Alexander Burger is not a familiar name to many people today, but once he was one of the most important businessmen in the Bronx.

Born in Russia of Jewish heritage in 1873, Burger was brought to America as a young boy. He left school as a teenager to enter the business world and help support his family.In 1920 he established the Art Steel Co..Burger’s first product was a steel cash box,painted in a distinct green color. He soon expanded his facility and began producing a full line of files, desks, and other office furniture, urging his customers to “Follow the Green Line.”
In 1930, Burger’s Green Line was at the center of what would become a boom in the South Bronx,where he put up a huge factory. At that time, most regional rail freight traffic had to pass through the Bronx, since it was the only borough on the mainland, and that gave Bronx a significant advantage. Subway expansion opened up vast areas of the Bronx to residential settlement, leading to dynamic growth in the retail sector. Years later Art Steel moved farther north to Kingsbridge, adjacent to the Major Deegan Expressway. Although Art Steel is long defunct, tens of thousands of “Steelmaster” files and desks it built — in the Bronx — are still in use.

Burger’s business was noteworthy for another reason.Art Steel was famous for its inclusive hiring practices.The company was a beacon of opportunity for generations of New Yorkers of all backgrounds, but especially those of Hispanic background. “Art Steel was always at the forefront,” recalls Elias Karmon, the 93-year-old and still-active elder statesman of the Bronx business community. “Alexander Burger and his family were the trend-setters, the leaders.”

In 1957, a new school was constructed at Brook Avenue and 141st Street. Even then,25 years after his passing,the name Alexander Burger was held in such high regard that it was affixed to the new Junior High School 139 by a grateful South Bronx community.

His family continued their involvement in the south Bronx community through the school. For 45 consecutive years, a representative of the Burger family, usually the founder’s granddaughter, Mrs. I.D. Luckower, attended the school’s graduation. Whenever the school needed a little extra something, the Burger family was ready to open their checkbooks.Their commitment to the school was total, in good times and bad.

Several years ago, people in the community got it in their heads that the name “Burger” needed to be removed from the building. At first a movement began to name the school for a teacher who had recently died. The excuse was used that the name had to be changed as part of its reorganization as a “SURR” school. This is simply not true, since other Bronx schools retained their names even after the number of the school had been changed several times. But the name “Burger” was removed. No new name has been approved.

From the first time this story came up, nearly four years ago, I feared that the real reason for the name change had more to do with the fact that the name “Burger” had a distinctly Jewish sound that may not resonate with some in the current community power structure. I raised this with Mrs.Luckower,an incurable liberal who always likes to think the best of people. She has been resistant to pushing this interpretation, and up until now I honored her wishes.

But recently, I had occasion to catch a glimpse into the mind-set of that community’s leadership. I am more convinced than ever that the removal of the Burger name from what is now Middle School 222 was nothing less than an act of cheap anti-Semitism by people who have no idea of what Burger stood for, and how much their community owes to him.

I was asked by the Reverend Ruben Diaz Sr., who represents part of the South Bronx in the state Senate, to participate in a meeting on the reorganization plans for the public schools, which was held in his office. Other public officials were present, as were about 50 parent leaders from the various local school districts. I was the only recognizably white person in the room.At the head of the table I sat to Mr. Diaz’ left, and Assemblywoman Carmen Arroyo sat to his right, perhaps six feet from me.

The Burger school is located in Ms.Arroyo’s district, as is much of Community School Board 7, long at the bottom of all city school districts by virtually any performance measure. Ms.Arroyo has been at the center of the school district’s politics virtually since the beginning of decentralization. She has had veto power over the hiring and firing of superintendents for many years, and before the 1997 reform of the school governance law, exercised that same influence over the selection of principals and assistant principals. If there is any single individual who has shaped and influenced public education in Community School District 7, it has been Carmen Arroyo.

Imagine my shock when Ms. Arroyo went into a tirade against the “whites and the Jews”who,in her interpretation, are looking to “steal the money” from the schools in her district. “It’s all about the money,” she railed, as a very uncomfortable Mr. Diaz fidgeted in the seat between us. After the meeting, Mr. Diaz apologized for her remarks, but I can’t help but wonder that if this is what she was willing to say with an outsider — a white,Jewish journalist — present,what does she say when not confronted with such a constraint?

Last summer, the steel letters were pried off of the side of the building, a decision made by a community school board and its masters whose priorities lean more to the political and less to the historical. In a perverse way this is symbolic of what has become of the Bronx.There is no longer reason to honor the benevolent businessman who gave so many thousands their first taste of the American dream. That he was Jewish just made it easier to dishonor his memory. Today’s South Bronx heroes are not those who provide opportunity to earn what it takes to buy your own lunch, but rather those who promise, and sometimes provide at government expense, a free lunch. And if they can do it while kicking the dead Jew, so much the better.

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

 

Leave a Reply