Heading into his sophomore year at Rutgers University in 1974, my friend Jeff Kaplowitz paged through the course catalogue with one goal in mind. He had almost dropped out as a freshman after failing several midterm exams, and now he was looking for some easy classes to raise his grade-point average out of the danger zone. He found the seeming solution: Photography I, being taught at Douglass College, the female division of Rutgers. “How hard can it be?” he remembers thinking. “I’ll take pictures and meet women.”
Newly equipped with a Canon FTB 35-millimeter camera, learning from scratch how to develop and print in the darkroom, Jeff soon appreciated the degree of difficulty. On one early assignment, he shot mostly what he thought was artistic, some psychedelic compositions more or less inspired by Picasso. And when the Douglass instructor looked over the prints, she indicated one and said, “This is a phenomenal picture.”
Jeff thought she must have meant one of his abstracts. The instructor quickly corrected him. “No, I’m talking about this one,” she said, pointing to the shot of a gray-haired woman standing in the cluttered aisle of a store. “What’s this one?”
“It’s just my Mom,” Jeff answered. “In my folks’ store. That’s nothing.” In fact, he had clicked that shot as a throwaway to use up the last of the 36 exposures on a standard roll of film.
“Nothing?” the instructor repeated, incredulous. “That’s a story. Photography is a story without words.”
Two months into the semester, the instructor approached Jeff with a proposal. For his entire semester’s grade, she wanted him to produce a photo essay of 24 hours in his parents’ store.
With one deviation, Jeff took the offer. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, Jeff spent the requisite 24 hours documenting life in and around his parents’ store: Pacific Cut-Rate 5 & 10, in a section of Jersey City that was sliding from racially mixed, working-class stability into segregation and corrosive poverty. Jeff also ventured beyond the store to some of the other businesses on the block — Vrola’s meat market, Marion’s barbershop, a grocery.
What he emerged with from that single day 43 years ago is an extraordinary document, a visual time capsule of blue-collar urban life and very specifically of Jewish mercantile life. Jeff’s father, Herman Kaplowitz, had worked as a traveling peddler before buying the shop on Pacific Avenue with his wife Sadie. They ran the Pacific 5 & 10 from 1937 until 1979, the year they retired to Florida. For much of that time, they and their children, Jeff and his older sister Phyllis, lived in an apartment above the store. It took a race riot in 1964, during which Herman stayed up all night in his living room with a .38-caliber pistol, to persuade him to buy a home in the middle-class section of Jersey City called Greenville.
The 75 images that Jeff shot for the Rutgers assignment capture the mutual struggle and poignant interdependence for the residents, white and black, who remained behind on Pacific Avenue. A portrait of Herman and Sadie Kaplowitz standing outside the curved front windows of their store — he in horn-rimmed glasses and a bow tie, she in a checked dress and cardigan — cannot help but evoke some unlikely amalgam of Grant Wood and Edward Hopper. Another print shows a young African-American boy, his house key on a lanyard around his neck, peering yearningly into the display windows. Anyone familiar with the documentary photography of Milton Rogovin in Buffalo, N.Y., will sense a similar aesthetic and a comparable empathy in Jeff’s work.
Because he was shooting as Christmas approached, the merchandise inside the store contained strands of tinsel and small artificial trees. In one photo, Jeff’s sister Phyllis leans wearily on a counter next to a vast roll of paper for wrapping gifts. Whether in holiday season or not, the store was a cornucopia: neckties, batteries, comic books, cosmetics, bulk candy. Of all the products, Jeff especially remembers a particular brand of perfume that came in a tiny yellow bottle. “It was called Atomic Bomb,” he informed me. “Stunk like hell.”
A self-taught electrician, Herman repaired radios and TVs; he also prepared taxes and served as a notary public. He stocked a particular kind of ledger that bookies used, and whenever one ambled into the store and asked for a “Bible,” Herman would head into the back room to fetch one from his supply. For Easter, Herman sold baby chicks, which he got from a nearby warehouse of the Hartz Mountain pet-food company. On Mother’s Day, Jeff and Phyllis set up a card table on the sidewalk out front to sell carnations to the worshippers going to and from a black church up the street. The store always stayed open till 1 p.m. on Sundays for whatever the churchgoers needed to pick up after services. Then, unless the weather was balmy enough for a beach or park outing, Herman took his whole family across the Hudson to stock up from suppliers on the Lower East Side.
Although neither Jeff nor Phyllis put it exactly this way, when we spoke recently about the store, what came through in their memories and the photos is a deep kind of connection between the Pacific 5 &10 and the other businesses similarly trying to hang on, whether holdovers like Vrola’s from the neighborhood’s Polish-immigrant origins or black-owned shops like Marion’s trying to get a foothold in a precarious economy. Far from being seen as an interloper or exploiter, as Jewish-owned businesses in the black ghetto sometimes were stereotyped, the Kaplowitzes were part of the community, so much so that they were the last white family to live on the block.
“My parents loved it,” Jeff recalls. “There’s an image that people who never experienced black communities have that they’re scary, that there’s always danger. But it was a lovely community. My parents were respected people on the block. People came into the store just to talk.”
Herman and Sadie Kaplowitz’s devotion to the store, however, ended with their own generation. As two people whose aspirations were cut down by the Depression — Herman dropped out of school at 16 to go to work, Sadie precociously graduated at that age but couldn’t afford to continue her education — they insisted that Jeff and Phyllis graduate from college, as both of them did. Now 61, Jeff went on to become a real-estate broker in Jersey City and served on the advisory board for the light-rail system; he is also an active member of Temple Beth-El there. A lifelong resident of Jersey City, he lives now in a condo complex on what used to be the outfield of Roosevelt Stadium, the minor-league ballpark and occasional rock-concert venue. Jeff still has a photo he shot there, of a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young concert on the night Richard Nixon resigned.
Over the decades, Jeff has stayed with photography, too. Much of his work has been travel photography, done while on hiking and backpacking trips as far afield as Patagonia and Bhutan. Before every trip, Jeff made it a habit to shoot along the Jersey City waterfront — a kind of aesthetic calisthenics. After the September 11 attacks and the destruction of the World Trade Center, he realized what a chronicle he had coincidentally assembled and began to organize his images, which by now number well into the thousands. He had always kept the negatives of the Pacific Avenue photos safely in a Tupperware container, and several years ago he also made scans of the original prints.
As for the family’s store, just before Herman and Sadie retired to Florida in 1979, a buyer offered $3,000. Relieved to have anybody pay anything at that low point in Jersey City’s existence, Herman sold. The following year, the Internal Revenue Service audited him; it looked suspicious that a building with retail space and two apartments went for so little money. Or at least it looked suspicious to an analyst sitting hundreds of miles from the abandoned and desiccated landscape of Pacific Avenue in the throes of deindustrialization.
Most of the stores that Jeff photographed, including his family’s at 390 Pacific Ave., were razed in an urban-renewal program in the 1980s and replaced over the next decade by tidy, affordable duplexes, albeit encased in burglar bars. Now, coffee houses and art galleries are popping up in the area, known as Bergen-Lafayette, and former schools and factories are being transformed into luxury apartments, thanks to the proximity to a light-rail station for commuters.
To this day, Jeff still has one keepsake from the store: the original cash register. His parents bought it second-hand when they opened in the 1930s, and it soon became obsolete for the simple reason that it couldn’t ring up any total higher than $3.99. Sometimes Jeff wishes he had also rescued the huge console TV that his parents got in 1949. It was one of the first on Pacific Avenue, and people would clamor into the store to watch the Milton Berle show.
The strangely touching thing is what Jeff cannot recall: the instructor from Photography I. “I remember everything about her but her name,” he said. “And she’s had the most ever-lasting effect on my life.”