It measures just one block long, which may be why nobody seems to have noticed. Still, even on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a street named for a paid Soviet agent might strike some New Yorkers as unorthodox.
To be sure, when the one block extension of Pitt Street between Grand and East Broadway was named 50 years ago this month by the City Council to honor Samuel Dickstein, a former United States congressman and State Supreme Court justice, his covert career was hardly common knowledge.
Apparently, according to documents released within the last few years under the Freedom of Information Act, not even the Federal Bureau of Investigation had suspicions that Mr. Dickstein had been on the payroll of the Soviet secret police.
Local Law 2 to affix Mr. Dickstein’s name to the block near where he lived on East Broadway apparently encountered little opposition. It passed the Committee on Parks and Thoroughfares and then the full City Council and was signed in February 1963.
Mr. Dickstein was famous in the 1930s for pursuing radicals as vice chairman of a House subcommittee on un-American activities and chairman of the immigration committee. In 1934, he hosted a delegation of Communists at his home. They were greeted with pink-hued subpoenas to appear before the panel.
But Mr. Dickstein’s chief target later in the decade was Nazis and their American sympathizers – a position that would have endeared him to the Russians. He boisterously brandished his own list of 300 recently arrived German consulate employees – a number he suggested was “ridiculously large for the ordinary conduct of affairs by legitimate German consular offices in the United States.”
Whatever Communist sympathies he may have held, they appear to have dissipated within a decade. In 1950, as a judge, he upheld the refusal of the Concourse Plaza Hotel in the Bronx to rent a ballroom to the American Labor Party to honor the actor and singer Paul Robeson.
Mr. Dickstein died in 1954. Decades later, documents discovered in Soviet archives disclosed that he had been paid $1,250 monthly from 1937 to 1940 by the Russian security service. Whether Mr. Dickstein ever actually delivered any intelligence on American fascists is unclear, but the Soviets apparently dumped him after Martin Dies, a Texas Democrat, succeeded him as the chief tormentor of Americans suspected of being un-American.
The Soviet documents, researched by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev for their 1999 book “The Haunted Wood,” asserted that the Soviets offered Mr. Dickstein $500 a month. He demanded $2,500. They settled on $1,250, but the Soviets had the last word. They bestowed on him the code name “Crook.”
“My God, who knew?” said Edward L. Sadowsky, a former Queens city councilman, who voted for the street name designation in 1963. (Mr. Sadowsky recalled on Tuesday, however, that he became embroiled in another naming controversy after the mayor’s office asked him to sponsor legislation that broke with tradition by naming the new Queens baseball stadium after a living New Yorker, William A. Shea.)
It was unclear from city archives who had initiated the street naming in Mr. Dickstein’s honor, although it appeared that at the time the office of the mayor and the Manhattan borough president had gone along.
“I’m very sympathetic to people like Councilman Sadowsky, who couldn’t possibly have known about Dickstein’s NKVD connection,” said John S. Mercer, the clinical director for the anesthesiology department at Columbia University Medical Center and a voracious reader with a well-honed memory, who noticed the plaza designation not long ago.
“However, it’s been about 13 years since the information on Dickstein became public,” Dr. Mercer added. “I find it amazing that in a city replete with knowledgeable, politically active citizens no one has ever made an issue of this before, even if the plaza is only one block long. Frankly, I was stunned. Surely, someone would have petitioned by now to have the name of a Soviet spy and traitor to the United States removed from the New York City streetscape. ‘Alger Hiss Plaza’, anyone? Not very likely.”
A council spokesman said that so far, at least, no one has asked that the name be rescinded in a neighborhood that was once a Socialist hotbed, where a gay bar goes by the name Eastern Bloc, and where an apartment building called Red Square is adorned with a statue of Lenin.