Moishe Mana, the Israeli Who Made a Fortune With His Moving Empire, Wants to Build a New Tribeca in Jersey City

As a young Israeli, Mana moved to Manhattan in the early 1980s and made his fortune with a trailblazing house-moving business, but it’s what he has done since that has truly surprised.

Hilo Glazer
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Hilo Glazer

From his ninth-floor home in a Manhattan tower overlooking the Hudson, Moishe Mana has a panoramic view of New Jersey. He can make out the GRM building, the headquarters of Moishe’s − the highly successful house-moving company he established in the 1980s. From another window he can see the East River and Long Island, where he owns a large storage-service business. Mana himself waxes poetic: “From my living room I see the sun rising over my empire, and from the bedroom I see the sun setting below it.”

The true hub of the empire, though, lies beyond the elevated field of vision, nestled in an area that is out of bounds for most Manhattanites, amid grubby industrial buildings in the poverty pocket otherwise known as Jersey City. According to The New York Times, Mana Contemporary, as the facility is called, “might be one of the art world’s best-kept secrets.”

The central complex, which covers 46,000 square meters, was originally a tobacco factory. It was converted by Mana into an interdisciplinary shrine that contains artists’ studios, exhibition spaces and storage services for collections. Also scheduled to be built in the surrounding area − on an area of some 140 dunams (35 acres) − is a center for architecture and interior design, along with four restaurants, 12 exhibition spaces, some 20 galleries that will move here from New York, a theater, sculpture garden and boutique hotel for artists.

“The whole idea of buying the complex and the lots around it entails a commitment of tens of millions of dollars, but I decided to go for it all-out,” Mana tells Haaretz, adding, “I wanted to build a field of dreams for my groups.” On the face of it, the transition from Moishe’s mundane areas of expertise − moving and storage − to the art world looks unnatural, off-the-wall almost, perhaps even irresponsible. But only if you don’t take into account the other variable in the equation: real estate.

In addition to the area designated for the ambitious art project, Mana owns many other properties in New Jersey − “hundreds of thousands of square feet,” he says. So, if all goes as planned, the Mana complex will be a magnet for artists and, along the way, will increase the value of his other real-estate holdings exponentially. According to the Mana doctrine, art is a springboard for pushing up the value of land on which, when the time comes, residential neighborhoods can be built. “The artists arrive first and the others in their wake,” he says. “It’s like an Archimedean law, or the Law of Communicating Vessels.”

A short man brimming with energy, Moishe Mana made a long journey from a small apartment in Tel Aviv’s lower-class Hatikva neighborhood before daring to fantasize aloud about fomenting major changes in the urban fabric of entire cities. He was born into a poor family of Iraqi origin, the second of five children. A younger brother, Roni, a real estate developer, was ejected from the close circle of Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu because he was suspected of being linked to the lawsuit that the Netanyahus’ former housekeeper, Lillian Peretz, brought against Sara for alleged mistreatment.

Mana’s parents were real estate brokers; his mother also engaged in card reading. In high school, Moishe was in the Mizrahi track for students of Middle Eastern descent (“I was an integration kid”), polishing the Arabic he already knew from home. He did his army service in the Intelligence Corps, on the Egyptian front. And to this day, if he gives you a lift in his car there’s a good chance you’ll hear songs by the Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum. Subsequently, he attended law school at Tel Aviv University for a year, before dropping out. He hasn’t looked back since.

Messing with the Mafia

The story of his move to America is almost suspiciously cliche-ridden. In 1983, at the age of 23, he bought a one-way ticket, arrived in New York penniless (“except for $800 my father gave me”) and at first lived a nomadic existence, occasionally spending the night on a bench in Washington Square Park. He eked out a living in a booth on the sidewalks of Manhattan, selling scarves, gloves and sneakers. Finally, he settled in a rickety building in Brooklyn, which was then still a poor, neglected satellite of Manhattan and not a sexy hub of art and style.

Mana hooked up with an Israeli renovations contractor and started to work with him. The agreement was that he would be a partner in the restoration of a wrecked building and would get a percentage of future apartment sales or rentals in the renovated structure. However, while the renovation was still in progress, the contractor told Mana that he wouldn’t be able to pay him. The compromise was that the payment would be deferred but that in the meantime Mana could use the man’s van to make occasional deliveries at night.

The most common route involved picking up towels from gay saunas, delivering them to a laundry on the Upper West Side and returning them for $40 a trip. He continued to siphon off the profits to the contractor and then opened a business − The Man with the Van − that made deliveries for $12.50 an hour. When the business started to develop, the partner demanded ownership of the van and effectively dispossessed Mana, who was left indigent. The contractor owed him $3,859 − a number Mana can still rattle off in his sleep. Mana: “I told him, ‘One day I will be a billionaire, but I will never forget that $3,859, because that’s all I have in life.’ I was left with nothing.”

Nevertheless, with the reputation he had forged and a group of clients he gathered, he managed to scrape together the funds to acquire another van and founded Moishe’s Moving. The business expanded rapidly into a company with 33 light-red trucks and 180 employees in matching uniforms. The firm squeezed out veteran companies in the moving business, founded mainly by Irish and Italian immigrants. In time, competing movers with “Jewish names” sprang up, and the house-moving market began to be dominated by Israelis. Mana himself left his Brooklyn lair for a fashionable studio in Chelsea. By 1988, he was able to upgrade to a two-bedroom place on the Upper West Side, worth $650,000. In that year, Moishe’s had a turnover of $12 million, according to The New York Times.

“The market was locked in by a monopoly of the trade unions, and we changed the rules and broke them,” Mana recalls. “At the time, you couldn’t get into the moving business if you weren’t part of the union, so the prices were crazy. People used to move via underground ways − they would ask a friend for a favor or organize a truck of their own − because no one could pay the movers’ fees. I arrived, lowered prices and changed the standards. I introduced fairness into the business. I printed brochures that spelled out the client’s rights, what he could expect from his mover, what a reasonable price was. I created order in an industry that was broken, battered and corrupt. I started the brush fire, I broke the unions − and then all the others rushed in.”

Mana’s apartment is spacious but basically minimalist. There are no golden chandeliers or crystal vases, and the few works of art are also not extravagant in character. Instead, the visitor’s attention is drawn to a framed black pistol, around which is a crudely made, almost childish collage with photos of Al Pacino from “Scarface,” in which Pacino played Tony Montana, a gangster who claws his way to the underworld summit in the early 1980s. Mana is familiar with the conditions from which the film drew its inspiration − but from the other side of the fence.

“I was a kid,” he says, “I didn’t know what I was getting into. It turns out the unions were controlled by the Italian Mafia, and they didn’t like me cutting in on their income. First came the threats and then the shots. Motorcyclists would go by our offices on the Upper East Side and shoot at the upper part of the window, where the salespeople were. Or they would drive by a Moishe’s truck and shoot out the windshield. Every day I would get home and say, ‘That’s it, today they will kill me.’ At one point, FBI agents visited me and told me the Mafia had put out a contract on me. All along I knew I would continue. I had no choice.

“One day I’m showering in my apartment and a guy calls who identifies himself as John Gotti [who gained fame as the boss of one of the most powerful crime families in America]. I didn’t know who he was, so I asked, ‘John who?’ He repeated the name. ‘How can I help you?’ I asked. He said, ‘You’re stepping on our toes, taking our livelihood.’ I replied, ‘I live at 201 West 21st. If you want to kill me, come over now and we’ll get it over with.’ I went on, ‘I am not the problem. The problem is the exorbitant prices you charge and the way you work. So you can kill me, but you’ll also have to kill everyone who is behind me and who will follow me.’”

Like classical Europe

In the 1990s, Moishe’s became the biggest independent moving company in New York, and five years later the biggest in the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut). At some point the business went into automatic pilot and Mana looked for channels through which to expand. He hit on storage. He founded a business for furniture storage for private clients, another to store documents, a boutique business for wine storage, and eventually created a conglomerate of 17 companies.

From this perspective, the move to art followed almost logically. The basis for the business model of Mana Contemporary in Jersey City is the storage services that the complex offers collectors, gallerists and museums. At the end of the day, what’s good for the contents of a two-room place in Chelsea is also good for collections of the Guggenheim, for example.

To reach Mana Contemporary by public transportation, take the PATH (the train that connects Manhattan and Jersey City) and get off at Journal Square. Well, that’s the area’s official name, but India Square, Little India and even Little Bombay are more widely used. The complex lies in the heart of the neighborhood, and is reached via a faded avenue lined by Indian and Pakistani businesses. Colorful pennants hanging limply on both sides of the street and women in traditional dress are only partially successful in lending the area an exotic appearance.

Why Jersey City, of all places, I ask Mana. “I believe in the saying, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” he says. “My nature is not to go with the herd. I was always able to choose my niche. Just as my businesses are different and original, so too are my real estate investment choices. I don’t compete for properties that everyone is trying to grab. If everyone goes to Brooklyn and Queens, you won’t find me there. As a matter of fact, I don’t understand the trendiness of Brooklyn. I think it’s a disgusting place: the facade of the houses, the dirt, the noise, the subway routes. Bad news. Jersey City, on the other hand, is a very clean city. Compared to Brooklyn, it’s classical Europe. It’s not crowded, it’s easy to get to and, above all, it’s a lot cheaper.

“The distance of Jersey City from Manhattan is purely a mental distance, not physical,” Mana continues. “People have a psychological difficulty, because it’s a different state. My goal today is to erase the stigma. It’s in my interest to help the city take off, because I have a lot of real estate in Jersey City, part of which is meant to become residential lots eventually. I was amazed that people hadn’t spotted the city’s potential before, but I have no problem taking that on. People don’t want to move to Jersey City? No problem, I will change its name. Jersey City will become Tribeca West. There’s no reason why not − it’s 10 minutes from Tribeca.”

With all due respect, it’s a bit pretentious to think that all you have to do is declare a new name and it will catch on.

“If you call the place ‘Tribeca West’ enough times, at some point people will start to believe that it is Tribeca West. That’s how you change a stigma. One of the artists who works out of Mana Contemporary told me, ‘I moved to Tribeca to do creative work next to artists, but when I went outside I saw Louis Vuitton and Hugo Boss outlets. My home is here in Jersey City, this is where my dream was realized.’ But it’s not only the name − we're creating a new community.”

Plenty of patience is needed, though, before that community is translated into soaring real estate values.

“That’s true, and I get a great deal of flack from my people − especially the money people. They don’t always understand why I have to create such a huge art complex when apartment buildings could already be built there now. But I am convinced that it will pay off in the end. It is already paying off. It’s one of the biggest and most profitable businesses I have built, even if it doesn’t yet look that way. And it’s not just a matter of money. This will be my legacy.”

One of the unavoidable results of this process will be accelerated gentrification − a term that does not have positive connotations.

“What is that?”

Higher property values brings higher rental rates and an overall rise in the cost of living. As a result, families from weak population groups can’t afford to stay in the neighborhood and are pushed out. Like what happened around the Jaffa flea market, for example.

“Look, that's a global trend. We're not forcing anyone to leave his home. On the contrary; in the end we're giving, not taking. When someone’s home increases in value and he can sell it to someone who is better off and can offer more money, we have actually done him a good service.”

If we are to believe Daniel Pelosi, from Weichert Realtors − which is based in Journal Square − Jersey City is just waiting for Mana. “Moishe’s plans are completely realistic,” Pelosi says. “It’s a strategy that has worked since the Renaissance. The most classic example is the founder of the House of Medici, who was an important art patron and used culture and architecture as a tool to transform Florence into an empire. More contemporary examples, such as Soho or Williambsurg, prove that this is still valid. As for the implications for the community, an art scene brings about the opening of restaurants and the creation of parks, leads to an improvement in public services and in the end raises the level of the education system. Sometimes gentrification is the price that has to be paid so things will be cleaner and safer.”

From New York to Miami

Even if he isn’t entirely knowledgeable about the meaning of the term, Mana already has a record of spearheading gentrification. The first transaction he carried out that, quite unexpectedly, morphed into a real estate sensation and helped foment a radical change in the character of a neighborhood, was also the only deal that departed from the mover-storage pattern. In 1998, Mana bought a building in the Meatpacking District, which was still a neglected area at the rump of the Chelsea district and at night became a Petri dish of prostitution and dubious clubs. Mana chose the site to set up Milk Studios, for fashion photography. It became a mecca overnight, after Calvin Klein did a shoot for a new collection there even before the renovations were completed.

Klein’s adoption of Milk Studios as a permanent location for 16 consecutive Fashion Weeks (in other words, eight years) not only boosted the facility’s prestige, it also enhanced local property values. First came the hipsters and then the boutiques, the fancy restaurants and finally an Apple store. Mana is credited with reviving the neighborhood.

“When we came to the Meatpacking District, there was nothing there except slaughterhouses and male prostitutes,” Mana relates. “We started small, believing in the potential of the area. We didn’t know that Milk would become the world’s number one fashion studio. I remember how limos used to enter the compound, amid the filthy butcher shops, for people to buy a shirt for $1,500. Before I had even noticed, it became a business that connects the whole New York fashion industry to it.”

Mana, who divides his time between New York and Miami, wants to apply the Jersey City model to his second home, too. To that end, he recently bought five blocks in the Wynwood area of downtown Miami, covering 80 dunams (20 acres). The plans are for 45 art studios, two galleries, a restaurant, a dance hall and a sculpture fair. The ultimate goal is the same: to  drive up property values.

“What differentiates Mana from others is the huge size of the area he owns,” says Oscar Pedro Musibay, who reports on real estate for the South Florida Business Journal, and is knowledgeable about developments in Wynwood. “Because the neighborhood is currently undergoing an accelerated process of improvement, he'll rake in big profits in any case, even if he does nothing now but wait for the property prices to rise. I can tell you that there are big expectations for him in the neighborhood, in the light of his record in the Meatpacking District of New York.” Mana, for his part, has no intention of lowering those expectations. “We are going to establish the biggest cultural center in the southern United States,” he declares.

The next stop is Chicago, where a branch of Mana Contemporary is scheduled to be inaugurated in coming weeks. It’s an almost exact replica of the Jersey City complex, with studios, workshops, exhibition spaces and heightened involvement of academics and art students.

Mana Chicago already has its eyes on the Pilsen neighborhood across the road, home to a large number of Mexican immigrants. The neighborhood is starting to shake off the cobwebs and display signs of artistic awakening. Still, the structure itself is located on a barren, isolated lot. “When you take a neglected, dark property and renovate it, paint it, post guards and bring in events, you revive it,” Mana says. “When I think about my involvement in all the changes that these neighborhoods are undergoing, I feel like I have the Forrest Gump syndrome. I don’t know if it’s because of me or not, but where I am, history changes.”

For now, Mana New Jersey is still the favorite child that gets the most attention. The complex currently houses 70 artists, who were chosen by a professional committee before being given the right to rent a studio there. All of them are over 30, have been active continuously and have a proven reputation. “There's a waiting list of 60 more,” says Eugene Lemay, Mana’s CEO, who is also a respected digital artist, adding, “By this December we will double the number of studios.” The average size of each studio is 200 square meters and the rent is calculated at a rate of $2 per square meter, which comes to $4,000 a month.

Sante D’Orazio is perhaps the best example of a Mana Contemporary artist. A Brooklyn-born photographer of Italian descent who specializes in portraits and is much in demand for advertisements, he works mainly for Vogue and Vanity Fair. In the 1990s, he established himself as the ultimate documenter of the contemporary celeb scene. Kate Moss, Sharon Stone and Angelina Jolie are just some of the names he has shot, with the subjects usually dressed in minimal attire, if at all.

A few months ago, after more than 20 years in the neighborhood, D’Orazio closed his studio in Soho and moved to Mana Contemporary. He is also
using the site’s storage services and held a show there (titled “Scratched”). As such, D’Orazio is the perfect Mana client, availing himself of all the facility’s services.

“At first it was because of the costs,” he explains. “It is much less costly to rent a studio in Jersey City than in Manhattan or Brooklyn. They designed the space for me especially, installed the electricity as needed and moved my things from one place to the other. The whole package. I don’t have to deal with all the surrounding bureaucracy. If I want to order a work of mine from a gallery, I know it will arrive straightaway; if I need materials, they are brought to me from below. Besides that, there really are community energies. You meet people, receive inspiration. On the other hand, if you want quiet, all you have to do is close the door and not see anyone. It’s not a student-type atmosphere − everyone here is an active, known artist.”

Most of the artists working out of Mana Contemporary are hardly unknowns on the art scene − in some cases, outside it, too. For example, the painter and photographer known as Yu Ling, who is due to move in soon, is a genuine celeb. Queens-born, of Taiwanese descent, Yu Ling studied for two years at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture, and has had shows in Munich, Basel and London. The general public knows her better from the television series “Ally McBeal” and “Elementary,” and from the films “Charlie’s Angels” and “Kill Bill.” Yu Ling is, in fact, the alter ego invented by actor Lucy Liu, so her artworks would be judged on their own merit.

Getting from one floor to another at Mana Contemporary entails the use of terrifying elevators, which are closed with metal lattices and can only be operated by an authorized employee, by invitation. Dancers are seen practicing in a studio established in cooperation with Karole Armitage, one of the world’s foremost choreographers.

The basement houses the boiler room − a rusty, industrial engine room − which contains “Tick Talk,” a sound installation by Ziv Yonatan (the son of the late poet Natan Yonatan) and his wife, Dr. Lily Rattok, who teaches literature at Tel Aviv University.

When Marina Abramovic, perhaps the world’s best-known installation artist, visited the complex, she was most impressed by this particular space. She was honored last March at Mana Contemporary’s First Annual Collectors Dinner, and efforts are now underway to have her cooperate with the complex.

 “I share their concept that art has to be pushed to the margins, be removed from the city centers and made more global,” Abramovic tells Haaretz by phone from Toronto. “Accordingly, my aspiration is to be assisted by them to add facilities to my institution in Hudson [a small town in upstate New York]. They have the space, the resources and the ideas.”

Currently on display on the fourth floor is an exhibition by the provocative Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, which includes erotic and highly graphic images of women who are bound and subjugated. “A combination like this − of painting and sculpture, dance and sound − doesn’t exist anywhere else,” says Shai Baitel, Mana Contemporary’s strategic director. “We are creating a Disneyland of art here.”

In the meantime, the most intriguing initiative already underway at Mana Contemporary is MECA (the Middle East Center for the Arts), which is currently showing video art “by six women filmmakers, all of them members of the Palestinian minority living in Israel,” as the complex’s website says. The curator is Said Abu Shakra, the director of the Umm al-Fahm Art Gallery.

‘Ignorant and evil’

As an Israeli businessman, Mana does not feel the slightest bit uneasy about supporting this exhibition. “On the contrary,” he says, “it is all a matter of awareness and of understanding things. It is clear to me that preserving a Jewish majority is a condition for any agreement [with the Palestinians]. But if you ask me: Were there Arabs here in 1948 whom we expelled? Yes, those are the facts. I left Israel angrily. I also infuriated a great many people. At that time, if you dared talk about a Palestinian state, you risked arrest − and I said those things already back then. I wasn’t a genius or a prophet, but in retrospect it all turned out to be correct. The right wing now also recognizes ideas that once sounded weird.”

Who slammed the door on you?

“I slammed it on the country. I was very disappointed in the way things were being done. I saw that the country was headed to bad places. My concept was that it was a country with no future, and I was not about to tie my future to it. So I left, and in retrospect I was right. I made my life here, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care. On the contrary: I love Israel and want to repay it.”

Still, your patriotism is not like that of most of the Jewish-Israeli businessmen who operate abroad. Their positions are generally right-wing and nationalistic.

“It is ignorant and evil to think that what's good for Israel is good for Israel alone, and all the rest can go to hell. That is to misunderstand how the world works. What is good for Israel is good for the Arabs, and what is good for the Arabs is good for Israel. We cannot be cut off and think that if we have more, that will pay off. For some reason, patriotism has become synonymous with wanting more: the more territories I have, the more of a Zionist I am. I think that is an anti-Zionist stance. Businessmen here in the United States who speak with me simply don’t understand it. They do not have a historical perspective, they are not ready to recognize that the problem is demographic, not geographic.”

As an affluent individual, do you have access to Israeli politicians?

“I have made my views known to everyone who was willing to listen. I had a half-hour breakfast with Ehud Barak, which turned into a conversation of four hours. That was after Camp David [in 2000]. Barak said, ‘Moishe, I offered Arafat everything and yet he refused.’ I told him: ‘Ehud, giving is an art.’ If an employee asks me for a raise, I know I have done something wrong. It’s a sign that he is already in distress. And if I put him off − another few months, another half a year − I embitter him. The wise person can spot that employee and offer him a symbolic, small raise before he approaches you. It’s the same with the Palestinians. We have caused them immense frustration, and that is why their demands are growing. We had an opportunity to give when we were strong; now, the more time that passes, the more we will have to give. Barak is a statesman who understands history and knows the answers, but he forsook his vision for petty politics.

“But no one compares to the person who is now leading the country, the great conman Netanyahu. More than 10 years ago I called him a security risk. People said, ‘Moishe, he is the prime minister of Israel, don’t talk about him like that.’ But the man is unpredictable. I have managed many people in my life, and I have seen other managers at work. Netanyahu is the type of manager who is incapable of making decisions. And when he does decide something, he does it impulsively, which is the scariest thing of all. He is not a leader who is truly thinking about the good of the country and trying to lead. The man is being led; is not reading the map correctly; and is a spoke in the wheels of history. Not to mention the fact that he broke every norm in terms of wasteful spending.”

Your brother Roni was one of Netanyahu’s confidants until not long ago. Did you warn him?

“Of course. But not only my brother. I told senior politicians − [Likud MK] Tzachi Hanegbi, for example − what I think, and also everyone willing to listen. Obviously my brothers know what I think.”

Still, Roni is more relevant here.

“I’m not into his thing so much. Let’s just say that Roni and I do not exactly broadcast on the same wavelength.”

Politically, or in general?

“In everything. We are brothers, but we don’t do things, including business, together. Each of us has his own path in life and the way he behaves. As in every family, we too have coalitions − people you are close to and others less so. Roni and I are simply different.”

Alone, not solitary

Pamela, a porcelain-like woman with facial features suggesting possible Asian origin, has been nibbling on sushi in the kitchen during the interview. Later, she will say farewell and head for a photo shoot. Mana, though, is unlikely to develop a fear of being abandoned. As he is the first to admit, he is “surrounded by girlfriends.” So important is it for him to preserve the image of the eternal bachelor that he refuses even to divulge his age (simple arithmetic shows that he is 54).

The fact that he never married, he says, is merely the result of a circumstantial constellation. “You get on to a highway, choose a certain exit and in the end discover that it is leading you to a different place from the one you intended.”

Could it be that here is where you were bedazzled? Why commit to one woman when you can sample them all?

“I wouldn’t call it bedazzled, but there is no doubt that success in business has its consequences. Many women want to be close to you. You move from place to place, the pace changes, you are less dependent on one person. It’s part of the deal.”

Don’t you get a bitter feeling when you return to an empty house?

“My house is never empty. When the right time comes for something permanent, it will happen. And if not, never mind. I have no regrets about any of my choices.”

Moishe Mana.Credit: Sarah Tricker
One of the studio spaces at the Jersey City complex. The space is a converted tobacco factory in an undeveloped area.Credit: Sarah Tricker
The Israeli connection. Mana Contemporary’s main players ‏(from left‏): Shai Baitel, Eugene Lemay, Mana and Yigal Ozeri. Credit: Sarah Tricker
The boiler room in the Mana basement, featuring the sound installation “Tick Talk,” by Ziv Yonatan and his wife, Dr. Lily Rattok.Credit: Sarah Tricker
Moishe Mana at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City.Credit: Sarah Tricker