Skylights: From Tenements to Trendsetters—NYC’s Lower East Side

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By Sofia Perez

[Published July/August 2002 in Skylights: The In-Flight Magazine of Spirit Airlines]

Like the immigrants who poured into New York City in the 19th century, shedding their pasts and embarking on new futures, the Lower East Side has undergone dramatic change, reinventing itself with each passing decade and every new group of arrivals. Long associated with crumbling tenement buildings where immigrants were crammed cheek to jowl, the area was faced with more modern problems in the recent past. A neighborhood filled with hard-working immigrants, family-run businesses, and the city’s poor, it also became a haven for drug dealers in the 1970’s and 80’s. However, in the past few years, the Lower East Side has been transformed yet again—this time, into one of New York’s hippest neighborhoods to see and be seen.

In search of affordable rents in New York’s astronomical real estate market of the 1990’s, young chefs, designers, and other entrepreneurs began setting up shop on Ludlow, Clinton, and Rivington Streets. While some of these streets are still a little ragged around the edges, this only seems to add to the area’s allure, lending it an air of authenticity, of a neighborhood still in touch with its humble origins.

Time Travel

All it takes is a quick stroll to realize that these buildings have a story to tell. While the walls may not literally talk, the tour guides at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum will. Located in an 1863 tenement building, it’s the closest thing to a time machine, providing instant immersion into the past. The apartment exhibits recreate the exact surroundings of the families that lived in them, down to details like faded photos and Linit starch over the sink. According to the museum’s Robin Marcato, approximately 7,000 people called this building home—some staying for years, others just passing through. To date, the curators have been able to identify about 2,000 residents by name, representing 20 different countries of origin.

Each wave of immigration altered the neighborhood to varying degrees. The influx of Eastern European Jews, for example, had an enormous impact—one that can still be seen today in buildings such as the Eldridge Street Synagogue. Built in 1887, this national historic landmark features stained glass windows and a 70-foot ceiling. In keeping with the diversity of the Lower East Side, the Moorish structure is located a few doors down from a storefront Buddhist temple frequented by Asian immigrants living in neighboring Chinatown. It’s this melting pot quality that the synagogue’s education coordinator, Lucien Sonder, finds so exciting. “I prefer working in this kind of place instead of educating people in a homogenous community. I like the fact that it’s challenging.” The synagogue recently began offering a Chinese language version of its tour and invited local residents to stop by. “We want to involve them and make them aware of the history of this area,” says Sonder.

Birthplace of the Bargain

For immigrants, the Lower East Side was more than just their home; it was their place of business as well. The two realms often coexisted in the same space. In the 1800’s, the area was the center of New York’s garment industry, with some tenements doubling as sweatshops. From countless dressmakers working in their apartments, to the young designers who’ve set up fashionable storefronts today, the examples of both change and continuity are striking.

The influx of trendy boutiques began in the mid-1990’s, according to Jennifer Houlihan of the Lower East Side Business Improvement District: “This area was one of the last affordable neighborhoods in Manhattan that was hospitable to small businesses.” Except for Delancey Street, which is heavily traveled by cars, you won’t find any chain stores here, and that’s just the way the neighborhood likes it. It’s a key reason the area continues to draw young entrepreneurs in search of their niche.

Designer Yien Wong opened her shop on Orchard Street in April. The Red Threads features linens and home accessories with simple but striking patterns, which Ms. Wong creates by hand in her store’s workroom. She chose this area because of its history and uniqueness. “It’s a community of people who make the things they sell, right on site, right in their own shops.”

Across the street from The Red Threads is Louis Chock, a purveyor of socks, pantyhose, and underwear since 1921. Stores like Chock have helped the Lower East Side build a reputation as the city’s bargain district whose heart was (and still is) Orchard Street, where you’ll find clusters of vendors specializing in leather goods, shoes, clothing, and fabrics for interior design and apparel. With places like Fine & Klein, where you might drown in a sea of handbags, and Altman Luggage, the spot to buy that extra suitcase to lug home your other bargains, it’s still the best place to shop for a deal.

But while the Lower East Side may be the birthplace of the bargain, it is increasingly becoming the home of the $80 T-shirt. The epicenter of über-cool shops is Ludlow Street, with aftershocks felt on Stanton and Orchard. It’s easy to distinguish the newer shops because they tend to have fewer than five items in their windows, and many play coy when it comes to displaying their names or addresses, making them as hard to find as a parking spot on Broadway. In contrast, the older stores usually cram as much merchandise as possible into every available nook, and some even resort to signs proclaiming the intensity of their discounts, like the one that reads, “You give us $10 and we’ll give you beautiful purse.”

Places like Las Venus bridge the gap between old and new. This six-year-old vintage furniture store will take you back to another era, but in this case it’s the age of Charlie’s Angels and orange modular furniture. With any luck, you’ll find that pair of oversized toy jacks or the egg-shaped chair you’ve been missing.

A Little Nosh

Although its historic sites and shops recall earlier times, the Lower East Side’s past is most alive in its culinary landmarks, which continue to thrive alongside their hipper, newer brethren. Once you start sampling the choices, you’ll be glad that you’ve done so much walking.

No visit to the Lower East Side would be complete without a stop at Katz’s Delicatessen, where the pastrami bursts out of the rye bread like the Incredible Hulk in a child’s T-shirt. Established in 1888, Katz’s was the backdrop for Meg Ryan’s fake-orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally. Memories of World War II hang from the ceiling in the form of signs encouraging customers to “Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army,” a couplet that rhymes in New York-ese.

Just around the corner is an entirely different eating philosophy. Earthmatters is a health food store featuring organic and vegetarian fare. The rear alcove has Internet access, providing a Zen-like Web-surfing locale, but the back patio is the real oasis. The only drawback for hard-core meat avoiders is the aroma of pastrami wafting over from Katz’s, a vegetarian’s worst nightmare.

The arrival of trendy stores has also brought a wealth of fine dining establishments. Pricier places such as 71 Clinton Fresh Food helped put the area on the map among New York gourmands, but it’s still possible to find affordable cuisine in stylish surroundings. AKA Café is emblematic of the new breed, offering small food for small people sitting on small chairs, but the fare is flavorful, and you can tell your friends that you ate dinner while on display in a store window.

Bistros like Pink Pony and Le Père Pinard feature appetizing entrees, desserts, and coffee in pseudo-bohemian settings, while Grilled Cheese NYC offers a fresh take on the comfort food classic, with variations like “Mushroom Madness” and “Grilled Motzy.” For comfort food with a Latin/Caribbean twist, try El Castillo de Jagua for cubano sandwiches and fried plantains.

Although there are plenty of terrific sit-down meals to be had, the best way to approach food here is to “nosh,” a form of preemptive eating designed to conquer your hunger before it ever shows its face. Start at Russ & Daughters, the city’s mecca for smoked fish. Take a number and try not to drool while the counterman weighs your order of bagels and lox. Need a quick Chinese fix? Visit Fried Dumpling. This takeout joint with the utilitarian name makes dumplings whose texture has just the right crispy-to-chewy ratio. At five for a dollar, they may be the best bargain downtown.

Over on Grand Street, the same city block houses two shrines to round dough: Kossar’s Bialys and the Doughnut Plant. Kossar’s is the veteran, the oldest bialy bakery in the U.S., while the Doughnut Plant’s Mark Isreal is amassing accolades for his large, fluffy creations dipped in luscious glazes like Valrhona chocolate and rosewater. The doughnuts are made fresh each morning, so go early—the shop closes when it runs out.

For terrific rugelach—traditional bite-sized treats made from light, flaky dough rolled around fillings such as chocolate, apricot, or raspberry—stop at Gertel’s Bakery on Hester Street. If your sugar craving is still not sated, walk down the block to The Sweet Life, a candy shop owned by husband and wife Jerry and Teri. Pistachios and dried apricots are perennial bestsellers, but these days they’re doing a brisk business in chocolate marshmallow kebabs, and their chocolate band-aids give new meaning to the phrase “lick your wounds.”

Past, Present & Future

When you come down from that sugar high, and crash into a post-carbohydrate coma, take a seat at the Landmark Sunshine Theater. Built in the 1840s, the structure originally housed a boxing venue and a Yiddish vaudeville palace. Closed for 70 years, the theater was restored and reopened last December, offering a menu of independent and foreign films.

If you’re still hungry (really?), bypass the movie popcorn and smuggle in a snack from Yonah Schimmel’s Knishery instead. A neighborhood institution since 1910, Schimmel’s spinach and mushroom potato knishes are hearty and flavorful, and the blueberry blintzes will get you through a full-length feature. Those who’ve booked a room at the newly built and affordable Howard Johnson’s down the block can roll right into bed after the flick.

There are a lot more sights to see tomorrow, but you need look no further than the knishery, the theater, and the hotel, located side by side, to tell the story of New York’s Lower East Side. With apologies to Dickens, it is a tale of three cities—the city of its past, the neighborhood it is today, and the one it is in the process of becoming. The magic of the area is that it manages to be all these things at once.