Rule-breaking restaurants, invite-only clubs and avant-garde galleries have long since replaced pushcarts and rag-trade merchants on Manhattan’s south-east streets – but the Lower East Side still has its grit, finds Juliet Kinsman.
Nowhere is NYC’s colourful history richer than in its Lower East Side (LES). As with all of New York, it’s been cleaned up, sure, but not too much.
It may be an Instagrammer’s dream tableau of street art, raw and refined shopfronts, exotic produce and Chinese-symbol signs – but the red-brick tenements, scruffy concrete strips and shared green gardens are also riddled with secrets.
Stretching from the East Village at Houston Street down to Canal Street, stopping at SoHo-bordering Bowery and the East River, this intriguing neighbourhood is a textbook case of gentrification – which is good and bad, depending on your outlook.
Having grown up on the Upper East Side, my first intense fling with this part of Manhattan was renting an apartment on Canal Street at the edge of Chinatown less than a decade ago. At that point only a few hipster hangouts had popped up and the sidewalks still betrayed the smells and scuffs of decades of a hard-working life. Today, you can’t move for buzzing bars and boutiques, and you’re more likely to walk past an impromptu live art-installation than anything truly seedy.
New York City’s edgiest neighbourhood is also its oldest, and its new chapter has been co-authored by designers, curators, artists and mixologists. This makes it an appealing part of town to stay in if you’ve already pounded the pavements of postcard-perfect Midtown – especially if you make the Ludlow Hotel your base, as I discovered.
In a city that launched the original boutique hotels, this downtown neighbourhood got just the right hip hub in 2014, thanks to Sean MacPherson. Along with Ira Drukier and Richard Born, the hotelier behind the Bowery’s namesake stay and boho West Village bunk-up The Jane, transformed a red-brick building to create a hotel that’s entirely fresh yet cunningly congruous with New York’s oldest quarter.
“I was thinking a lot about the Lower East Side I knew during the ’80s,” says MacPherson about his aim when coming up with the right vibe for the Ludlow. He remembers how on the LES at that time rents were affordable and spaces were large by NY standards – and that’s what he’s conjured. “It was fairly gritty, so one had to be something of an adventurer to live there.” The Ludlow’s 20 storeys tower over much of this lower-rise locale, yet it fits in perfectly.
Step out of the hotel and the city’s most famous deli, Katz’s, stands right there on the corner of East Houston as it has since the 1880s. And the pastrami on rye is as much in demand as when Sally faked an orgasm over her sandwich to Harry in the 1989 rom-com. But many of the features are definitely being upgraded.
Down the street Soho House opens soon at 139 Ludlow Street in a former funeral home, and an Ace Hotel is coming soon to the end of Orchard Street. This dazzling new wave of activity includes art organisations such as the New Museum and the International Center of Photography dominating the Bowery, once the grittiest of all thoroughfares.
But as much as the landscape changes, two centuries of stories won’t be recorded over. Thanks to the Tenement Museum, which was set up to preserve its heritage, the memories of generations of immigrants who came here chasing the American Dream are being kept alive.
In the 1800s, this was Little Germany – or Kleindeutschland – and it made New York the third largest German-speaking city in the world. Next came the Russian Jewish immigrants and soon it was fur coats, bar mitzvah sets and kosher food being peddled along Essex Street.
You can still taste the heritage of the many immigrants who settled here through enduring family-run food institutions like Russ & Daughters (the main store, opened on East Houston by Joel Russ in 1914, is on the National Register of Historic Places, while the cult-status pickled herring is now also available in a chic Orchard Street cafe owned by his great-grandchildren) and Nom Wah Tea Parlor, which has been serving dim sum since 1920. Di Palo’s Fine Foods is a fourth-generation dairy specialist that opened back in 1910; its Italian cheeses, cured meats, pasta and preserved products are like a food museum in the heart of what was Little Italy.
There was a time when the Old World communities here were so tight-knit that you’d find Neapolitans dominating Mulberry Street, Calabrians taking to Mott, Sicilians colonising Elizabeth. Up until a few years ago, you could still hear a Chinese storekeeper speaking Yiddish to a customer; it’s part of the Lower East Side’s charm that you can’t walk a few blocks without hearing countless exotic dialects.
In the 1970s the Lower East Side was an area awash with workshops and apparel wholesalers, beloved by New Yorkers as the best place for bargain buys, leather goods and tailoring. Fabric stores such as Zarin remain, a reminder of LES’s thriving rag-trade past.
Experimentation, expression and entrepreneurism have always marked out this multicultural hub: Kickstarter was born there. New York’s oldest ’hood needed somewhere exactly like the Ludlow, but it’s still worth scratching at the surface to see what you’ll find.
While living there I devoured Richard Price’s novel Lush Life about a murder case set in LES’s recent past. He describes how one circuit can give you a catalogue of clashing addresses: “Falafel joint, jazz joint, gyro joint, corner. Schoolyard, creperie, realtor, corner. Tenement, tenement, tenement museum, corner. Pink Pony, Blind Tiger, muffin boutique, corner. Sex shop, tea shop, synagogue, corner. Bollywood, Buddha, botanica, corner. Leather outlet, leather outlet, leather outlet, corner. Bar, school, bar, school. People’s Park, corner. Tyson mural, Celia Cruz mural, Lady Di mural, corner. Bling shop, barbershop, car service, corner.”
Let’s hope it keeps that crazy mishmash for a long time to come.