Updated: Jun 27, 2022
Travel Destination; New York City, Lower East Side: When planning a vacation itinerary to New York City, one may think about tourist attractions like Times Square, the Statue of Liberty or Broadway. But NYC is very much a sum of its parts, and if time is your ally, it is worth getting to know the individual neighbourhoods that comprise this great city.
You should never judge a book by its cover, and you shouldn't judge a neighbourhood by its shutters. I write this post as New York City prepares to ease Covid-19 restrictions and opening hours are different from usual. The state of the shutters safeguarding the shops of the Lower East Side make it hard to tell which businesses are closed for Covid or are closed for good.
I am unskilled at NYC. I recognise Manhattan neighbourhood names, but unless a name includes a compass bearing, the location is a mystery to me. My fabulous daughter has found herself a great job, and an apartment in the Lower East Side (the words Lower and East help me to locate it on the map). When I asked why she chose this part of town, she explained that it was youthful, with lots of independent art galleries, boutique and cheap food.
When I travel to places that are unfamiliar to me, I try to uncover little gems of popular culture history that help me build a framework of where I am. The perfect starting point for my Lower East Side adventures is the super trendy Ludlow Hotel. The hotel, opened in 2014, is an interesting mix of urban industrial meets Moroccan riad. The Ludlow fits so naturally into the area that you wouldn't know it was a new-build.
180 Ludlow Street
NY, NY 10002
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is a great place to learn about the people who populated this part of NYC in the later part of the 18th century. Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobsen discovered the dilapidated tenement building at 97 Orchard Street in 1988 and founded the museum shortly after. The museum explores the story of immigration, and it's lasting effects on the area.
Shuttered and disused for over 50 years, the building was a treasure trove of the cultural information and personal belongs of immigrant families that occupied it floors between 1860 and 1930. These artefacts became the foundation for what the Tenement Museum represents today: a belief that national identity is best understood and appreciated through the stories of real families and shared history.
There are through guided tours through two tenement buildings on Orchard Street. These immersive trips back in time offer a chance to explore public policy, urban development, architecture, and the cultural identities of the ordinary families who lived in these buildings and contributed to their community.
103 Orchard Street
NY, NY 10002
Between 1881-1924, 2.5 million Eastern European Jews immigrated to the United States. Of that, 75% settled in New York's Lower East Side. The Eldridge Street Synagogue is the first great house of worship built in the United States by Eastern European Jews. The synagogue provided much-needed sanctuary from the cramped living conditions of the tenements. Its membership grew, and the synagogue thrived in the area for over 50 years. But from 1920 onwards, due to the Great Depression, immigration quotas and other environmental changes, the synagogue fell out of favour. The people who remained, chose to worship in a smaller study hall in the basement.
In 2007, after 20 years of restoration work, the synagogue once again opened its doors. The Eldridge Street Synagogue is a now national landmark and museum. They conduct informative tours which relate to the Jewish American experience, immigration, and the history of the Lower Eat Side. The Orthodox Congregation Kahal Adath Jeshurun still holds services for a few worshippers.
12 Eldridge Street
*For additional reading about 19th-20th century immigration to New York, see this earlier post about the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital
Breakfast is an essential start of any sightseeing day, and what could be more New York than lox on a bagel? In the Lower East Side, you have your pick of historic deli's to select from.
From the late 19th century to the early 20th, the Lower East Side, offering affordable housing and jobs in the garment industry, experienced an immigration boom. The majority of people came from Eastern Europe, Germany in particular. Enterprising men capitalised on this new population by providing the new locals with home-country delicatessen foods. Though the industry has suffered recently, many of these delis are still in operation.
Around the corner from the Ludlow Hotel, is Katz's Deli, home of the pastrami orgasm on rye. Katz's opened in 1888 by Willy Katz and Morris and Hyman Iceland and is the oldest deli in NYC. There are always long lines for people to 'get what she's having'. (When Harry Met Sally, Obviously).
A short distance from Katz's, is Yonah Schimmel's Knish. Yonah Schimmel, a Jewish immigrant from Romania, operated a push cart from where he sold his homemade Jewish comfort food. Yonah’s knishes were so popular amongst the residents of the Lower East Side that, in 1910, he opened his bakery on Houston Street, which still proudly serves knishes and kugel.
Like Yonah Schimmel, Joel Russ make his living selling food from a push cart in the Lower East Side. After immigrating from Poland in 1907, Russ started with a herring barrel, then a horse and cart and finally a shop in 1920. Having only daughters, Russ incorporated them into the business, thus becoming the first business in the United States to include '& Daughters' in its name. Russ and Daughter's is fourth-generation family owned, and lines still wrap around the block for their famed bagels and lox.
Kossars Bialys opened in 1936 by Isadore Mirsky and Morris Kossar and is the oldest bialy bakery in the United States. The bialy, a mainstay in Russian Jewish homes, differs from a bagel in that it is not boiled before baking, and has a centre depression rather than a hole. The word 'bialy' comes from Bialystok, Poland, which was under Russian occupation in the 19th and 20th Centuries.
205 E Houston Street 137 E Houston Street 367 Grand Street 179 E Houston Street
NY NY 10002 NY NY 10002 NY NY 10002 NY NY 10002
Through the gates that read: “Lower East Side Toy Company” , make your way along an historic path to the Back Room, one of NYC's last two remaining original 1920s era speakeasies.
Inside the dimly lit, prohibition-themed lounge, clientele imbibe cocktails from tea cups, down shots from demitasse and drink beer from paper bags. They even have a forbidden little VIP lounge hidden behind a faux bookcase door!
102 Norfolk Street
NY, NY 10002
Walking up 3rd avenue to Union Square Park, I passed 36 Cooper Square, the old home of the Village Voice. The paper published it's last print edition in 2017, but I remember it as being an original alternative news source, writing about local and national politics, with music, culture and arts, theatre and film.
Though the paper had a bumpy start, the Village Voice became a leading voice of gay rights in the 1980s. The paper is now online only.
(Formerly) The Village Voice
36 Cooper Square
NY NY 10003
Released in 1989, Paul's Boutique was the Beastie Boy’s second album. Following the massive success of Licensed to Ill, the band sought to create a much more sophisticated follow-up record. They pioneered the use of multi-layering where most of the album, excluding the vocals, was composed of archival samples. Paul's Boutique is considered a breakthrough achievement and is often included in greatest albums ranking lists.
The album cover, created by Mike D, featured a fictional clothing store named Paul’s Boutique. The location for Paul’s Boutique was an existing clothing store on the corner of Rivington and Ludlow Streets, called Lee’s Sportswear. The front of the album cover pictured the clothing store, then folded out to reveal a panorama of the entire intersection, photographed from 99 Rivington Street.
The corner shop is still a clothing store, now decorated with Beastie Boy commemorative graffiti
99 Rivington Street
NY, NY 10002
The wall on the corner of Houston and Bowery first became famous in 1982 when artists Keith Haring and Juan Dubose chose this location for a mural. The space was selected by Haring for it's location between SoHo and the Lower East Side, and it's abundance of fellow artist foot-traffic, was Haring’s first large-scale public work.
The wall became a permanent art fixture in 2008, and has since had many artists, including Banksy, Kenny Scharf and Raul Ayala displayed upon it.
76 E Houston St
NY, NY 10002
If you were around in the late 70's-80's and even the slightest bit away of anything popular culture, you had heard of CBGB's. This was a music club in New York's Lower East Side where so many punk and alternative bands began and then dove head first into the mosh pit of infamy.
Blondie, Talking Heads, Beastie Boys, Ramones, and Patti Smith Group all played influential shows at CBGB's. The club declined over the years and went into bankruptcy, closing with a final show by Patti Smith in 2006.
Fashion house John Varvatos bought the building in 2008. To preserve the history of the club, the shop is decorated with stickers and playbills existing from the original venue. Even some original toilet graffiti remains.
CBGB has utilised different platforms over the years to stay a bit relevant. They have a website where you can find out informations and also order logo'd merchandise.
Images Vladimir Lenin; Bolshevik leader, Marxist revolutionary, leader of the Soviet Union, pop up in numerous unusual places. But atop a building in New York's Lower East Side is one place you may not think to look.
The statue, commissioned by the Soviet Union by artist Yuri Gerasiminov, went unclaimed due to the country's collapse in 1991. It fell into the arms of New York philanthropist Michael Rosen which he then planted a top a building named Red Square.
Lenin now rests ironically on the rooftop of a luxury apartment building, facing, with arm raised in a traditional salute, toward the epitome of capitalism: Wall Street.
178 Norfolk Street
NY, NY 10002
For further reading about all things Lower East Side, click www.lodownny.com
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