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Once Dutch farmland located outside New York City limits; later the province of powerful Irish immigrants and the home of famed New York governor Alfred E. Smith; still later the site of some of the city's early public-housing experiments and a first stop for immigrating Puerto RicansTwo Bridges arguably remains one of New York's truly gritty, authentic neighborhoods.
A small but crowded river-front section of the Lower East Sidetucked between the soaring Brooklyn and Manhattan bridgesTwo Bridges is a place where hundred-year-old tenements abut Catholic, Presbyterian, and Buddhist schools and houses of worship, where these layers of history remind current residentsincreasingly first- and second-generation Chinese familieswhat it means to come to a new city, in a new country, and make it.
But like the city's other underdeveloped neighborhoods, that tradition is in jeopardy. While you still won't find a Whole Foods or soft lofts in Two Bridges, it's probably just a matter of time.
"Since the founding of our republic, this neighborhood has been a welcoming place for people to move, raise their children, adjust to a new way of life, and eventually move on," says Victor Papa, director of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, located on Cherry Street. "When you eliminate this, the neighborhood becomes a place for what I call transient professionalspeople who won't stay here long, who won't give something meaningful back."
Papa grew up in Two Bridges as a minority Italian immigrant. Before the public housing high-rises were built in the late 1950s, Irish, Italian, Greek, and Jewish gangs vied for supremacy. The Irish for the most part maintained the lead, and a kind of Irish political aristocracy populated Oliver Street and attended the historic St. James church.
Then came waves of new immigrants from Latin America, and churches, schools, and community organizations sprang up to help them integrate. That's now happening with Chinese arrivals. Papa himself helps run a summer-jobs program for Chinese youth, out of an old tenement building on Henry Street.
"I've got developers stopping by here all the time, asking if we want to sell this building, telling me they would tear it down and build some new, faceless apartment complex," Papa says. "But I gotta tell ya, I'm not going anywhere."
Irish wisdom at the St. James church
photo: Holly Northrop/hnorthrop.com
Transport: Subway: F to East Broadway. Bus: 9; 15; 22.
Main Drags: East Broadway, Oliver Street, Madison Street, the waterfront.
Housing: Do the neighborhood a favor, and don't move there. Just visit. Like much of downtown Manhattan, low- to moderate-income housing is on a sharp decline, and there is little that advocacy groups can do to stop big developers from pricing out the locals. Now, the neighborhood hosts some of the New York City Housing Authority's best maintained subsidized high-rises, some private low-income housing units, and rent-stabilized tenement apartments. With all that in mind, there's little to buy or rent here right now. But in Manhattan, that won't last long.
What to Check Out: St. James church, founded in 1827 by a Cuban priest and freedom fighter and by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish group that worked to help white immigrants settle here. Neighborhood lore has it the church was built by Irish shipbuilders, and if you turned the building upside down, it would float. The next block over is Oliver Street, a well-preserved look at how the neighborhood aristocracy once lived. At 25 Oliver Street is the home of Alfred E. Smith, the reform-minded governor who fought for affordable housing and increased funding for public education. Don't miss his statue in the park near the Alfred E. Smith homes just east of Madison street, and the engraving next to it depicting a scene from the old neighborhood. Also check out the free waterfront festival and late-afternoon concert celebrating Two Bridges on Sept. 10, at Pier 35, on South Street between Clinton Street and Rutgers Slip.
Hangouts, Parks, Restaurants: The best way to see the neighborhood is on foot. Start on East Broadway, under the Manhattan bridge, where you'll find some of the city's best Chinese street food, including bean cakes, fried sesame pastries, pork sandwiches, and hard boiled eggs steeped in tea. Then wend your way down the side streets for a look at some of the city's most intact tenements, built in the 1800s. Don't miss excellent signage on old establishments such as the Food King Chinese restaurant, at 56 Market Street. And, just next to St. James church, try the title specialty at Captain Fried Chicken. End up at the waterfront, where many from the neighborhood migrate in the evenings for the breeze off the river.