Orchard Street: How the Other Half Lives

Once the heart of tenement New York, it's now home to million-dollar condos for a very different kind of settler.

'My name is Jess, and I'm going to be your educator today!' says Jess, cheerful as a day-camp counselor despite the blistering heat on the sidewalk outside the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street. I'm standing in a small group with Jess because the Tenement Museum isn't one of those places where you can just wander around by yourself—you have to take a guided tour. So I reluctantly sign up for "The Moores: An Irish Family in America," the latest of the museum's offerings, which promises that you'll "experience the heart of the immigrant saga through the music of Irish America, then tour the restored home of the Moore family." Compulsory tours usually make me as sour as a Gus's pickle (still in business up the street at 85 Orchard), but since I love historic homes—those cunning kitchen appliances! The vintage clothes in the armoires!—I pretend to be a joiner.

It's hardly news that every time you come down to the Lower East Side, the changes seem more shocking, more profound, a combination now of the horribly generic (American Apparel colonizing a corner of Houston) and the unsubtly upscale (a menu outside a place called Régate announcing pork filet mignon for $21). It's a relief that the creepy Orchard Corset is still open, with its window display of undergarments languishing on dirt-encrusted faded red satin, but for how long? Every bit of the original neighborhood still extant seems like a gift—the curved Art Deco windows at Ben Freedman (two shirts for $18); the very existence of optician Sol Moscot, at No. 118 since 1951, but in the neighborhood since 1915. (Sol's original location at 94 Rivington Street now houses Babeland, the sex-positive dildo shop.)

Well, one good thing: You get your ticket for the Tenement Museum at its gift shop, which means you won't spend the entire tour wondering whether there'll be anything to buy when it's over. You'll know right away that in addition to Heroes of the Torah coasters and mugs that say "No Kvetching" (I'm surprised no one has ever given me one), you can pick up a paperback of Jacob Riis's 1890 How the Other Half Lives, the fabulously appalling chronicle of conditions in these streets more than a century ago.

After telling us about the sanitation problems that plagued the city in the mid-19th century—400,000 horses to blame for three-feet-high piles of stinking manure—Jess herds us into the back garden of the Tenement Museum's model tenement, where four outhouses accommodated the 20 families that used to live here.

We climb four big flights to the Moores' apartment—I refuse to huff and puff in front of people I don't even know! I can do this!—and arrive at the family's home. And just as I suspect, I love it! Sure, it's cramped for a couple with a lot of kids, but oh, the 19th-century wallpaper! The linoleum! The spindle bed! The darling wicker suitcases! (If you're on eBay at 4 a.m. like I am looking for these items, you really appreciate this stuff.) Plus, Jess estimates that the rent was around $7.50 a month, and since Mr. Moore was a bartender who earned about $20 a month, this means he was spending a third of his income on rent, which is better than plenty of people I know today.

Yes, there's a toilet in the hall, which replaced the outhouse around 1901, but this doesn't faze me since I had a close friend in the 1980s who lived on East 11th Street and also had a bathroom in the hall. (Fun, I tried to convince myself as I sauntered off to enjoy the facilities. Very European!)

Unfortunately, the Moores' old place may be cute, but their lives sucked—their five-month-old baby Agnes died of malnutrition, and the museum has taken the opportunity to re-create her wake, complete with a tiny white coffin and a recording of keening voices. This no doubt offers an accurate reflection of life in the 1860s, but as a friend once commented during the Broadway intermission of The Diary of Anne Frank, "It's kind a downer."

As we leave, Jess tells us what a great group we were—I bet she says that to all the groups—and asks: "Did you get a chance to walk around the neighborhood? Did you notice what a happy, vital immigrant neighborhood this is today?" Um, sure, I did notice that. But I also noticed that there's a shoe store that sells trendy footwear for vegetarians at 78 Orchard, and a few feet from the museum, a branch of Earnest Sewn, a denim shop with a penchant for faux-rustic interiors.

I have a soft spot for Earnest Sewn, even though they sell shredded patched jeans for $395 and jackets that look like vintage firemen's coats made of something called Millerain fabric for $895. This branch still sports the elaborate mosaic-tile floor of a long-vanished previous resident, Bader's Café, whose name is inscribed at the entrance. I fondle the $170 leather belts and admire the totes made from bandannas, but as it turns out, the untimely death of little Agnes has really given me the blues.

So I go outside and stroll south on Orchard, half-heartedly gazing in the windows of Majestic Lingerie, in business since 1945, and A.W. Kaufman, hanging on since 1924 (they have Wolford!), and realize this street must once have been an underwear district. I pass the ghost of the circa-1870 E.S. Ridley department store, now broken into two buildings and barely recognizable. (How do I know this? Because when I walk around the city maligning all the hideous changes, I am armed with a printout from NYSonglines.com, whose prodigious research into the shifting landscape of Manhattan is indispensable.)

And then suddenly I find myself outside the stunningly undistinguished exterior of 50 Orchard, which the real-estate company Prudential Douglas Elliman describes thusly: "50 Orchard Street is a new, two-phase condominium, bringing a high level of sophistication to one of New York's most historic neighborhoods." Though it's next to a boutique whose services are described succinctly as "Nails" and "Wax" and directly across from a pair of restaurant-supply depots, the apartments at 50 Orchard, two-bedrooms all, begin at well over a million dollars.

Suddenly, I'm dying to see one. I ask a guy outside the building if there's a model apartment, and of course there is. He calls out to a woman a few feet away who is chatting with a guy who has a pit bull on a leash, and asks her if she can show me the model. She moseys over and shakes her head: No, I have to make an appointment. Oh well, I shrug, two bedrooms is too big for me anyway.

What I don't say is: Are you nuts? If I had more than a million bucks to spend, I wouldn't want pit bulls! I'd want a huge veranda with twinkly lights and an Art Deco lobby out of a Fred Astaire movie! I'd want brass and marble and white gloves—not nail salons and pots and pans.

Oh, well. At least the bathroom isn't down the hall.

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