Jacob Riis wasn’t the first whitey-European to be obsessed with the Lower East Side, and from the looks of the neighborhood, he’s not the last. A Danish-born immigrant from a family of 14, Riis worked as a muckraker for the New-York Tribune in the late 1800s and became one of the first people to document, in pictures, the plight of the poor. He later coined the phrase, “how the other half lives,” in an eponymous book.
During Riis’ time, the Lower East Side was home to the world’s largest concentration of human beingsï¿½some 300,000 people per square mileï¿½cramped into sweltering tenements and filthy streets. Since the mid-1800s, immigrants have made their way here from Ireland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, China, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Russia, and beyond.
Nowadays, according to recent analysis of the 2000 census, four out of every five residents of the Lower East Side was born in the United States. This is due in part to the fact that both Latinos and Orthodox Jews in the neighborhood have been here for more than a generation.
But it’s also evidence that a new tide of Americans is making the Lower East Side their second home. The neighborhood now boasts $7 grilled cheese sandwiches, a spoof on a Puerto Rican bodega that’s actually a rock club, and “Thai tapas” in a seemingly endless string of boutiques, bars, and restaurants.
All that said, the Lower East Side is still steeped in its heritage. As many as four dialects of spoken Chinese can be heard. And garment factories still spit steam onto the narrow, tenement-lined streets. It doesn’t take much surface scratching to find the real thingï¿½or a cheap drink.
By day, see the textile industry’s legacy on Orchard Street, for cheap trade in hosiery, lingerie (try Lolita bra shop at 70 Orchard Street), drapes, upholstery, luggage, coats, hats, scarves, and fake furï¿½and for a look at life at the turn of the century, starting at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum at 90 Orchard.
At night, it’s Ludlow and Clinton streets, with neighborhood standbys like Max Fish and newer venues popping up all the time. Also, don’t overlook Grand Street, for the ever-expanding splendor of Chinatown’s open-air vendors, discount electronics, and karaoke cafï¿½s.
Boundaries: Most agree the northern border of the Lower East Side is East Houston Streetï¿½although years ago, before there was such a thing as the “East Village,” the Lower East Side stretched north to 14th Street. The eastern and southern borders are the East River. Still at issue is the western border. If you consider the Bowery a separate neighborhood, then the Lower East Side is bounded on the west by Chrystie, then Allen and Pike as you head south. If you’re a realtor, you make things up, to the chagrin of neighborhood stalwarts, whose latest beef is the moniker, “LoHo.”
Transport: Subway: JMZ or F to Delancey-Essex, or the F to East Broadway. Buses: M14, M9.
Main Drags: North-South: Orchard, Ludlow, and Clinton streets. East-West: Grand Street.
Prices to Rent and Buy: Unsubsidized housing is not abundant in this neighborhood, and long-standing locals are hanging onto rentals south of Delancey. “They have the 1,000-year plan going down there,” says one agent at Sion Misrahi Realty, open since 1992. That said, smaller places are available in the tenements just south of Houston. Studios: $1250-1450; one-bedrooms: $1350-1950. To buy: one bedrooms start at $400,000.
What to Check Out: Do yourself a favor and rock the history. It all starts at the Tenement Museum, with tours, events, and a book store. Also try the Eldridge Street Synagogue at 12 Eldridge Street, built in 1866 and employing Moorish, Romanesque, and Gothic styles. And there’s the Essex Street Market, opened 50 years ago by Mayor LaGuardia to move those pesky Lower East Side pushcart vendors inside. It’s open again for business at 120 Essex.
Hangouts, Parks, Restaurants: Read or use the free Wi-Fi at the newly renovated Seward Park Branch of the New York Public Library on East Broadway. For more Wi-Fi and community, there’s 35 Clinton, a bar/cafï¿½ that overlooks the community garden across the street, where you can attend meetings of Poor People in Action. Some of the cheapest beer in the neighborhood, or for that matter all of Manhattan, is at faux-suburban Welcome to the Johnson’s, where Pabst is $1.50 every day until 9 p.m. The best burger, herring, and aquavit can be found at Good World Bar and Grill, at 3 Orchard Street (nicely hidden just south of Canal). For snacks or breakfast, one cannot ignore this winning trio: The Pickle Guys at 49 Essex, the Doughnut Plant at 379 Grand Street, and Kossar’s Bialys at 367 Grand.
Crime: One of the most notorious crimes in recent memory was perpetrated on the Lower East Side, when actress Nicole duFresne was fatally shot on the corner of Clinton and Rivington after a night out on Ludlow. The wisdom from area police is, don’t venture too far east, and remember the neighborhood is not just a playground for the young and prosperous. Crime on the Lower East Side has stayed about the same over the last three years, with murders in 2004 at two, up from one in 2001; robberies at 204, from 247; and felony assaults at 121, from 149. Rape cases decreased to six in 2004 from 11 in 2001.
Politicians: City Councilmembers Alan Gerson and Margarita Lopez, State Assemblyman Sheldon Silver (also the speaker of the Assembly), State Senator Martin Connor, and U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney, all Democrats.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 1, 2005