The Neighborhoods Project: Lower East Side

In a new original content series, Crowd DNA NYC zooms in on the unique character of New York City neighborhoods, through the lens of those born and raised there...

Introduction

We’ve set ourselves a mission of exploring the communities of New York City, looking at what’s changing and what’s holding firm. In our first installment, we explore Manhattan’s Lower East Side (LES) by taking to the streets to speak with locals and diving into secondary research.

Defined by change, the LES has been evolving since immigrants coming through Ellis Island first landed in this slice of Manhattan. Like many New York City neighborhoods, the LES has experienced changes to its borders, architecture, and population. To understand these changes, we spoke to locals, spent time in the area and read up on its history.

Note: The borders of the LES have been long debated, and remain blurred to this day. For this piece, we’ve considered it in its original incarnation – spanning all the way up to 14th Street.

“It’s on and popping – everyone wants to be part of this area.”

Sergio, 39

The LES today is bustling with bars, restaurants, trendy pop-ups and hip hotels. But it wasn’t always this way. The struggle of the LES’ evolution is a familiar one to New Yorkers; Megan, one of the owners of local business Grit & Glory captured its essence: “How do you adapt and survive while maintaining your authenticity at the same time?”

Cultural Melting Pot

Walk around the LES and you’ll see a cultural patchwork, with Orthodox Ukrainian churches stitched in between Synagogues, and cannoli carts sandwiched by Cantonese markets. LES native Sergio remarks, “There’s a lot of history here: everything from the Jewish bakeries down on Grand Street to Chinatown – that’s all part of the LES; there are different layers that make it up.”

This pastiche of influences speaks to the LES’ history as a landing ground for many early immigrants to the United States.

Known by various monikers over the course of its history, the LES began as “Little Germany” in the early 19th century. This soon gave way to large groups of Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe. They were followed by those from Italy, Ireland, China, Puerto Rico, and new arrivals from dozens of other places around the world. All of whom called the LES home – at least for a while.

Another LES local, Garnett describes growing up in the neighborhood as akin to being in the United Nations: “You go to school in the LES, you learn Cantonese, you learn Mandarin, you learn Spanish. I learned Swahili; it was a very immersive experience, because everyone was there… you went to the basketball court and it’s like you’re playing the United Nations, it was pretty cool.”

A Tale Of Two Houses

Housing was a main draw for these new arrivals. But the affordable – if sometimes abysmal – accommodations that once made the LES a popular landing ground are increasingly hard to find.

Any story of LES housing must begin with tenements. Established in the 19th century to cope with an expanding population, tenements were a well-intentioned idea that quickly turned sour in an explosive mix of overcrowding and lack of regulation. Today, the Tenement Museum provides a snapshot of these cramped conditions.

By the early 20th century, FDR’s New Deal ushered in a wave of fresh thinking, including the building of the first fully government-funded housing project in New York City. Named First Houses, they were completed in 1936 and located at 3rd St and Avenue A. Through the 30s, 40s and 50s public housing sprang up across the neighborhood.

The crime and drugs that hit much of the city in the 70s through 90s was felt especially hard in public housing, where loosening of entry requirements had already contributed to overcrowding – as Sergio remembers: “On 3rd Street where I grew up, I would walk out my building, and the deli 20-feet away from me was a dope spot. There were a lot of people selling heroin, waiting for heroin; in between cars you would see people shooting up, and with that came violence.”

While such sights are uncommon in the LES today, public housing remains neglected. When Hurricane Sandy battered the East Coast in 2012, public housing in New York’s LES was hit hard.

In stark contrast is the creep of gleaming high-rises, and the slink of shiny restaurants and bars. And locals note that buying up property in the LES is increasingly like acquiring a trophy; something to display, not use: “Some people will buy a million dollar apartment, and they’re not even living there,” says Sergio.

Echoes Of A Rock n’ Roll Soul

If housing tells one story of the neighborhood’s evolution, then public spaces tell another. Located between Avenues A and B, and spanning 7th to 10th Streets, Tompkins Square Park was known as a gathering ground for those unwelcome elsewhere.

Now filled with jazz, frisbees, and the undulating thump of bass from roving bikes, Tompkins Square Park has not entirely lost its edge. Of 7th Street and Avenue B Garnett says, “They still film a lot of Marvel Knights stuff and Netflix there now because it’s the last place that kind of looks like New York.”

Over the years the park has housed protesters, gangs and addicts. In the 60s, it was the East Coast’s Haight-Ashbury, home to artists, hippies, musicians, and political activists. The Grateful Dead played its bandshell, and Patti Smith befriended Robert Mapplethorpe on its lawns.

“You had some funky-ass artists, people who weren’t making any money, just composing and they could afford it because it was so dirtbag cheap,”

Sergio, 39

But soon familiar forces made themselves felt. The economic turmoil and crime of the 70s, and the heady days that followed were felt especially strong around the park. Tompkins Square Park became a dividing line: Yuppies to the west, and a growing homeless population to the east. Riots beset the park in the late 80s, culminating in the city dismantling its homeless encampments in 1991, and closing the park for restoration.

Like its surrounding area, the park has remade itself, but remains a neighborhood gathering ground. Steps from the park on St Marks, a few remaining be-stickered doorways recall the neighborhood’s rock n’ roll soul. Garnett describes his memories of Sounds (which shut in 2015). “This was like a rock and roll mecca – we used to have this huge CD and Record store, called Sounds. It’s where we would go to discover music, you would use two weeks worth of saved money, go home and hope to god it was good.”

Neighborhood Interrupted

From its early days as a launching pad for new arrivals, the LES has always been a neighborhood in flux. One that mints new New Yorkers, and where they in turn leave their mark. A playground, and stop over, as Sergio notes. “People who have money don’t stay here, they stay here for a year or two, get it out of their system and then proceed with their life.”

It’s a bittersweet experience for locals – seeing the neighborhood they grew up in forged, and reforged, again. They only hope that it’s striking the right balance between authenticity and adaptation. But when part of what defines you is change, it almost becomes something to seek. As Garnett says, “That’s the good thing about New York, you have to create something new, you have to innovate or you will die.”

Looking To The Future

Talk with longtime LES residents about what this means for the future and their words are tinged with warning about a degrading sense of community, but not complacency. Each of the people we spoke with are working to strengthen their neighborhood.

Local business owners, Veronica, Emily and Megan of Grit & Glory, strive to connect with and support other neighborhood businesses: “There’s a lot of communication among different shops and we’ll send people to other places, and I think that really breeds community.”

Sergio, a local comedian, sees himself as an ambassador, emboldening the LES with each show: “I’m a stand-up from here so I represent the LES, I speak for this neighborhood; I embody this neighborhood.”

These sentiments of resilience and pride filled our conversations, demonstrating how locals have internalized the mission to keep the culture and community of the LES alive.

Garnett, 35, works as a personal trainer

Sergio, 39, is a stand-up comedian

Veronica, Emily and Megan, are co-owners of Grit & Glory, a rock & roll lifestyle boutique

The Lower East Side In Ten Photos

To understand the culture and heritage of the LES, we’ve captured people and places who stand as institutions that help keep the neighborhood true to its roots.

1. Dollar Slice

After being roused from its original location due to escalating rents, Rosario’s still stands unwavering to neighborhood change 54 years after opening its doors, continuing to offer cheap pizza to locals.

2. Layers Of History

Much of the Lower East Side’s character comes from its layers of identity. On Orchard Street, we see remnants of the neighborhood’s history as an early garment district meshed in with newer, glitzier boutiques.

3. Inspiring Creativity

As the original ground zero for artists of varying disciplines, the Lower East Side continues to support and promote artists, allowing their craft to breathe personality into its streets.

4. Respecting Heritage

As a newer business in the neighborhood, Grit N Glory pays respect and homage to the heritage of the Lower East Side by working in conjunction with other small businesses.

5. New Meets Old

Looking at the Lower East Side as a cultural melting pot, Orchard Street is a prime example of the neighborhood’s vast diversity – from its tattoo shops to its Jewish delis to businesses like Superare, which sells fight goods.

6. Keeping It Local

New York City boosts local pride by employing residents in each neighborhood to help keep the streets clean, making each block somewhere residents should be proud to call home.

7. Outlet To Brooklyn

Where the Lower East Side was a first landing place for many immigrants, the Williamsburg bridge freed Jewish and Italian immigrants from the harsh living conditions of tenements, allowing them to move to Brooklyn while remaining in touch with relatives in Manhattan, sans costly ferry fares.

8. Revamping The Old

In the 1940s, Essex Street Market was a one stop shop for meat, fish, produce, etc. Come 2019, the market has adapted, continuing to offer groceries from local vendors while also fostering a sense of neighborhood community through programs like free cooking classes.

9. Eat Or Be Eaten

Famous for its pastrami and its appearance in When Harry Met Sally, Katz’s Delicatessen should also be noticed for its controversial $17M deal with luxury developers. While other New York City staples have been swept away when the air rights above their buildings have been bought, Katz’s sold their air rights on neighboring lots, leaving their prominent location untouched.

10. Evolving Landscapes

Staring out at the landscape of the Lower East Side, change is palpable. Where 100 year-old tenement buildings withstand the test of time, glossy luxury condos continue to rise above them, continuing to paint contrast between old New York and new New York.

Stay tuned for the next installment of The Neighborhoods Project, when we head over to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant.