After the highs of the last few neighbourhoods, I came down with a thud this week.
Zero energy and worse, zip curiosity – all my life I’ve been curious and keen to turn a corner, but suddenly I felt like all I wanted to see were the insides of my eyeballs.
Not surprising – we’ve been travelling for nine months without a break – but not helpful either.
So I decided to compromise. I’d take it easy and explore somewhere close.
We’re staying in an apartment in the West Village so close could mean a number of places. Definitely not the West Village though – it’s still charming but just not very interesting – but the Lower East Side, that could work. Manhattan may have lost its edge but as someone we met said, “Yeah, but we still got the Lower East Side”.
‘Suburb’ No 33 decided.
Some facts… The Lower East Side (LES) – which is the bit south of East Houston and north of East Broadway and Canal Street – is important historically because it was the first home immigrants knew, beginning with the Irish, Germans and East European Jews in the 1840s, to the Italians in the 1890s and then the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in the 1940-50s. The latest waves have been the Chinese from 1965 and the hipsters more recently.
Let’s amble. Slowly if that’s alright with you.
Part 1: From the past to the present
As I mentioned, the LES is getting more hipsterish by the day. But was there more to it than just the cool cafes, boutiques and art galleries? Was there still a ‘neighbourhood’?
In the 1840s there definitely was a neighbourhood. But it was one that was filled with thousands of people per square mile, all desperately trying to pursue the ‘American Dream’ while crammed into dark, noisy, dirty tenement buildings without electricity, water or loos…
Despite the bad conditions, Eastern European Jews in particular thrived in the LES. They lived in the tenements and set up shop down below, stitching and silversmithing their way to a better life. And in 1886 they put their stamp on the place forever by building a magnificent shul, the Eldridge Street Synagogue.
You’re seeing the Eldridge Street Synagogue at its best, at the end of a 20 year restoration. When I first laid eyes on it, I imagined how thrilled the local Jewish community must be, to have it as their shul. But when I visited it on Saturday, their day of prayer, I was stunned at how few were there – orthodox Jews still live on the LES but there are relatively few compared to 100 years ago.
Part 2: Jewish life on the LES
Having discovered the Eldridge Street Synagogue I was keen to explore the rest of the Jewish LES. So I headed to Orchard Street, knowing that this was where many of the Eastern European Jewish immigrants had worked 14 hour days to buy small shops and establish the area as a bargain mecca.
Well, that was then and this was now – there’s hardly any more Jewish shops left on Orchard Street. I read later that as late as the 1960s, the eight blocks on Orchard Street between East Houston and Divsion Street were filled with Jewish owned shops, selling everything from fabrics to luggage.
Thankfully though the neighbourhood still has Samuel Gluck, owner of Global International Mens Clothiers. Business may not be brisk but Sam isn’t going down without a fight – in the short time we were there he corralled two guys who just happened to be walking by to slip on a jacket or two. This is a man who hustles while he waits.
Sam’s father arrived in NY in 1945 from Romania with nothing but managed to start up the business and thrive – so far it’s been going for almost 60 years. But the last decade especially has seen massive change in the area.
Given the changing population of the LES – from Orthodox Jews to hipsters and the Chinese – Sam is doing what he can to adapt.
Leaving Sam to scout the street for more potential customers, I continued my search for other remnants of the Jewish LES. Not surprisingly, it’s the Jewish food businesses that are far from struggling – the Jewish like their nosh.
Still, they now have to compete with all the Chinese offerings.
But not with the ‘Cup & Saucer Luncheonette’ on Eldridge Street. This place is all but washed up.
Part 3: The Buddhists of the LES
I read that the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans are the latest immigrants to arrive in the LES. But I think maybe they must be in the East Village rather than the LES because I didn’t really notice them so much. To me the LES is really about the Jewish and the Chinese.
While most Chinese of course hang around in neighbouring Chinatown, they’ve also in recent years strayed into the LES. Eldridge Street, for example, where the Cup & Saucer Luncheonette is still hanging on for dear life, is now very Chinese – there’s a Buddhist ‘temple’ just one door down from the Eldridge Street Synagogue.
I only discovered this by stumbling on it after I’d left the synagogue that Saturday morning. From one lot of faithful to another, albeit a very different one.
I obviously tried the Abbot’s patience because a moment after I took the shot above he turned on his heel and went inside to get another Buddhist monk to come out and ‘heavy’ me. Very surreal, being eyeballed by a black African Buddhist who wasn’t having any of my backchat. He was right, I had stayed long enough, but still, it seemed so un-Buddhist.
Part 4: The Chinese
I find the mix of Jewish and Chinese in the LES particularly interesting – while they seem so different, they’ve both successfully transplanted their rich cultural practices all over the world.
Walking along Division Street, I noticed a woman burning a whole load of papers near a stool piled high with dumplings and incense. She was performing a ceremony to pay her respects to someone who died. It was right outside a shop where they were making those 3D paper models that we’d seen in Hong Kong that would later be burnt to ensure a good afterlife.
It didn’t matter that she wasn’t somewhere tranquil or grander than a street somewhere in NYC. This was her culture and she’d practice it wherever.
It was the same as the Jews – they’d transplanted their culture all the way from Eastern Europe to an entirely foreign land and made it work.
Part 5: The latest wave to arrive on the LES – the hipsters
Okay, they’re not exactly immigrants but they do have their own culture. Fortunately for older neighbourhoods like the LES it usually involves recycling vintage spaces into cafes and galleries rather than knocking them down altogether.
Unfortunately though, for the Chinese, the hipsters seem to be inadvertently pushing some of them out by pushing the rents up – I read about a building on Delancey where the long-term Chinese residents hated the hipsters for paying the higher rents and thereby endangering their affordable ones.
Part 6: A little on the wild side
Starting with this one – note the gentleman on the left, a new cross-breed – the Chinese hipster.
Then there’s Shaggy, a curious canine we met on Clinton Street.
And finally, two lions.
Part 7: So is there a neighbourhood in the neighbourhood?
Probably not compared to the closely-knit, highly inter-dependent ones that have inhabited the LES over the last 200 years. But relative to other areas, I think so. I saw signs of it on benches that shop owners put out for the Puerto Rican oldies to pass their time on. On shared steps where people waited for their laundry.
And in the way the various groups work hard to keep their cultures alive, from the Jews and Chinese to the South Americans.
Speaking of Jewish tradition, I learned two new things this week – even if only your mother’s mother’s mother was Jewish, you’re Jewish, and that right now, Jews are celebrating their new year – L’shana Tova!
Despite my lack of energy this week, I enjoyed meandering around the LES. I so wish time-machines existed so I could hop in one and travel back to see just how crowded and crazy the neighbourhood used to be. Still, I feel grateful that I saw it when I did – who knows how long those last remnants of the past will be able to hang on for.
On the ‘home front’
As I said, I hit the wall this week – and Coco wasn’t helping. She loves NY but she also loves to regularly remind me what she’s missing: “I miss my friends, my family, my cats and my home.” I can’t argue with her – I miss all those too (especially the cat who is no longer – still haven’t told Coco). As amazing as this project has been and still is, it’s been the longest year – ever. Seriously, I feel like we’ve been away for years. And I’m running a month late so the earliest we’ll be home is late January!
To give us both a boost, Coco and I took the day off and went ‘out’ last Tuesday. We ate sushi and gluten-free cupcakes (Babycakes). We read books at my favourite bookstore in NY (Rizzoli). We broke my cardinal rule of not spending a cent on anything unnecessary and bought ‘stuff’ – me, MAC make-up (because in my fantasy world, I have the time and the patience to fiddle with all that), Coco, a pair of shiny black shoes (because in the real world she’s developed a love of everything fashion – she’s going to be an expensive teenager I can just tell).
We had fun. Except all that retail therapy made me even more worried about money than I already am. Oy vey!
This suburb has been brought to you by @JasonCupitt
See you next Monday-ish.