Lower East Side

LES intro


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…



now there's AC but back then there wasn't even any electricity - or water or loos - in the tenements

now there’s AC but back then there wasn’t even any electricity – or water or loos – in the tenements





Ridley's was a big department store in the petticoat era

Ridley’s was a big department store in the petticoat era





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.



same vintage - the synagogue and the pushcarts

same vintage – the synagogue and the pushcarts





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.



Eldridge Street Synagogue, restored to its 1887 glory

Eldridge Street Synagogue, restored to its 1887 glory





Joseph, one of just a handful attending the synagogue

Joseph, one of just a handful attending the synagogue





John Safran's cousin?

John Safran’s cousin?





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.



one of the last - No 62 Orchard has been here almost 60 years

one of the last – No 62 Orchard has been here almost 60 years





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.



'Now I tuck my curls behind my ears to blend in more'

‘I tuck my curls behind my ears to blend in more’





Hey Sam, I need a new suit for tonight, can you organise it?

Hey Sam, I need a new suit for tonight, can you organise it?





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.



there were no sons

there were no sons





sacrosanct in Jewish life - bagels and the Torah

sacrosanct in Jewish life – bagels and the Torah





Still, they now have to compete with all the Chinese offerings.



knishes or noodles - take your pick

knishes or noodles?





But not with the ‘Cup & Saucer Luncheonette’ on Eldridge Street. This place is all but washed up.



the Cup & Saucer Luncheonette is all but washed up

the Cup & Saucer Luncheonette 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.



the far East vs Eastern Europe - the Buddhist temple and the synagogue

the far East vs Eastern Europe – the Buddhist temple and the synagogue





the Buddhist abbot

the Buddhist abbot





honouring their ancestors

honouring their ancestors





men in robes

men in robes





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.



the different faces of the LES - Jewish, Chinese, American

the different faces of the LES – Jewish, Chinese, American





foreign neighbours

foreign neighbours





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.



smoke and fire on the Lower East Side - paying respects

smoke and fire on the Lower East Side – paying respects





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.




both involve fire and prayer

both involve fire and prayer





doorways into different worlds

doorways into different worlds





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. 



the latest wave to hit the LES after the Chinese - the hipsters :: 1

the latest wave to hit the LES after the Chinese – the hipsters :: 1





the latest wave to hit the LES after the Chinese - the hipsters :: 2

the latest wave to hit the LES after the Chinese – the hipsters :: 2





recycled shirt shop - now a gallery

recycled shirt shop – now a gallery





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.



Lower East wild Side - the dragon and the leopard

Lower East wild Side – the dragon and the leopard





Then there’s Shaggy, a curious canine we met on Clinton Street.



not only does Shaggy wear shoes

not only does Shaggy wear shoes





he also has a cap

he also has a cap





I'm guessing Shaggy doesn't eat dog food either

I’m guessing Shaggy doesn’t eat dog food either





And finally, two lions.


raaa! Shadow, you don't scare me

raaa! Shadow, you don’t scare me





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.



a hat wearer from way back - Carlos

a hat wearer from way back – Carlos





proudly Puerto Rican - Carlos, chewing the fat with Luis

proudly Puerto Rican – Carlos, chewing the fat with Luis





waiting for laundry on Broome - Davi and Kumi

waiting for laundry on Broome – Davi and Kumi





And in the way the various groups work hard to keep their cultures alive, from the Jews and Chinese to the South Americans.



keeping different heritages alive

keeping different heritages alive





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!



'even if only your mother's mother's mother was Jewish, you're Jewish'

‘even if only your mother’s mother’s mother was Jewish, you’re Jewish’





Happy New Year - may it be a sweet one

Happy New Year – may it be a sweet one





The Wrap

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.




from east to west - Coco looking west over the Hudson

from east to west – Coco looking west over the Hudson




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.


  1. Lisa says:

    If you’re looking to see how the LES used to be, check out Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives. Some of the supposedly-documentary photos have been proven to be staged, but overall it’s accurate.
    See http://www.authentichistory.com/1898-1913/2-progressivism/2-riis/index.html

  2. lynn says:

    Louise – your pictures are so rich and vibrant and always bring such a sense of abundance to my inbox and soul. Thank you for your time, energy and talent. You might be getting tired, but soon you and Coco will be home and it will all be a delicious memory that Coco (I can assure you) will dine on for the rest of her life.

  3. nirah says:

    I can only imagine how you must be feeling….travelling can be challenging at the best of times…let alone travelling for a year and having to produce a blog every week….I think everyone understands that sometimes you need a break and really appreciate all the hard work you put into producing such delightful images and stories…hang in there though because it really is a once in a lifetime experience ..for both you and Coco….but yes we can amble…an inspiring amble that is…

  4. Ben G Morgan says:

    What a lovely post today Louise. I’m not sure if it’s the way you’ve told it (your diminished energy), but I feel a real calmness in these photos, like early on a Sunday morning. I can almost feel a cool breeze washing through them.

    Thank you again for sharing!

  5. Gloria says:

    A great post Louise, the pictures and commentary are inspiring as always. Thanks for sharing, hang in there xx

  6. Jane says:

    I loved the pairing of cultures this week. Wonderful.

  7. Rob Steer says:

    I felt your fatique through your words, but again your images and juxtapositions of them are inspiring, thought provoking and for me provide a real insight to a place I’ve never been. Thanks again for sharing…

  8. Nicole says:

    Thank you Louise. I am sure your posts are getting out there into the world! I look forward to receiving them.

  9. Dev Singh says:

    Despite how you felt, the photography and writing is as inspiring as ever, Louise! Thank you!

  10. Fay Thomson says:

    I loved the dog wearing shoes.

  11. Sarah says:

    I love the memory of all things Aussie (John Safran!) made me smile. Love the buddhists getting heavy! Also enjoyed the parallels to your time in China and the rituals you see in NYC (see this is what Coco’s learning, and I’ve not even got to the home front part yet!) And just when I was thinking ‘she’s got her windows, she also loves stockings.. you give me some in Part 6. Oh no on the home front. I have no idea re:cat. And I want to know where I can donate, so you can buy make up or shiny shoes, or babycakes, and not stress! Cause there’s no point in the break if it stresses you more!! What’s this running late, I hardly notice!

  12. Ian Stead says:

    Still enjoying very much your pictures and words. Safe travels.

  13. Jane says:

    I love your posts- thank you for taking us with you on your travels. Washington Heights Inwood might be an interesting suburb to investigate. Look forward to your next adventure!

  14. Louise says:

    Lisa – Love to know more about that time so thanks for that link, I’ll look it up.
    Lynn – Lovely words, thank you!
    Nirah – When I think that the first project was challenging and that was in my own city… Thing is of course that the challenge of this project was always a big part of its appeal. I can’t have it both ways!
    Ben – There was a cool breeze too! The summer humidity and heat have vanished and there’s a delicious crispness in the air.
    Gloria – Thanks so much!
    Jane – Oh good, the pairings can be tricky but I was relatively happy with a few of them!
    Rob – I’m very happy that I can introduce you to new places. Makes it all worthwhile.
    Nicole – Thanks for saying.
    Dev – I’m glad that my fatigue doesn’t show in my work!
    Fay – That dog is crazy! Or should I say, that dog’s owner… I just wish he’d put the shoes on the right ‘feet’ at least.
    Sarah – Love my windows and stockings! And you’re so gorgeous for thinking of my budget, many thanks!
    Ian – Thank you!
    Jane – Thanks and yes, others have suggested Inwood, I might have a nose around there.

  15. Kylie says:

    Another great post Louise. The end photo of Coco is just stunning.

  16. Peter McConnochie says:

    Love the shot of Carlos and Louis – could be so many places in the world!
    A tough week – hope you bounce back and enjoy the slightly more relaxed pace – pretty sure you both deserved a day off :)

    • Louise says:

      Peter – I loved Carlos, I don’t think he quite knew what to make of me and my camera!

  17. Donna says:

    weary or not Louise …your work is always beautiful :)

    • Louise says:

      Donna – Many thanks.

  18. Sarah says:

    I am half New Yorker and half Parisienne. I have been living in Sydney for the past three years and the only advice I have to give you and all Australians is that don’t worry about what is going on in America. Clean your own backyard before you start cleaning other people’s backyard. New York is racist, are you kidding me. I have lived in four continents and Australia is the MOST RACIST COUNTRY I have lived in. No non-white people were permitted in Australia until 1960, that was not that long ago. Hitler was long ago, 1960 not so long ago. At least we have a black president in our country, when you will have an Arab prime minister then we will talk. We also don’t have the “STOLEN GENERATION” in our country. Would you like me to explain that to your world wide audience. Lets hope no one outside of Australia is reading your ignorant blog.

    • Louise says:

      Sarah – When did I say there was no racism in Australia? And no, I don’t think you need explain anything to my ‘world wide audience’ – I give them more credit than that – I would imagine many people around the world are aware of Australia’s shortcomings when it comes to the Aboriginal people and our treatment of ‘boat people’ and various other ethnicities. The Aboriginal people in particular were treated appallingly and things are still not what they should be. When I did my Sydney blog, I made reference in almost every one of my 52 blog entries about the fact that the Aboriginal people lived in Australia for 40,000 years before the white man came along and ‘moved’ them on – if you have time please check out http://www.52suburbs.com.au. But now I’m in the US so I’m talking about the racism in the US – and please note, it’s not my ‘opinion’ about racism in the US that I’m communicating, it’s what I’ve been told by people who belong to a group who are treated unequally – the blacks. And yes, wonderfully you do have a black president – wonderful because he’s a good, smart man – but how excellent that he happens to be black too. Even more reason why I feel surprised when African Americans tell me about the insistent level of racism here. Very sadly it’s almost unthinkable that an Aboriginal person would get the top job in Australia – although I’m sure they said that once about women and here we are with a female prime minister.

      There is of course no doubt another side to all this and it’s not a simple matter. But look, in the end, in both of my blogs, I hope the message is clear – racism sucks, in any country.

  19. Sarah says:

    Different Sarah here. It’s the kind of anger and ignorance in the last Sarah’s post that causes racism/ ethnocentrism in the first place. I agree with every word you said Louise and the mere fact that you’re doing what you’re doing should tell its own story of your passion for tolerance and social justice. You are doing an AMAZING job and I love your blog. Take the rest you need. We’ll all be here when you’re ready and recovered!! Big hug x

    • Louise says:

      Sarah – Oh, many thanks!

  20. Helmut says:

    Can’t definitely agree with first Sarah!
    Being from Europe these kind of arguments give me a well known feeling: “Don’t tell me about my racism and I don’t talk about your racism so that in the end nobody has to talk about racism!” Yes, it hurts sometimes to hear from “outside” about the shortcomings of your country. But can’t it be taken positive and make us thinking about it?
    So, go on Louise with your wonderful blog, mention the positive AND negative sides of your visited suburbs.

    • Louise says:

      Helmut – Agree, agree! Wise words, thanks for saying them.

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