The Lower East Side

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What’s the first word that pops into your mind when you think of the Lower East Side of Manhattan? Tenements? Immigration? Delis? Nightlife? All of those would be correct associations, but we can now add gastropubs, new development high-rises, and trendy hotels to the mix. For this dérive (an unplanned walk in an urban environment), I wandered this rapidly transforming neighborhood.

The Lower East Side once included the area now known as the East Village, but now is considered to be roughly between East Houston Street and Canal Street to the north and south, Bowery to the west, and the FDR Drive to the east. Before the Revolutionary War, the area was home to the Delancey farm, leaving only the names of Delancey and Orchard Streets as remnants of this pastoral history. A working class neighborhood for centuries, it hosted many different immigrant groups, but is perhaps best known for its Jewish population. When the American Girl doll company chose to add Rebecca Rubin – a Jewish girl growing up with an immigrant family in 1914 – to their roster of historical dolls, this fictional family was placed in the Lower East Side.

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Starting on East Houston and Bowery, heading east, it doesn’t take long to find one of the iconic symbols of the area’s Jewish immigrant past – Katz’s deli on East Houston and Ludlow.  It’s hard to be in Katz’s without thinking of the famous scene from When Harry Met Sally (culminating in the famous line, “I’ll have what she’s having”) but it’s survived since 1888 based on the quality of its pastrami sandwiches. Bring cash – no credit cards accepted, but the attitude from your server is free.

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Continuing east on Houston and turning south on Norfolk Street, the fifth oldest synagogue building in the United States, now the home of the Angel Orensanz Foundation, is on the east side of the street. After the Jewish population had largely left the area in the 1970’s, the building was abandoned and left to disrepair before being purchased by Spanish sculptor Angel Orensanz for studio space. The gothic-revival architecture of the building has been restored and the building now functions as a center for the arts as well as an artist’s studio.

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Walking along Orchard Street, several signs of the changes taking place in the neighborhood appear. Russ and Daughters (named back in 1914, so don’t think that going into business with your daughters is solely a modern trend) has had a storefront selling Jewish deli food on East Houston for a century, but now an upscale sit-down restaurant, Russ and Daughters Café, is on Orchard Street. Guss’ Pickles was once in a small store on Orchard and Broome, but now with the retail location  closed, jars can be found for purchase in Whole Foods and Fairway. Similarly, the Essex Street Market on Essex near Rivington reflects in some ways the small food shops that once populated the neighborhood, but now exists in a food hall, with prices the residents of the neighborhood even 15 or 20 years ago could not have believed. The Tenement Museum, on Orchard near Delancey, has preserved the way of life of immigrants to the area during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Given that quite often only the history of the wealthy is recorded for future generations, it’s significant and rather unique that this museum exists.

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Turning back to head north again, when crossing Delancey, I looked east and saw the Williamsburg Bridge. When it was built, many Jewish residents moved from the Lower East Side to Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Now the rebirth of Williamsburg as a popular place for young people to live and go for nightlife is mirrored in the Lower East Side, part of the fascinating cycle of change seen all over New York City in all time periods.

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Heading over to Ludlow Street, I could not help but notice the new developments being built in the neighborhood. Although still primarily low-rise tenement buildings, new high-rise condos with all the amenities you could find in a similar building in Soho or Nolita (for, at least for now, at a lower price point) are beginning to spring up. The Blue Condominium was the first – and to many, it failed to fit into its environment (being much larger than surrounding buildings and extremely blue) – and many more are now in various states of construction. The rapid gentrification of the area led the National Trust for Historic Places to put the Lower East Side on their list of America’s Most Endangered Places. While it seems to me that it benefits neither the city nor the neighborhood to leave it full of crumbling tenements, a increased sensitivity in ensuring that the new developments blend in better with their surroundings can only be a good thing. The Hotel on Rivington was built to show off and contrast with its neighbors, while the Blue Moon Hotel, equally new and trendy inside, kept the exterior appearance of the building it renovated, making it almost identical to surrounding buildings.

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Julian Casablancas sings about the inevitable changes that have been transforming the area in his song, “Ludlow Street.” In a typical Lower East Side scene, heading out in the morning after an evening of drinking too much, he thinks about how the indigenous Lenape tribes were first to be pushed out in 1624. As he sings, “Faces are changing on Ludlow Street/Yuppies invading on Ludlow Street/Nightlife is invading on Ludlow Street/And it’s hard to just move along.”

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Soho

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Before Tribeca (TRIangle BElow CAnal), Dumbo (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass), Nolita (North of Little ITAly), or Nomad (North of MADison Square Park), there was SoHo (South of Houston Street). Although London’s Soho isn’t a shortened version of anything (it might be based on a hunting cry but has been a place name there since the early 1600’s so no one really knows), Manhattan’s Soho started the trend of cute acronyms for neighborhood names in the city. Today’s dérive (an unplanned walk in an urban environment) takes place in this cool downtown neighborhood.

Although today we know it as a beautiful area full of artists’ lofts and galleries, and as an upscale shopping destination, Soho in lower Manhattan has an interesting history. Originally a community for freed slaves of the Dutch East India Company in the 1600’s, this was the first settlement for people of color in the city. Surrounded by swampland and a canal, the area was not widely settled until the canal was filled in and became Canal Street. Becoming an industrial center in the mid-1800’s, most of the neighborhood’s characteristic cast iron buildings (the actual name of the historic district is Soho-Cast Iron) were created between 1840 and 1800. Originally used as a building material because cast iron was cheaper than stone or brick (but could be painted to resemble stone), cast iron was also easily molded and allowed for elaborate decoration around the large windows, themselves possible because of the strength of cast iron. With industry moving out of the area, the neighborhood fell into decline, until the 1960’s when artists looking for large spaces with plenty of natural light began to move in. Although originally the artists’ lofts were not zoned for residential living, eventually the city recognized the change that had occurred, and since the 1980’s, the neighborhood has become one of the city’s wealthiest.

Roughly bounded by (naturally) Houston Street to the north, Canal Street to the south, Crosby Street to the east, and Sixth Avenue to the west, I began this dérive on Houston and Crosby, walking south and turning west on Prince Street. Although Soho is surrounded by Greenwich Village, Little Italy, and Tribeca on various sides, and shares certain similarities with each, it also has its own distinctive feel. The neighborhood is full of architecturally significant buildings, many quite unique. The Little Singer Building (named because a few years after it was built in 1903, the Singer Company also built what was for a few years the tallest building in the world – and which was destroyed in 1967 before it could be landmarked), for instance, is now a combination of office spaces and artists’ lofts. It is covered in elaborate wrought iron decoration, terra cotta panels, and cast iron ornamentation. At Prince and Greene, one entire side of a building is painted in a trompe l’oeil façade of a cast iron building.

Prince and Spring Streets, particularly the areas near Broadway, are full of upscale shopping experiences. Dominique Ansel Bakery, famous for being the home of the cronut, is on Spring between Sullivan and Thompson. People line up between 7AM and 8AM every day to get the limited supply of cronuts (2 per person, only one type made per month), but don’t neglect the bakery later in the day – they make delicious treats in addition to the elusive cronuts!

While on Spring Street, glancing south when crossing Thompson Street reveals a beautiful view of One World Trade. Continuing east on Spring, I appreciated crossing the charming cobblestoned streets. Although all of SoHo would have been originally cobblestoned, only those streets still paved with Belgian blocks when the area was landmarked (a few of the north-south streets such as Mercer, Crosby, and Wooster Streets) remain as such. Seeing a row of Citibikes ready for rental, I imagine that cobblestoned streets and bicycling might not be the best pairing.

Soho becomes less hectic as you get away from Houston. Heading south on Mercer Street, It’s hard to imagine that plans to build two large elevated highways linking the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges with the Holland Tunnel were narrowly averted in the 1960’s. Fortunately, the value of this lovely area and its concentration of ornate cast iron buildings was recognized in time to preserve Soho for us to enjoy now and for future generations.

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Central Park in winter (with photos)

Last week we missed having three feet of snow in the city as the storm veered east by about 50 miles, but we still had enough snow to make Central Park a winter wonderland. This made me think about the advantages of living near the park, and that they are not limited to warm weather months. My sister, who lives in Vermont, says that it’s important to find a winter weather sport to enjoy there so that one doesn’t get too much cabin fever during the long winter. There are far too many things to do in New York City for anyone to get cabin fever (although most cabins are larger than the average NYC apartment, I would speculate!), but it is important to be able to enjoy the outdoors and commune with nature year-round even in the city with so many indoor things to do.

There are two outdoor skating rinks in Central Park: Wollman Rink (now Trump Rink) in the southern part of the park, and Lasker Rink near the Harlem Meer in the northern part. Both rent skates and have a fee to enter, but Lasker Rink is less expensive and often less crowded. However, the views of the skyscrapers looming over the edges of the southern part of the park do make the views a little more picturesque at Wollman (Trump).

Every time it snows, certain areas of the park are well known as prime sledding spots. The best are both mid-park on the east side, Pilgrim Hill (enter at Fifth and 72nd) and Cedar Hill (enter at Fifth and 76th). Pilgrim Hill is steeper and Cedar Hill a little more gentle, but both get very crowded on a snow day. Bring your own sled, of course (or use a garbage bag or an empty pizza box in a pinch).

Every year, Central Park hosts a Winter Jam one weekend, mid-park near the Bandshell. Snow machines are brought in to create (or augment) snow and there are opportunities to learn snowshoeing, skiing, and kicksledding (equipment provided for all of these but lines can be long). There are also snowman building contests and a chance to sled, as well as pop-up food vendors.

After the park has received enough snow, you will see cross-country skiers and snowshoers in the park, but you don’t even need special equipment to truly enjoy the spectacular beauty of Central Park covered in white. Whether appreciating the permanent residents of the park (statuary) with a new layer of frosting to upgrade their look, seeing that someone has already cleared the Imagine mosaic in Strawberry Fields (do it yourself if no one else has), or appreciating a fresh look at the contrast of the stately buildings surrounding the park with the dazzling white of the park itself, Central Park in winter shows that the value of living in New York City within walking distance of the park is a year-round benefit.

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