Neighborhoods: The Lower East Side

In the early 1990s I was an NYU student living in the East Village. I went to see a friend’s band play in a basement club. Before the show, the club held a poetry reading, which consisted almost entirely of anti-white male poetry. It was hard core. Like ten or twelve poems in a row at one point.

As it happened, my friend Jason and I were pretty much the only white males in the room, and sympathetic as we were to the overall cause of equal rights, it was just a little unnerving. We definitely got some "how dare you" stares.

At that point, Jason leaned over to me and said "All I got to say is, if I have it so great, how come I’m living on Attorney Street?"

It was a killer line. Because Attorney Street was miserable. The second you crossed Houston Street, heading south, it was all about heroin. "Body bags, body bags, body bags" the dealers hissed as you made your way through the sprawled junkies. No cars, no kids. I swear there weren’t even pigeons. There was only one sign of life–or, indeed, source of street light, on Jason’s block. That was a deli whose owner, at the time of Jason’s comment, had recently been fatally shot on the job.

That was the Lower East Side then. But this is now.

Consider Ginia Bellafante’s description of the Lower East Side’s Essex Street Market (from The New York Times):

A few weeks ago Paradou, a restaurant in the meatpacking district, opened a takeout shop in the market. It joins Formaggio, an outpost of a specialty shop in Cambridge, Mass., and Saxelby Cheesemongers, which arrived earlier this year, started by a winsome 25-year-old former art student named Anne Saxelby. Ms. Saxelby apprenticed on a dairy farm in the Loire Valley after graduating from college. What sort of person might shop at an artisanal cheese counter, one whose name seems borrowed from ”The Chronicles of Barsetshire”? It is easy to envision the cliché and yet Ms. Saxelby’s customers do not conform to it. Among the predictable lot of young downtown mothers who swaddle their infants in hemp are aging Hispanic women, one of whom, Ms. Saxelby explained, comes in a few times a week specifically to buy a cheese called Ascutney Mountain. Jehovah’s Witnesses seem to find their way to her as well.

”There are people from the housing projects across Delancey who come in for milk religiously,” she said. (Ms. Saxelby’s comes from a small dairy in upstate New York and she sells it for $2.99 a quart.) ”This tosses out all your assumptions about who people are and what they are going to like,” she added. ”You don’t know who anyone is, really. Some people who you’d think are young hipsters, artist types, show up with E.B.T. cards,” she said. Ms. Saxelby sells Trillium, a Vermont cheese made from hand-ladled goat curd for $24.99 a pound, and she advertises her acceptance of electronic benefits transfer cards, the replacement for food stamps.

The Essex Street Market exists as an urban planner’s vision of commercial utopia — the sort of retail space now all but non-existent in New York, where increasingly segregated social classes come together to share if not the actual experience of affluence, then the readily purchasable signifiers of it.

(The market, by the way, has a website.)

The Lower East Side has been the very portrait of Manhattan gentrification.

Consider the restaurants alone. Doug lives on the Upper West Side, about as far as you can get from the Lower East Side, and in recent memory has been to several dinners on the Lower East Side, at Inoteca, Pala, Katz’s Delicatessen, Pho Grand, Big Wong, and the Golden Unicorn (dim sum!). His wife and food editor Kate also recommends Falai, Schillers, Little Giant, and wd-50.

Sure, it’s still one of the more affordable neigborhoods. Tenements (Wikipedia: "In the United States, tenement is a label usually applied to the less expensive, more basic rental apartment buildings in older sections of large cities. Many of these apartment buildings are ‘walk-ups’ without an elevator, and some have shared bathing facilities, though this is becoming less common.") are such a core part of Lower East Side real estate that the neighborhood has a tasteful museum to them.

The Lower East Side so happening these days, however, that some condominium developments that are technically in the (once much more popular) East Village are now touted as being on the Lower East Side. For instance in some listings the new development at 296 East 2nd Street is Lower East Side, even though anything north of Houston Street has long been considered East Village. (See map.)

If real estate projects, and how they are marketed, is any measure, the Lower East Side has thoroughly arrived. The website of 115 Allen Street, for instance, brags: "There’s no doubt about it, the Lower East Side has become one of the most sought after places to live and real estate has been revitalized in a way no one expected." And there are dozens of big dollar developments, including 188 Ludlow, 153 Bowery, 7 Essex Street, The Switch Building at 109 Norfolk Street, 62 Rivington Street, Blue at 105 Norfolk Street, and, yes, even little Attorney Street now has a new condo development with a website that crows about how great the neighborhood is. Now that’s progress.

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