The Lower East Side: Then & Now

More or LES.

When the movie Defiance came out in 2008, the New York screening was studded with celebrities. Heidi Klum came to the afterparty. As did Liev Schreiber and Martha Stewart. Richard Johnson of the New York Post‘s Page Six could be seen with pen in hand, hoping to catch a few pearls of gossip.

The party took place at Shang, a spanking new Asian restaurant in a boutique hotel called Thompson LES. LES, of course, stands for Lower East Side. Thompson LES sits on Orchard Street, in the heart of the historic neighborhood where Jewish pushcart operators once elbowed each other for space on the sidewalk. It seemed a fitting place for a splashy premiere of a movie about Jews. No other neighborhood in New York melds old world Jewry with the hip and the trendy.
yonah shimmel's knish bakery
There is still a mikvah on the Lower East Side and numerous landmarked synagogues. Jews in search of a cultural fix might stop by Yonah Schimmel’s for a knish, or Katz’s Deli for a pastrami sandwich. Or, to literally experience something schmaltzy, one can go to Sammy’s Roumanian, where each table comes equipped with a syrup jar filled with yellow rendered chicken fat which is applied liberally to any order of chopped liver.

But with the commercial nostalgia, there is also still a real Orthodox Jewish presence. Along East Broadway, there are synagogues and yeshivas that advertise themselves solely in Hebrew. Orthodox housewives in wigs can be seen ambling in pairs along Grand Street. There are still kosher butchers and bakers, and luncheonettes with names like “Zafis.” The Orthodox ebbed (starting in the 1930s) but in the last decade or so, the numbers have swelled again.

The Lower East Side wasn’t always Jewish. According to Kenneth Jackson’s Encyclopedia of New York City, the first tenement appeared in 1833 and was inhabited mostly by Irish families. And since then Germans, Italians, Poles, and Chinese drifted in and out of its borders. But after the massive influx of Jewish immigration starting in the late 19th century, the Lower East Side became synonymous with the place where Jews got their start in the New World.

The Jews Arrive

Congregation Anshi Chesed was founded on Norfolk Street in 1849. When the Bialystoker Synagogue was founded on Hester Street in 1865, the neighborhood’s Jewish population was still somewhat modest. But by the time one of the grandest of the area synagogues–the Eldridge Street Synagogue–was founded in 1887, Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe was in full force (mostly due to the uptick in anti-Semitic violence in Russia).

In The World of Our Fathers, Irving Howe explains that with Jewish immigration, the Lower East Side quickly became the most crowded neighborhood in New York City. Shortly after the turn of the century the density was greater than the worst sections of Bombay.

And with the overcrowding came the ugly side effects. “The crush and stench [of Orchard Street] were enough to suffocate one,” wrote Howe, “dirty children playing in the street, and perspiring Jews were pushing carts and uttering wild shrieks… dark tenements, filthy sidewalks; saloons on nearly every corner; sinister red lights in the vestibules of many small frame houses.”

The overcrowding reached its peak in 1906 when 153,748 Jews arrived in America from Eastern Europe. After World War II, Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side were replaced by blacks and Puerto Ricans and, in the 1960s, by Dominicans and Chinese. Junkies and squatters always had a place, as did students and artists attracted to low rents.

The Hipsters Arrive

“Immigrants might not want to live there [the Lower East Side],” wrote Joseph Berger in his 2007 book about New York, The World in a City, “but [now] Generations X, Y, Z of young people raised on grunge, slacking and postmodern irony have found this neighborhood to their liking.”

lower east side tenaments
Lower East Side Tenaments

The Bowery–the road that runs from the East Village into the Lower East Side–has long been known as New York’s skid row. In the mid-19th century the Bowery was the home of rival gangs and hoodlums, as well as flophouses and brothels which lasted to the end of the 20th century. Bob Dylan mentioned the Bowery slums in “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” on his album Bringing it All Back Home. And any rock connoisseur knows the name of the late, lamented rock club CBGB’s, which opened on Bowery in 1973, and featured seminal bands such as Blondie, The Ramones, and Talking Heads on its stage.

By the late 1990s, however, the once-seedy area was teeming with upscale bars, clubs, and restaurants.

Restaurateurs like Keith McNally and Wylie Dufresne opened up Schiller’s Liquor Bar and wd-50, respectively. (At wd-50 the tasting menu plus wine pairing runs $215 per person.) And as for clubs and bars, the long list includes rock venues like Mercury Lounge; dance spots like The Delancey, mixology joints like White Star, and gritty hipster watering holes like Welcome to the Johnsons.

And real estate boomed. Local landlords found that coldwater railroad flats could rent “for $2,000 a month that not too long before had been renting for less than $300,” writes Berger. “So valuable was an empty flat that landlords were paying long-settled families $50,000 to leave.”

But among the more interesting things that happened during the Lower East Side’s reemergence was a strange hipster/Jewish crossover.

Ratner’s, the famous dairy restaurant where Al Jolson and Fanny Brice once munched on eggs and lox, closed in 2004 and reopened as Lansky Lounge (named after the Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky), a modern speakeasy. Mo Pitkins House of Satisfaction billed itself as a Jewish-Latino club/restaurant/bar, and in addition to mixing up Manischevetinis (Manischewitz + martini), they served their treif appetizers on seder plates.

Both Mo Pitkins and Lansky Lounge since closed, but other venues have been going strong.
An old tenement on Orchard Street was turned into a luxury hotel a few years ago called the Blue Moon. Rooms–ranging from $250 a night up to $675–are named after Molly Picon, Mickey Katz, and other iconic Jews of yesteryear.

Of course Jewishness wasn’t the only thing on developers’ minds. One of the most carefully restored and cared for is the old Forward building on East Broadway–the home of the old socialist Yiddish newspaper, with busts of Engels and Marx carved into the stone. After turning into a Chinese church in the 1970s, in 2006 the building was sold and turned into luxury condos.

No, the Lower East Side is not the same as it was–but Marx, Engels and other busts of Jewish history have a comfortable perch overlooking East Broadway.

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