Locals have begun calling this part of the borough of Manhattan “LES”—that’s the Lower East Side, a four-square-mile corner nestled between Chinatown and the East Village. (The modern LES Historic District is smaller than the historical boundaries of the neighborhood, which extended north to 14th Street.) It is one of the last places in New York, a city of immigration, where it is still possible to get an idea of the daily life of an immigrant in the 19th or early 20th century.
By 1894 this neighborhood had become the most densely populated area on Earth (986 people per acre—more than in Bombay). Blocks of hastily built tenements housed new arrivals from across Europe, many of them Jews escaping persecution. They brought their customs and cultures with them, creating a colorful and engaging neighborhood. “Moving out” was always a goal.
Today gentrification is in full swing, evidenced by high-rise apartments, trendy shops and restaurants, and boutiques. (Since 2000, change has been so rapid that The National Trust for Historic Preservation has placed the LES on their list of America’s Most Endangered Places.) But for now the area’s history can still be read, and its character remains.
The experience is entirely pedestrian: stroll the streets, window-shop, people-watch . . . and eat. Sunday is a good day for a visit, as many businesses are closed on the Saturday Sabbath. I suggest you start at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street. Opened in 1988 in an 1863 tenement building, the museum showcases six restored apartments from 1873 through the Great Depression, providing a clear picture of the lives and struggles of immigrant families. A visit to this unique place is a moving experience.
You must choose your tour and book tickets ahead of time. Don’t miss the museum bookshop (108 Orchard St.), which is well-stocked with illuminating material.
A few blocks to the east at the corner of Suffolk and Rivington is Streit’s Matzo (streitsmatzo.com), the last family-owned and operating matzo company in the country. A tour of the factory, which has occupied this same location since 1925, is fascinating; orthodox rabbis still supervise production, and you can sample matzos hot out of the oven.
Get pickles out of the barrel at The Pickle Guys (49 Essex St.), but be prepared to put up with the friendly banter. Order knishes at Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery (137 E. Houston), here since they started selling them from a pushcart in 1890. (Wash it down with an egg cream—New Yorkers know this fizzy drink contains neither.) If you don’t mind crowds and your coronary arteries are healthy, have a pastrami on rye at kosher-style Katz’s Delicatessen down the street (205 E. Houston) —where, by the way, the famous scene in When Harry Met Sally was filmed. Now stroll down Orchard Street, where you can still find some discount stores. Every Sunday, the street becomes a pedestrian mall.
Once there were more than 500 synagogues here, but their numbers have dwindled and many have been converted to other uses. An opulent survivor is the Eldridge Street Synagogue (12–14 Eldridge Street; eldridgestreet.org). Built in 1887 from plans by the Herter Brothers, it is a masterpiece of Moorish Revival architecture. Recently rescued and restored, the synogogue is registered as a National Historic Landmark.
Walking south on Eldridge, notice the ornamentation on the 1870s Eldridge Street Police Station, which is now a store (107 Eldridge St.). Further west is The Bowery, where you’ll find McKim, Mead & White’s Bowery Savings Bank building (1894) on the northwest corner of Grand and Bowery; the building helped set the trend for neoclassical bank architecture. Back down Delancey Street, see Public School 110 (285 Delancey), one of the scores of handsome public schools designed by architect C.B.J. Synder in the early 20th century.