Lower East Side woven into history

For waves of immigrants to America, the Lower East Side was a place of first settlement. Today it’s one of the city’s trendiest neighbourhoods but it’s still easy to find history amid the hipsters.

Panoramic view of New York’s Lower East Side reveals a glittering modern city

NEW YORK — For waves of immigrants to America, the Lower East Side was a place of first settlement. Today it’s one of the city’s trendiest neighbourhoods but it’s still easy to find history amid the hipsters.

Some shops sell pickles and knishes, others some sell tapas and tattoos. One grand building with arches and columns once housed the Yiddish Forward newspaper but is now home to US$3-million condos.

And a museum that tells the story of immigrants is a few blocks from a museum of contemporary art.

“This is the quintessential old neighbourhood, where tradition meets the cutting edge,” said Holly Kaye, founding executive director of the Lower East Side Conservancy.

Kaye’s organization was part of a coalition that persuaded the National Trust for Historic Preservation in May to declare the Lower East Side an “endangered historic place,” citing new hotels and condo towers “looming large over the original tenement streetscape.”

The city has designated 25 historic landmarks on the Lower East Side and is reviewing another 2,334 buildings to see if any more might qualify for protection from development.

For anyone interested in history and architecture, or even just food and shopping, the neighbourhood makes for a fascinating destination.

Big Onion Walking Tours of the area include “The Multi-Ethnic Eating Tour” (US$20), “The Jewish Lower East Side” (US$15) and “Immigrant New York” (US$15); http://bigonion.com or (212) 439-1090. The Lower East Side Conservancy also offers monthly tours for US$18, http://www.nycjewishtours.org.

Or create your own adventure. Take the subway to Second Avenue, then wander south from East Houston Street. But don’t wait too long. The old places may not last forever.

Food: Perhaps the best way to experience the Lower East Side is by noshing, the Yiddish term for snacking. It’s easy to eat here on a budget — just don’t try doing it on a diet.

Get a filling knish (potato, mushroom, spinach, veggie and more) for US$3.50 at Yonah Schimmel’s Knishes, established 1910, at 137 E. Houston St.

Russ & Daughters, established 1914, at 179 E. Houston St., offers the perfect Lower East Side breakfast: a bagel with cream cheese and lox, starting at US$8.45.

For lunch, get a pastrami on rye to go, extra mustard, at Katz’s Deli, established 1888, at 205 E. Houston St. It’s US$14.95, stuffed with enough meat to cater a bar mitzvah and comes with several pickles.

For a bigger selection of pickles, visit the Pickle Guys, at 49 Essex St.

Nearby Kossar’s Bialys, at 367 Grand St., makes handrolled bialys (onion rolls) and bagels.

The Essex Street Market at Delancey Street is an indoor market where you can buy everything from fresh produce to gourmet products.

“Mayor LaGuardia created the market in 1939 to get the pushcarts off the street,” said Jeffrey Ruhalter, a fifth-generation butcher who says he is the market’s last original tenant. “It was New York City’s first supermarket.”

More recent market tenants include Saxelby Cheesemongers, which specializes in regional cheeses, and Roni-Sue’s Chocolates.

Any culinary tour must acknowledge the expansion of Chinatown into the Lower East Side. One favourite among New York foodies is Vanessa’s Dumpling House, at 118A Eldridge St. No table service, but it’s worth standing in line for eight spectacular dumplings, for a mere US$4.

The Lower East Side also has numerous upscale sitdown restaurants. Zagat’s top picks include Stanton Social, at 99 Stanton St.; Falai, at 68 Clinton St.; and the Clinton St. Baking Co., at 4 Clinton St., a charming cafe with outstanding cherry pie.

Museums: The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, at 97 Orchard St., http://www.tenement.org, is a must-see (open daily 11 a.m.-5 p.m. and until 7:15 p.m. on Thursdays; adults,US$17, students,US$13).

The building dates to 1863 but its apartments were sealed in 1935 because the landlord could not comply with housing laws. When the museum acquired the building in 1996, it was a time capsule.

Apartment tours reveal stories of real people who lived there. One family crammed 11 people in their 325-square-foot unit; another apartment housed a sweatshop in addition to a family of five.

One tour offers audio recordings of an Italian-American woman who lived there as a child.

A newer attraction, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, opened last December at 235 Bowery, http://www.newmuseum.org (open Wednesday and weekends, noon-6 p.m., Thursday-Friday, noon-10 p.m.; adults, US$12, students US$10).

The museum showcases living artists from around the world. “Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton” features 104 of Peyton’s portraits of celebrities from Napoleon to Kurt Cobain, through Jan. 11. “Mary Heilmann: To Be Someone” includes Heilmann’s abstract and colourful paintings, sculptures and furniture, through Jan. 26. Lisa Sigal’s “Line-up” uses the neighbourhood as a canvas for a wide green stripe that starts on a museum wall and continues on building exteriors that can be seen blocks away.

A third museum is both very old and very new. The Eldridge Street Synagogue, at 12 Eldridge St., http://www.eldridgestreet.org, was founded in 1887 as the first great house of worship built by Eastern European Jews in the U.S. In December 2007, it completed a 20-year, US$17-million restoration, and opened a museum about the synagogue and the neighbourhood’s Jewish history (open Sunday-Thursday, 10 a.m.- 4 p.m.; adults, US$10; children 5-18, US$6; free Mondays, 10 a.m.-noon).

Visitors may be surprised that today the synagogue is surrounded by Chinatown.

Shopping: Economy Candy, at 108 Rivington St., is one of the happiest places in New York.

“We’ve got everything from candy buttons to gourmet chocolate,” said Jerry Cohen, whose family has run the store since 1937.

The Orchard Corset Center, at 157 Orchard St. since the 1930s, is famous for telling shoppers they’re wearing the wrong bra. Just don’t be surprised if the kindly saleswoman asks the man behind the counter to publicly guess your proper size. No private fitting rooms; shoppers try bras on in a small common space behind a curtain.

Mom-and-pop stores still sell clothes on racks on the street, but chic and pricey boutiques are on the rise. The John Varvatos boutique opened in April north of Houston at 315 Bowery, where the famed music club CBGBs was located. In addition to displays of vintage boots, audio equipment and records from the 1970s (Deep Purple, anyone?), Varvatos’ designs include US$225 pullovers and US$1,895 suede and leather jackets.

Hotels: Three boutique hotels offer nightly rates in the US$300-$400 range and up: Hotel East Houston, 151 E. Houston St., http://www.hoteleasthouston.com; Hotel on Rivington, 107 Rivington St., http://www.hotelonrivington.com; and the Blue Moon Hotel, 100 Orchard St., http://www.bluemoon-nyc.com/.

The Blue Moon is located across from the Tenement Museum. Like the museum, it’s housed in a building that was sealed for decades. Restoration included salvaging woodwork, tiles and prints. The rooms are themed on old-time celebrities, like Molly Picon, who got her start in 1920s Yiddish theatre.

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