In wave after wave, millions of immigrants from throughout the world have swept through New York City’s Lower East Side for more than a century and a half, bequeathing the neighborhood a rich--make that notorious--historic legacy, wonderful (and inexpensive) ethnic cafes and teeming streets. Everywhere, touches of the Old World catch the eye, and yet few places anywhere are so fundamental to the all-American story.
Now, as the nation becomes embroiled in a heated debate on its immigration policies and practices, it is a particularly appropriate time to explore this curious, multicultural neighborhood at the southeastern end of Manhattan.
Such a visit, if only for a few hours, is a powerful reminder that this is a nation created mostly by immigrants--many of whom arrived on these shores uneducated and impoverished and began their hope-filled scramble for a new and better life in the hurly-burly mix of the Lower East Side.
You can go to the Lower East Side on your own or under the tutelage of expert guides--I did both--and what you get is a fascinating history lesson and plenty of opportunities for ethnic snacking. Over a long weekend recently, I paused for afternoon biscotti and strong espresso in a coffeehouse in Little Italy; tried my first-ever hot bialy, a sort of doughy bagel, at a flour-on-the-floor bakery in the old Jewish Lower East Side; and shared plates of dim sum, the tasty Chinese dumplings, in a crowded little cafe in Chinatown--which today is the most vibrant and colorful area of the Lower East Side.
Fish markets and vegetable stalls crowd Chinatown’s sidewalks in a jumble as exotic as Hong Kong. One man garbed in a butcher’s apron hurried down Mott Street, the heart of Chinatown, carrying what looked like a freshly skinned lamb over his shoulder. The scent of incense wafted from the Eastern States Buddhist Temple at 64 Mott St., where I paid a dollar to pluck from a basket a piece of paper with a fortune printed on it. The probability of my success, it said, is “poor.”
The newly restored Ellis Island Immigration Museum, situated just off the southern tip of Manhattan, has become a very popular tourist site. Overlooking the Statue of Liberty, the engaging history museum details the mighty flood of immigrants that entered the United States through the island’s famous portals.
The Lower East Side is the sometimes-tragic, often-inspirational sequel--the tale of what happened to the newcomers once they left Ellis Island behind. Both places can be visited in a day trip, but stretching it over two days is better.
As an introduction to the Lower East Side, I sampled three of the several two-hour walking tours of the neighborhood offered weekends throughout the year by Big Onion Walking Tours. The company is run by Seth Kamil and Ed O’Donnell, both Columbia University students and teachers of immigration history who are helping to pay for their doctoral studies as tour guides.
Kamil, who is Jewish, concentrates on the Jewish streets of the Lower East Side--once the world’s largest Jewish settlement--and on the mile-long Bowery, the neighborhood’s once-bawdy, now mostly run-down thoroughfare. O’Donnell, who is of Irish descent and a member of the American Irish Historical Society, highlights Irish New York, which includes several churches and the former sites of Tammany Hall and the old Five Points slum, reputedly the roughest and most crowded in the city in the 19th Century.
Kamil and O’Donnell also sweep in and out of Little Italy, Chinatown and the other overlapping ethnic pockets that together form the Lower East Side. One of their major themes is how the neighborhood continues to be recycled in a process of decline and rebirth.
By Big Onion’s broad definition--encompassing Chinatown and Little Italy--the Lower East Side roughly covers an area that is bounded on the north by 14th Street, on the south by Chatham Square near City Hall, on the east by the East River and on the west by Broadway.
The Bowery slices the neighborhood from north to south. Historically, Little Ireland and Little Italy predominated west of the Bowery; much of the Jewish community was found east of the Bowery. Today, immigrants from many Asian nations form Chinatown, which is located mostly west of the Bowery. Latino, African and other ethnic groups have replaced most of the former Jewish residents to the east.
The scholarly pair does not overlook the harsh side of life in the Lower East Side, past and present. Our tour group peered through the window into what Kamil described as a modern-day “sweatshop,” one of many crowded clothing factories where poor immigrants from Southeast Asia are said to labor at piece work at below minimum wages. We also stood in front of several $7- and $8-a-night so-called “flophouses” on the Bowery, where the homeless with a few bucks can rent a room of their own. Kamil’s research suggests the Bowery has been a sanctuary for the homeless since the 19th Century.
“The problem is not new,” he says.
On my own, I sought out the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which is restoring two apartments in a six-story brick tenement building at 97 Orchard St., a street in the Jewish area lined with inexpensive clothing shops and considered one of Manhattan’s best bargain-hunting districts.
Built in 1863 to house 22 families, the building lacked heat and offered in the way of plumbing only outdoor privies and a water pump. Historian Suzanne Wasserman, who leads tours of the building, characterizes the tenement as an example of “the worst housing built in America.” A plaque outside sadly notes that “for millions of immigrants from scores of nations, this tenement and others like it was a place of first settlement in America.”
On a cheerier note, the same plaque pays a belated tribute to the tenement residents, who undoubtedly suffered economic, racial or religious discrimination when they were forced to live there.
“We salute them,” says the marker, “as our urban pioneers on the municipal frontier.” As the grandson of a Danish immigrant, I added my own quiet salute to the authors of that sentiment. Once the tours were over, I spent hours walking the streets of the Lower East Side taking in the unusual sights much as I would in a foreign city--for, to me, the neighborhood seemed as intriguing.
On Orchard Street in the old Jewish community, shopkeepers hang clothing and other merchandise from overhead racks that reach over the sidewalk so thickly they form a pedestrian tunnel.
At the Ten Ren Tea and Ginseng Co. at 75 Mott St. in Chinatown, I saw imported teas that sell for as much as $130 a pound. A clerk offered up a sample of tart plum tea, priced at considerably less. At the Pearl River Mart, a Chinese department store at 277 Canal St., I almost bought a giant, papier-mache dragon head--the brightly painted sort one would wear as a dragon in a Chinese New Year parade.
Big Onion’s weekend walking tours cost $9 per person, and no reservations are needed. You simply show up at the appointed meeting place--which can be the entrance to City Hall, a famous statue or, on Kamil’s excursion into “Immigrant New York,” the entrance to the Olympia Restaurant at Essex and Delancey streets. The tour is a multiethnic stroll through the Jewish Lower East Side, Chinatown, Little Italy and what used to be called Little Germany, Little Africa and Little Ireland. The emphasis is on the contribution the immigrants made to New York, and to the nation. This particular tour wraps into a single, two-hour package a portion of the itineraries Big Onion covers in more detail in some of its other tours, such as “Jewish Lower East Side,” “The Bowery” and “Irish New York.”
The “Immigrant” tour, which I took in December, whetted my appetite, and on a return visit to New York recently I also joined Kamil’s “Bowery” tour and followed O’Donnell through “Irish New York.”
In the early 1910s, Essex and Delancey streets formed the heart of the Jewish settlement, explained Kamil on the initial tour. More than half a million Jewish immigrants from Europe lived in the community. It soon became an overcrowded slum with residents packed into dark, unhealthy tenements.
Today, no more than 11,000 Jews reside in the area. Many of the old tenement buildings, like the Tenement Museum, are still standing but are boarded up. But a number of Jewish-owed shops remain in business. Undoubtedly, the most famous of them is Guss’s Pickles at 35 Essex St., which was prominently featured in the movie “Crossing Delancey.”
From the Jewish streets, the tour crossed into Chinatown. The first stop, at Hester Street and the Bowery, was “The Wall of Respect for the Working People of Chinatown.” It is a vivid, two-story mural on the wall of a brick building that portrays a giant dragon. At its tail are scenes of laborers at work in the rice fields of Asia; at its head are depicted the many occupations Asian immigrants have tackled in their new homeland--waiter, cook, seamstress, laborer and student, among them.
Here Kamil paused to offer up a brief history of the Bowery, which is the subject of his academic dissertation. In New York’s early years, the Bowery was the city’s finest street. But in the 19th Century, as European immigrants poured in, it became a bawdy area of saloons, brothels and inexpensive theaters.
As a kid in the ‘40s, I was a fan of “The Bowery Boys” movies, which depicted the Bowery as lively and exciting. For much of its mile length today, however, it is a way-stop for the homeless; Kamil said he has counted 16 flophouses on the Bowery. But there also are bright spots to tempt visitors. At the north end, Amato Opera at 319 Bowery, a tiny little opera house, is in its 46th season, and all seats (weekends only) are just $16.
At the southern end, near Chatham Square, is the city’s “lighting district,” a couple of blocks where most of the shops sell lamps and chandeliers of all types. This was once Little Ireland, and Kamil pointed down Pell Street, as O’Donnell does on his Irish tour, to Pell’s Dinty, an old Irish saloon that is now Chinese owned. On a big sign out front, the original name is printed in small letters beneath larger Chinese characters.
Chinatown, which is growing, is the largest Chinese-American community in America, and in many ways it looks more like the old country than the new. Street lamps are topped with pagoda-like caps, and street signs all carry Chinese characters beneath the name in English. Mott Street is the main street, but adjacent streets are almost as colorful.
At Grand Street, Chinatown gives way to the remnants of Little Italy, now primarily a three-block-long strip of Italian restaurants, coffeehouses, bakeries and other food shops along Mulberry Street. Kamil ended our “Immigrants” tour at Caffe Roma at Mulberry and Broome streets.
The Big Onion duo regards this old-fashioned coffeehouse as the best place in Little Italy for Italian pastries and cappuccino, and I won’t argue with them. I’ve been back three times now.
I left the Lower East Side with a troubled mind, which I suppose is what the Big Onion team and the Tenement Museum hoped would happen. As we debate the nation’s immigration policy, it is a good thing to be reminded that not so long ago millions of impoverished newcomers endured the hardships of the Lower East Side and then went on to contribute to the strength of America. Indeed, the process continues today.
All About the Town
Getting there: For driving, subway and bus directions to the Orchard Street shopping district in the heart of the Lower East Side, call (212) 995-VALU. A service provided by local merchants, the 24-hour recorded message also includes information on free parking, shopping guides, discount coupon books and group shopping tours.
Where to stay: I stayed at the Marriott Financial Center (85 West St., New York 10006; telephone 212-385-4900 or 800-228-9290 for reservations, fax 212-227-8136). It offered a $99-a-night weekend rate and is only a 20-minute walk from Chatham Square, the southern gateway to the Lower East Side. The hotel is a five-minute walk from Battery Park, where ferries depart regularly to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
Tours: For a copy of the Big Onion Walking Tours schedule, call (212) 439-1090. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum (tel. 212- 387-0341) offers a walking tour of its Orchard Street neighborhood Sundays at 12:30 and 2:30 p.m. The Chinatown History Center (tel. 212-619-4785) has occasional tours of Chinatown during spring and summer months. Next scheduled tours are May 29 and June 12, but special group tours can be arranged.