The Lower East Side was the gateway to America for successive waves of immigrants in the 20th century. But while it was historically a neighborhood people wanted to move up and out of, it has, in the 21st century, become a hot spot that people want to move down and into. And though vendors' pushcarts no longer line its narrow streets, it maintains its status as a site of entrepreneurial incubation, as business owners raise the bar beyond its noted bar culture to open galleries, restaurants, markets and boutiques of all varieties. What do folks love about the LES?
The Lower East Side was the gateway to America for successive waves of immigrants in the 20th century. But while it was historically a neighborhood people wanted to move up and out of, it has, in the 21st century, become a hot spot that people want to move down and into. And though vendors' pushcarts no longer line its narrow streets, it maintains its status as a site of entrepreneurial incubation, as business owners raise the bar beyond its noted bar culture to open galleries, restaurants, markets and boutiques of all varieties. What do folks love about the LES? Read on to find out.
Wylie Dufresne, chef-owner, wd~50
"The Tailoring Room is a recent and welcome addition to the street. These people do great work at a reasonable price with a smile. They've altered a dress for my baby daughter, hemmed my chef pants, altered a dress shirt and sewn my cycling gloves—all done to perfection."
The Tailoring Room, 42 Clinton St between Rivington and Stanton Sts (212-253-2031)
"Manhattan has become in a way overpopulated, for lack of a better term. In a lot of neighborhoods, people are getting stacked higher and higher. There are still no tall buildings in this neighborhood. There are all five-story tenement buildings. It's beautiful in the spring. There's this fantastic canopy of flowering pear trees over Clinton Street that make it feel like a special place."
"I love Shopsin's at the Essex Street Market—and the Essex Street Market in general. Kenny [the proprietor-chef] is an icon in this industry, and we sometimes secretly wish we could speak to our customers like he does."
Shopsin's, Essex Street Market, 120 Essex St between Delancey and Rivington Sts, stall 16 (shopsins.com)
"Economy Candy can satisfy your sweet craving on many levels, with the added bonus of a touch of old-world charm and a hint of the curiosity shop."
Economy Candy, 108 Rivington St between Essex and Ludlow Sts (800-352-4544, economycandy.com)
"We know they serve great food and wine in a fun atmosphere at 'inoteca. But remember to order the cheese plate, too, it's always excellent.
'inoteca, 98 Rivington St at Ludlow St (212-614-0473, inotecanyc.com)
"I love the fields along the East River in East River Park. There's soccer fields, tennis courts, guys selling coconut ices. It has the whole New York experience. It's not as verdant as Central Park, but it's a real New York City park. A lot of concrete, but a lot of places for kids to play and do stuff. And it has a great view. Most parks in the city you don't get a view, but there you get waterfront views, a great view of Brooklyn."
East River Park, FDR Dr from Montgomery to E 12th Sts (nycgovparks.org/parks/eastriverpark)
Claire Cavanah, 45, cofounder, Babeland
"The blocks are smaller, which gives it a coziness which is excellent for boutique retail. More than that, though, it's an enclave of people of all different backgrounds, living right on top of each other and getting along. No one gave us a moment's trouble [when we opened], and we were lesbians selling dildos! Our neighbors were all smiles and winks. I think we stumbled into the most welcoming neighborhood in all of New York."
"My favorite sign of all time was in the LES. It's gone now, but it was on Essex Street between Stanton and Rivington. It said bernstein's in faux Chinese, sort of Charlie Chan--style letters made of lightbulbs rather than neon. I loved that sign. I don't even know what they sold!"
"Tiengarden is delicious when you want a steaming plate of gluten."
Tiengarden, 170 Allen St between Rivington and Stanton Sts (212-388-1364)
Derya Golpinar, collections manager and registrar, Lower East Side Tenement Museum
"Through working here, it's really given me an interesting perspective, because a lot of what we talk about in the museum is still relevant to the neighborhood today. It's interesting to work at a place where those historical issues are discussed, but when you walk around you can see that they're still relevant."
"I think it would have been interesting to have seen the Lower East Side when this neighborhood used to be the most densely populated place on earth. It just must have been so dynamic and full of energy and so much going on. The neighborhood continues to be like that, so it would be a difference of degree than kind."
"I love Happiness Deli on Delancey. It's a magical little place. I don't think they're hyperbolizing by referring to themselves as Happiness. I can go there at two in the afternoon and they'll make me French toast. They let me use the phone. Mohammed the proprietor is, without fail, wearing his ascot."
Happiness Deli, 101 Delancey St between Essex and Ludlow Sts (212-260-7848)
"There's an active arts and culture scene, and the museum community is quite tight. There's a Graffiti Museum, Rooftop Legends, on the roof of Seward Park High School. It's very much in the spirit of NYC graffiti. The artwork that gets put up is very ephemeral it's only there for a while, and they're always inviting new artists to install new works up there, so it's not there to immortalize any one graffiti artist."
Rooftop Legends, Seward Park High School, 350 Grand St between Essex and Ludlow Sts (212-475-4148, rooftoplegends2010.blogspot.com)
"ABC No Rio is a place that I used to go to a lot in the mid-'90s. They recently got a grant to completely redo the building, like over a million dollars. They're going to take down the tenement that's there and they're going to put up a new LEED-certified eco building, and have all sorts of new events and activities. I'm sad that the historic structure will be taken down, but it'll increase their capacity for programs."
ABC No Rio, 156 Rivington St between Clinton and Suffolk Sts (212-254-3697, abcnorio.org)
Mark Israel, owner, Doughnut Plant
"Initially, I was drawn here by cheap rent—25 years ago. Also it was very arty, a lot of artists here. It was very neighborhoody at the time, and it was very unpretentious, it was full of history and a humble neighborhood. And there was a big sense of entrepreneurial spirit, a lot of people were starting their own businesses without a lot of money. You didn't need a lot of money to start a business then. People were taking over these really cheap abandoned storefronts, opening restaurants and stores—people who were just, like, my neighbors."
"My favorite place to go in the neighborhood is my roof. Just to chill out. You can still look around. But it's quiet. I work all the time—I work like six or seven days a week, and long hours. I get up and go to work, and I come out of work and go to my apartment. So I like to hang out there."
"When you have opportunity, and you're yourself, you can use your own creativity and imagination to do things. It was amazing to see what everyone was doing in the neighborhood back in the day, a sense of excitement. We were all young together. And now we're older. Is it better now? Was it better then? You still walk down the street and see people that were there before."
"I go a lot to Earth Matters, the health food store. And I go to The Bhakti Center a lot on First and 1st. The whole vibe of the Lower East Side and East Village...it has a very artistic vibe. It's very young, and down to earth and humble. And it also has a kind of spiritual vibe to it somehow. Very creative. Very unpretentious."
Earth Matters, 177 Ludlow St between E Houston and Stanton Sts (212-475-4180, earthmatters.com) * The Bhakti Center, 25 First Ave between 1st and 2nd Sts (212-253-6182, bhakticenter.org)
"Look at all the businesses that started on the Lower East Side—Bloomingdale's and Macy's, I heard that they started on pushcarts on the Lower East Side. I really love that history of the Lower East Side. The Tenement Museum has taken advantage of that, to preserve that."
The Tenement Museum, visitor center, 108 Orchard St between Broome and Delancey Sts (212-431-0233, tenement.org)
Joshua Russ Tupper, co-owner, Russ & Daughters
"My connection to the Lower East Side is 100 years old. My great-grandfather, Joel Russ, came to the Lower East Side at the turn of the century and started selling herring from a pushcart. Soon after, and with those products, he opened Russ & Daughters, which has been here ever since. My family has been rooted here throughout a century of the neighborhood's evolution. I work at Russ & Daughters and live upstairs, above the shop. The idea of living and working in the same building was concerning at first, but that's how they did it back in the day, and besides, a few flights of stairs is a pretty amazing commute."
Russ &, 179 E Houston St between Allen and Orchard Sts (212-475-4880, russanddaughters.com)
"The character of the neighborhood comes from the parts of its history that have been maintained. These authentic connections to the past, even as things develop and change, are indispensable, and can be experienced in the neighborhood's iconic foods, like delicatessen (Katz's), and knishes (Yonah Schimmel), long-standing small businesses (Moscot), historic houses of worship (Angel Orensanz and the Eldridge Street Synagogue), museums and cultural centers (Tenement Museum, The Henry Street Settlement) and the unique architecture of tenement buildings. The LES offers that rare possibility in New York of staying connected to the past while being in the midst of what's 'now.' "
Katz's Delicatessen, 205 E Houston St at Ludlow St (212-254-2246, katzdeli.com) * Yonah Schimmel, 137 E Houston St at Forsyth St (212-477-2858, knishery.com) * Moscot, 118 Orchard St at Delancey St (212-477-3796, moscot.com) * Angel Orensanz Foundation Center for the Arts, 172 Norfolk St between E Houston and Stanton Sts (212-529-7194, orensanz.org) * Eldridge Street Synagogue, 12 Eldridge St between Canal and Division Sts (212-219-0302, eldridgestreet.org) * The Tenement Museum, 97 Orchard St between Broome and Delancey Sts (212-431-0233, tenement.org) * Henry Street Settlement House, 265 Henry St at Montgomery St (212-766-9200, henrystreet.org)
"The variety and quality of new restaurants that have popped up since I moved here, when wd~50, Alias and 71 Clinton Fresh Food [now closed] were the great pioneering restaurant options. Also, it's been great to see the revival of the neighborhood's arts scene through the New Museum and the many art galleries and performance spaces that have chosen to be in this neighborhood."
wd~50, 50 Clinton St between Rivington and Stanton Sts (212-477-2900, wd-50.com) * Alias, 76 Clinton St at Rivington St (212-505-5011, aliasrestaurant.com) * New Museum of Contemporary Art, 235 Bowery between Rivington and Stanton Sts (212-219-1222, newmuseum.org)
"The back bar at Freemans for Sazeracs, other delicious cocktails and comfort food, where my favorite bartender, Yana, works her magic."
Freemans, end of Freeman Alley off Rivington St, between Bowery and Chrystie St (212-420-0012, freemansrestaurant.com)
"The Stone performance space, where John Zorn keeps traditions alive—the new music he's made in the neighborhood since the '70s and '80s, with references to an even earlier cultural history of the neighborhood as well." The Stone, 2nd St at Ave C (thestonenyc.com)
"In the very rare moments I get to take a break, the benches outside of Russ & Daughters. It's not just that it's convenient; it's that Russ & Daughters serves as a neighborhood hub. You get to see so much city life in the shop or while sitting on the benches in front of our shop on East Houston Street."
Russ &, 179 E Houston St between Allen and Orchard Sts (212-475-4880, russanddaughters.com)
Kimmie David, collective member, Bluestockings Bookstore
"This neighborhood has outer-borough charm and Manhattan convenience. It's residential. We don't have very many tall buildings, and you'll see people hanging out in their stoops and playing in fire hydrants. That's what I grew up with. I'm a New Yorker, I'm from Queens. This was my way of moving to Manhattan but not getting homesick."
"It's funny, because most people go out on Fridays and Saturdays, but people who live in the East Village or the Lower East Side, those are the nights you stay home, because those are the nights you don't want to deal with all the bridge-and-tunnel people and underage drunk people."
"Bluestockings is definitely my number one favorite place in the neighborhood. We're the only independent feminist-minded bookstore in the city. We're volunteer-run. We're a community space. You can come see events here almost every night, and they're available on a sliding scale if you don't have any money. You can meet new people. Three out of the four collective members [who run the store] either live in the neighborhood or have lived here. And we have awesome books."
Bluestockings, 172 Allen St at Stanton St (212-777-6028, bluestockings.com)
"The Slipper Room has the nicest staff you'll ever meet, but they're renovating right now, so that makes me kind of sad. It's basically a burlesque bar. But it's been a really huge part in the New York burlesque scene, so it's a really important cultural institution—not just for bachelorette parties for people from New Jersey!"
Slipper Room 167 Orchard St at Stanton St (212-253-7246, slipperroom.com)
"I love Fine Fare on Avenue C. It's the only major supermarket in this neighborhood that sells Tang, and I'm obsessed with Tang. It's so hard to find. Either you find it in a bodega and it's the dustiest can ever that no one's touched in years. Or you go to the Fine Fare. It's the perfect summer drink. It's childhood and refreshment wrapped up in one. I've written poems about that Fine Fare."
Fine Fare, 42 Ave C at 4th St (212-614-8401, finefaresupermarkets.com)