Walking and Eating the Lower East Side with Jeff Dobbins
Some of the most memorable NYC excursions of my suburban NJ youth were our visits to the Lower East Side. Usually timed to my cousin or brother’s need for religious ceremonial items prior to a Bar Mitzvah, trips to the neighborhood meant shopping and eating exotic foods we didn’t have in my assimilated family. Although my parents were world travelers, we never explored the neighborhood from a historical context. All I knew was my grandfather grew up there, his family moved annually to take advantage of rent concessions, and I always pictured him cutting school to swim in the Hudson river with more urban versions of Spanky and Alfalfa.
When Jeff Dobbins invited me to join him on his Walks of New York Tour, I didn’t hesitate to take him up on his offer to learn more about an area I had been visiting for years, but knew nothing about. Having taken a mini version of his Broadway Behind the Scenes Tour, I knew I was in for an educational but thoroughly entertaining 3+ hours.
“Don’t make fun of my Yiddish” joked Jeff Dobbins as we awaited late members of our group at Straus Square. Considering I speak more Thai than Yiddish, it wasn’t an option, but my grandmother would have approved of Jeff’s attempt. Since there were about 12 of us, we were broken up into two groups, with another guide Jerry taking the other group including the latecomers. Our party was made up of a group of teacher friends from Long Island, and a fascinating multi-lingual, travel writer from Germany.
Note to tour participants: be on time! Yes there is traffic in NYC and the subways can be a mess, especially on weekends. Do your guide and fellow attendees a favor and leave extra time. You can always have coffee. We waited over a half hour for these late guests.
Jeff started the tour by explaining that while this neighborhood has long been a center for immigrants that had not always been the case. It was originally the farm estates of two wealthy landholders – Delancey and Rutgers – and he showed us a map of how the city street plan was formed by these farmlands. What is now Division Street was the border between the two estates.
Jeff leads us through the history of the neighborhood as it transforms from farmland into a crowded warren of wooden houses as immigrants begin to flood the city in the 1840s. First come the Irish after the famine, then in 1848 the Germans begin to arrive. Because they arrived educated, they quickly prospered and moved uptown. Eastern European Jews began arriving in the 1870s-80s; immigration increased after the 1881 pogroms in the Pale caused by the czar’s assassination. By 1914 there were 1.5 million Jews in NYC and 600,000 of them lived in this area, one of the most crowded in the world. It is said 8 out of 10 American Jews can trace their roots to this neighborhood.
Jeff uses St. Theresa’s Church to illustrate his point about the neighborhood transition. Originally an Irish congregation, now services are offered in English, Spanish and Chinese dialects.
We check out the Forward Building, which I have noticed for years but never researched. Turns out East Broadway was Jewish Newspaper Row, and the Forward was one of many influential papers that served the community and helped newcomers. Now luxury condos, ironically with the faces of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels on the facade, the building is home to a Versace heir who reportedly rents for $8000/month.
Jeff also points out that tiny Straus Square, which is basically a traffic island across from the East Broadway subway stairs, used to be the only green space in the area. Emma Goldman spoke here. The German Jews fought for a neighborhood park and the precursor to Seward Park was built nearby, including the first municipal playground.
I ask Jeff about the white ornate building on Canal Street I’ve noticed since I started visiting the area regularly. It turns out this is our next stop – the Loews Canal Theater. The neighborhood’s first movie house, it seated 2300 people and offered relief from tenement life. The facade is landmarked, thankfully. Jeff thinks it may be restored as a performing arts space. Considering the rapid pace of gentrification of this neighborhood, I wouldn’t be surprised. Jeff tells us there are great interior shots of the building on Gothamist. Check them out here. All of the founders of the early movie studios started on the Lower East Side. Coincidence? The movies they made represented the American dream. Jeff brings us around the corner to Ludlow Street and explains the theater was located there; just the facade is on Canal Street.
A major Chinese funeral is taking place on this corner, including a brass band, and we wait until the multiple cars are loaded to proceed. The Chinese funeral home was formerly the Kletzer Brothers Aid Association, which aided Jewish immigrants since there was no social safety net at the time. Once again, we can see how the neighborhood transitioned from one immigrant group to another. Whether by plan, or not, the old building facades and signage is often left to remind us of the past.
Before we continue up the street, Jeff points out the Jarmulowsky Bank, which with the Forward was the other tall building in a neighborhood of tenements. Currently under construction, a new boutique hotel is planned for the building.
Jeff informs us that Allen Street used to be darker and dingier than it is now, with an El (elevated train) running above. It served as a Red Light District with women wooing men from 2nd story windows by dropping handkerchiefs.
We check out the exterior of the home of the Chinatown Dragon Fighters, a firehouse which goes back to the 1730s. Then we pass some of the oldest tenement buildings on Ludlow Street, noticing not much has changed. They still cram as many people in as possible, but now they probably have electricity and running water. Jeff gives background on Jacob Riis and the improvements his exposes on neighborhood conditions enabled as we approach the Eldridge Street Synagogue.
As the first synagogue built for Eastern European Jews, Eldridge Street Synagogue was built to impress on a large lot with space to showcase the building and insure it didn’t resemble a tenement storefront. According to our guide, Courtney, the $90,000 to construct the building came from the 4 main founders of the Jarmulowsky Bank. The building clearly displays that it is a house of Jewish worship, with no need to hide like Jews had to do in Eastern Europe. When it opened in 1887 the congregation was large, diverse, and served the entire Eastern European Orthodox Jewish community. Now a museum most of the time, on Friday afternoon through Saturday services and high holidays it is a synagogue for the local Orthodox community. An active synagogue through the mid-60s, it was closed until a restoration project began in 1986. The building was restored to its former glory, with the addition of a spectacular, etherial, modern stained glass window by Kiki Smith.
As we walk up the narrow, worn, wooden stairs to the women’s section, I can’t help feeling what it might have been like to be a woman in the 1890s trudging up those steps with long skirts and likely uncomfortable shoes!
The storefront Buddhist temple next door is a quick stop as we make our way to the old market street corner of Orchard and Hester. This bustling crowded thoroughfare was such a menace to public safety and sanitation that finally in the 1930s steps were taken to get the pushcarts off the street and into markets.
We have our first snack stop at Prosperity Dumpling, probably NYC’s best dollar dumpling place. I’m too slow and the 4 for $1 dumplings are almost gone before I can get my camera out!
There’s a lot that would be easy to miss if we didn’t have Jeff to guide us. Ira Gershwin’s birthplace on Hester Street, or the paste art on Ludlow (which is now covered by green boards). Kehila Kedosha Janina, a small jewel of a Romaniote (Greek) Jewish synagogue.
As we pass 47 Orchard Street, Jeff makes sure we notice the Jewish stars built into the brick facade. One of the Herder Brother’s buildings, the design makes the statement that Jews are welcome here.
One of the constant themes of the tour is that not much has changed for immigrants in the area since the 1800s. Labor and housing regulations have been imposed, but are they enforced? Between the new glass apartment towers and hotels, there’s still a distinct grittiness to the neighborhood. Some of it is celebrated, like in the old signs and facades Jeff makes sure we notice as we walk along.
We make 2 more noted food stops: Kossar’s Bialys and The Pickle Man. Kossar’s is out of bialys (I blame the late people), but we luckily get to watch a young man skillfully turn out a new batch as we munch on mini pletzels. The Pickle Man is in what I’m pretty sure used to be the Gus’s Pickle position on Essex Street. But unlike Gus, the pickle man of my childhood, this one has a huge selection of pickled vegetables and fruits. The German journalist is thrilled as pickled items are popular in her culture.
Before he leaves us, Jeff updates us on the exciting Lowline project that will hopefully be fully realized in the near future. This unique underground park on the Lower East Side has been funded by a successful Kickstarter program, but since the MTA owns the property who knows if and when it will ever happen.
Walks of New York’s Lower East Side tour is packed with information but conveyed in such an interesting way, the 3+ hours pass too quickly.
For anyone interested in NYC, its early history, or the immigrant experience – especially if your family first entered the US via New York, this tour is must-do.
Lower East Side Hotels on Booking.com
Books and information about NYC’s Lower East Side:
Jacob Riis – How the Other Half Lives – documented the squalid conditions of the Lower East Side that resulted in regulations to improve quality of life
97 Orchard Street, New York: Stories of Immigrant Life
Secret New York: An Unusual Local Guide by Local People
Tour participation courtesy of Walks of New York. Opinions are my own.