Monday, August 12, 2013

A Casual Stroll With History: Exploring The Neighborhoods of Greater NYC (Introduction and Manhattan's Lower East Side)


Feel free to skip this introduction if you're mostly interested in my day on the Lower East Side. Just scroll down. It's not hard.

At the height of summer heat in late July of 2013 I found myself frustrated with New York City for its lack of grace. I convinced myself that the nice parts of the city were so off limits to me and my limited resources that I shouldn't even bother visiting. My whole experience of the city became the 10 minutes I spent on the street walking from the train to my workplace in Herald Square, my time on the train itself, and the humble offerings of my own neighborhood, which are hearty but somewhat charmless if you have no one to share them with, which I didn't at the time. 

Just when I was ready to write the city off I decided to buy myself a ticket on a Friday evening after work to go see a comic by the name of Mike Birbiglia workshop some of his new material at the Cherry Lane Theater in the West Village of Manhattan. I was in a funk and his material tended to hit close to home in a comforting way. I arrived at 5:30 PM in anticipation of an 8 o' clock show because I didn't have quite enough time to get home to Queens first. So I just walked around, and I enjoyed the walking quite a bit.  The eclectic smattering of architecture is really quite remarkable.  I have an aversion to the blindingly hip crowd that stomps around down there, and I cringed at their omnipresence, but it made me wonder who used to be here, and who else before that along with the hows and whys. Before I knew it my curiosity had spiraled and I wanted these questions answered for every single neighborhood in every borough of New York City.

Some of these neighborhoods I have never seen and don't even really know where they are exactly. So the first step is just to see things, and to see them deliberately. That is where this blog comes in. I am going to go see as many neighborhoods as I can think of and then write about each one. The second step is research. I will answer the questions I have about each neighborhood and write about that as well. They need to be two steps otherwise I will never be ready to write anything. Later, I will bring the two together hopefully in a form that looks something like a book.

Without further delay, here is the account of my first excursion (I apologize for the length of this post. I know my friends and family who read this are delicate creatures with limited free time, and screen fatigue is a real thing).


Day 1: The Lower East Side (Manhattan)

Geography: Due to the ebb and flow of cultural enclaves in this area, the actual geography seems difficult to pin down, but the most recurring description I have found is that its borders are East Houston st on the North, the East River on the East, the Manhattan Bridge and Bowery on the West, and Canal street to the South.

General Background:Manhattan's Lower East Side is, from what I already understand (which isn't much), one of the most historically rich areas of the city. Immigrant populations came and went and coexisted with varying levels of harmony and conflict.  They worked the jobs that needed to be done but no one wanted to do and lived in horrible, overcrowded conditions. Unlike other neighborhoods that have had cycles of wealth, such is not the case here. Not since Mr. Delancey sold Delancey farm has there been much other than a pit of festering hope. The people who came, and they came from all over, created communities for themselves and then abandoned them when they either had enough money to move on or became ostracized by the next wave. Only within the last 10 or 15 years has gentrification started to occur. This is an extremely reductive, and possibly inaccurate explanation but I haven't actually done the annotated research yet.

My Day In The Lower East Side:
 It's important to wear leather boots with shorts when you are on any kind of adventure.

 I wanted to start my travels on the right foot, and I figured I could use a little guidance. My original plan was actually to spend the day at the Historical Society on the Upper West Side doing research and THEN decide where I wanted to go first, but this was on a Monday (one of my days off) and the Historical Society is closed on Mondays, much to my dismay. A coworker had previously recommended the Tenement Museum on Orchard St and I knew that they do historically guided walking tours of the Lower East Side itself, and that sounded perfect. I selected a tour called "Then and Now" at 12:30 PM on Monday, August 12th.

The thing about the Lower East Side is that it is not old in a beautiful way because there is no "former glory" to this neck of the woods.  It is old in kind of a "can't be bothered to make this better" kind of way. There have been waves of rebuilding and upgrades to meet safety codes, but gentrification has only recently started to kick in. The result so far is just that there are several enormous, conspicuous, beacons of modernity looming above the somewhat tatty surroundings. It borders Soho so there are sweet little boutiques and trying-to-hard cafes spilling over, but mostly it is smelly and loud and not very pleasant. I offer this information as an explanation for why I chose such a distinctly tourist-aimed approach to seeing the area. I simply was not going to be able to bring myself to spend more than an hour down here unless it was something for which I paid $20, or if it was sitting at an outdoor cafe drinking something fizzy being entirely unproductive.

I arrived at the Tenement Museum shop from which the tour would embark at around Noon.  I was immediately struck with the desire to buy several old-timey transit map posters and one or two very expensive hardcover art books. And Perhaps an umbrella decorated with a colorful map of Manhattan. And who DOESN'T need a mug listing all of the boroughs in different sized fonts?  I might have a weakness for museum gift shops. Luckily, they have a video about the history of the area running on a loop in a small theater in the back and this kept me adequately occupied until it was time to leave.

There was a lot of walking and stopping and looking and being talked at, which is how I know what little information about this area I already know. We went to Allen Street, over which an elevated train ran from the mid 1800s until around 1930-something (this timeframe could be wrong. I was not taking notes). The train was coal fueled and spouted all sorts of nasty crud onto the streets below as well as creating a dark passageway that served as an excellent incubator for unsavory activity. The result was the nations longest operating Red Light District. I can only assume that this entire street is now haunted by prostitutes who were either murdered or perished of Cholera, and this pleases me greatly.

We moved to another street where China Town vendors come to pick up and drop off a variety of goods including fake purses, glass dragons, and produce. Unsold produce, both animal and vegtable, is returned at the end of the day so that it might enchant the street with the aroma of decay. Right in the middle of this stinky ordeal there is a Greek Synagogue. We discussed how Jews from varying parts of the world all came at similar times, and were not necessarily very nice to one another. A brother-sister duo in their 60s, who were very vocal in identifying themselves as Eastern-European Jews, were a bit too quick to answer another group member's question about whether Greek Jews were more integrated in the broader Jewish community these days."Oh no. Not so much with the Greeks."

A young boy of about 10 in the group inquired about an impressive display of shoes thrown over a telephone wire. The tour guide grew flustered and muttered something about "Adult themes...grown ups can ask later if you want to know." The answer is that drugs and/or prostitutes are allegedly available on that street if you must know. I heard the boy whisper repeatedly to his mother "Now I'm curious." That boy will end up accidentally buying crack before his 18th birthday. I'm quite sure of it.

One particular building that we stopped at began its life in the late 19th century as a Protestant Mission. They built there in hopes of converting some of the Jews that were rapidly moving into the area. Finding no success, they gave up and sold the space to a Jewish congregant for use as a temple. Then the Jews started moving out of the area, so they sold it to a  Dominican 7th Day Adventist church who occupy the space to this day. The visual result is amusing. There is a large half oval that was once a stained glass window. You can still see the border, but now all that remains is one small round window containing a Star of David. The 7th Day Adventists didn't even try to renovate and just went ahead and stuck a big old cross over the Star of David window. You can still see the star clearly. 

We ended the tour at a building called Blue, which is one of the modern giants of the neighborhood. It is constructed in different shades of blue glass. Supposedly this is meant to represent the diversity of the area. I think it's just meant to make it look exclusive. Either way, apartments at Blue run in the millions. There was a lot of discussion about what this means and whether its good or bad for the surviving lower class families in the area. That debate doesn't interest me much because I don't really understand why ANYONE wants to live in that area let alone pay millions of dollars to do it.  One point of discussion was that these developers are coming in and buying the air rights from everyone else on the block in order to guarantee unobstructed views. That is why the aesthetics from the ground are so visually disturbing. I don't want to talk much more about that because A) I haven't done the research and B) I am not a real estate lawyer.  Either way, the end of the tour was a bit boring. 

After discussing Blue we went our separate ways, or at least I did. I hope I didn't get my tour guide in trouble by wandering off but I don't think I was expected to return to the shop with the group. I didn't want to face the temptation of the expensive gift store again, and furthermore the guy who sold me my ticket was a little too good looking and a a little too friendly and a little too quick to notice on my billing information that he and I live in the same neighborhood. This was probably just incidental politeness from a career in customer service, but I had recently weathered the demise of a 5+ year relationship and I was just not equipped to handle a second interaction with him.

My original plan actually was to buy a book at the gift shop, eat lunch at one of the famous establishments in the area (they abound) and do a little research and writing while I ate. After considering the price tag (both financial and emotional) on that particular plan I opted instead to go to the Housingworks Bookstore and Cafe. It's technically in Soho but well within walking distance. If you have never been, and if you enjoy books, grilled cheese, and beer I would highly recommend this location. Housingworks is a Thrift chain in New York which benefits causes supporting people living with HIV and AIDS. This particular location just has books but they also offer clothing and furniture, much of which is pretty high quality because rich New Yorkers get bored with their things even faster than the rest of us do.  I found two excellent resources, which I'm sure I will reference frequently once I have read them. I was able to sit and read in a very relaxed, bookish space, and have a local beer, a very satisfying grilled cheese, and tomato soup all for $15.  Had I not insisted on the beer it would have been even more agreeable. The two books, both of which were imposing tomes and one of which was hardcover, came in at $13 for both.

Understanding the Lower East Side is integral in understanding the development of New York City as a whole, and I intend to follow through on learning the history. The actual location, though, is not one that I am eager to return to. Unless, of course, if drinks are involved.

I apologize for carrying on at length but I'm really quite excited about this project. I'll do my best to edit the blog aspect down to the highlights and then get the longer finished product out in a more official format. On that note, If anyone knows anyone who works at a publication who is loose with stipends and might be interested in my little adventure, please let me know.



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