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Neighbourhood Watch: Tradition Meets Fusion in Manhattan's Lower East Side

Once a landing place for immigrants, New York neighbourhood now reflects the arrival of wealth and the high-concept tastes that come with it

Long removed from its roots as a low-rent refuge for immigrants and social misfits, the Lower East has become home to shoebox-sized luxury condos, hipster bars, rowdy nightclubs and organic cafés. Between a frenzy of real estate development and a revolving door of businesses opening and closing, gentrification is sweeping this Lower Manhattan hood like never before.

Amid the flux, today’s Lower East Side delivers character along with exciting new ideas in art and food. The area’s multicultural roots are still on display, though today they’re often expressed in the form of culinary fusion and hybridization. The burgeoning art scene, anchored by the highly visible New Museum, provides food for thought. Read on for Billy’s guide to the highlights of the neighbourhood.  

First, a brief history

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Lower East Side was the ultimate melting pot for waves of hardworking immigrants from Germany, Ireland and Eastern Europe (two million of whom were Jewish immigrants). Despite miserable living conditions in the world’s most crowded district, the area had a vibrant street life that profoundly came to characterize New York. It was a neighbourhood teeming with synagogues, sweatshops, factories, butcher shops, pushcarts, cultural-political salons, live theatres and brothels. The 1950s brought an influx of immigrants from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, followed in the 1950s by a wave of newcomers from China. As of the early 21st century, the presence of housing projects kept the area’s reputation down. 

A fascinating overlap of cultures still characterizes the Lower East Side, but now it’s an experience in contrasts. It’s no longer claustrophobic tenement apartments housing aspirants to the American Dream, but small overpriced condos for the wealthy elite. Century-old tenements, Latino bodegas and discount clothing stores rub shoulders with trendy eateries, boutiques and bars.

In recent years, hotel and condo developments have pushed the Lower East Side toward a closer resemblance with the posher parts of Manhattan. Opened in 2005, The Hotel on Rivington (THOR) was one of the first swanky glass buildings to puncture the area’s low-rise skyline. Today, Bernard Tschumi’s angular blue crystalline tower stands a clunky 17 storeys high. The legendary Katz’s Delicatessen, famed for its corned beef and pastrami, is itself sandwiched between the 25-storey luxury 188 Ludlow and a construction site for an 11-storey development selling 555-square-foot condos at just under $1 million (all figures in U.S. dollars). And an upcoming offshoot of the posh private club Soho House, Ludlow House, will rise in spring 2017 on Ludlow Street. Annual memberships will cost a reported $2,000.

Old-school institutions that helped give the LES its character are being crushed by condo development. For instance, the stalls at the Essex Street Market – which have been selling housewares, food and “tchotchkes” since the 1930s – will soon be developed into a bi-level marketplace. Last year, the 90-year-old family owned Streit's matzo factory shut its doors; you can watch a lament in the form of a documentary film released in April: Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream.

Sentimental survivors 

The good news is that some nostalgic mainstays that continue to endure, and even thrive. The almost 130-year-old, family-owned Katz's Deli secured its longevity on East Houston Street (pronounced “HOUSE-ton,” not like the city in Texas) by selling its air rights and neighbouring lots for $17 million. The long-standing Lower East Side icon is New York’s oldest delicatessen, established in 1888. Beloved for its epic-sized portions of hand-cut deli beef (as well as the orgasm scene from When Harry Met Sally), New York Magazine described Katz’s as more than a deli, more of a “bustling chaos of characters and clinking plates.” Not to be outdone, The New York Times recently paid homage with a tongue-in-cheek poem entitled “Mrs Sprat’s ultimate demise at Katz’s deli,” concluding with “When it comes to the fork, there’s no place like New York.”

Courtesy Katz's Delicatessen

 

A little further up on Houston, Russ and Daughters has been serving its famed smoked fish and New York bagels for more than a century. It’s one of Anthony Bourdain’s five favourite New York spots. In 2014, the family firm introduced a much younger and hipper sibling, a nearby all-day Jewish comfort food café dishing up matzo ball soup, fish platters, scrambled eggs and lox, potato latkes with salmon roe, as well as Eastern Europe-inspired cocktails and homemade sodas. 

Meanwhile, other LES institutions are still going strong, some of them in fulfilling second lives. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum hosts guided tours of restored tenement apartments where actual working-class immigrant families lived with shockingly sparse space, ventilation and light (five families often shared an apartment meant for one). The Museum at Eldridge Street takes visitors in the footsteps of immigrants who founded the 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue.

Courtesy Julienne Schaer/NYC & Company

The Museum at Eldridge Street

The Angel Orensanz Foundation, once a neighbourhood synagogue in the Gothic Revival style, is now a lively contemporary art gallery and world-class cultural event space. The ABC No Rio – a centre for art and activism that was conceived in a union between the squatter movement and punk rock scene – is all grown-up, with a soon-pending and long awaited makeover of its home, a dilapidated former tenement. Economy Candy, New York’s oldest candy store (since 1937), continues to spill over with an over-the-top bounty of nostalgic and hard-to-find goodies. And the dark and swanky Bowery Ballroom, big in the late 1990s, rages on as one of Manhattan’s best venues for seeing local and international indie bands.

Courtesy Joe Buglewicz/NYC & Company

The Bowery Ballroom

Welcome to the fusion era 

One of the most current reflections of the Lower East Side’s diverse cultural heritage is its dense variety of authentic ethnic cuisine and creative culinary fusions. This also makes for some pretty unusual bedfellows, including Jewish-slash-Soul Food, Chinese-Italian and French-Asian. Take the Museum at Eldridge Street’s annual street fest, Egg Rolls, Egg Creams & Empanadas Festival, as an exemplary mashup of Jewish, Chinese and Latino delicacies.

The Jewish/Soul Food hideaway, Kitty’s Canteen, is known for its matzo meal-fried chicken and candied yam brisket, as well as for its live jazz, and bartenders in burlesque costumes.

Meanwhile, Long Island-based chef Ivan Orkin proves that if you can make it in Tokyo, you can make it anywhere. After opening a successful ramen shop in Tokyo, he launched his LES flagship, Ivan Ramen, now a destination for American-Japanese dishes like ramen with braised ox tongue and fried tofu with Coney Island chili sauce. 

One of New York’s few authentic Japanese-style cocktail bars, Bar Goto, brings an Asian twist to classic American cocktails (regarded as some of the city’s absolute best concoctions in general) with exotic ingredients like miso, sake, cherry blossom and Japanese marshmallows. And there’s a bar menu of savory dishes, a personal take on owner Kenta Goto’s family restaurant just outside of of Tokyo.      

Deemed by Anthony Bourdain as New York’s “most fun restaurant,” one that “doesn’t take itself too seriously,” Mission Chinese Food recently reopened and expanded with the joyfully inventive cooking of Danny Bowien, Korean-American chef and proprietor, and Angela Dimayuga, Filipino-American executive chef. Among eclectic specialties like kung pao pastrami and smoked prime rib, “Josefina’s house special chicken” is inspired by the recipe of Dimayuga’s Filipina grandmother. It’s roasted and stuffed with fresh chorizo, raisins, green olives, boiled eggs, and sweet pickles, proudly served on a ceremonial silver tray.

By contrast, Birds and Bubbles is all about a contemporary take on the bird, playfully fusing low and high culture. Its signature fried chicken (recently rated by Grub Magazine amongst “New York’s Absolute Best”) is paired with all varieties of champagne by the glass or bottle.

A few blocks away, Fung Tu’s creative European-inspired Chinese-American cuisine includes duck-stuffed medjool dates and homemade ricotta gnocchi and age-fermented bean curd. Over at Kuma Inn, chef King Phojanakong mixes the cooking of his Filipino mother and Thai father into “Asian tapas” (think spicy shrimp spiked with sake). And at the tiny neighbourhood hotspot La Contenta, Luis Arce Mota’s experiments with his Mexican roots and French training with creative interpretations of traditional dishes. Think confit chicken leg over mole-sauce risotto.

Courtesy La Contenta

The hyper trendy Dirty French likes to radically remix traditional French cuisine by incorporating flavours from former French colonial outposts like Morocco, Tunisia and Vietnam. Fresh-baked Moroccan-style flatbread is topped with French fresh cheese and Provençal herbs, lamb carpaccio is drizzled with guajillo-chile oil and yogurt, millefeuille is composed of trumpet mushroom layers and green Thai curry, and steak au poivre is pickled pastrami-style with lemongrass and kaffir lime. Servers sport limited edition 1980s Air Jordans, and sometimes sommeliers dress like Charlie’s Angels.   

The unassuming Contra, for its part, consciously rebels against Manhattan’s pretentious and overpriced tasting menus. Taking a contemporary approach to simple and seasonal cooking, young chefs Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske offering five sophisticated courses for a relatively modest $55. Example dishes include monkfish seared with genmaicha green tea, risotto baked with wheatberries, and house pigeon roasted to honey-coloured perfection. Just a few doors away, a pair of twentysomething proprietor-chefs have recently opened Wildair. With a similar down-to-earth approach, the charming bar features an all-natural list of 50 non-sulfated wines (mostly European vintage), rare liqueurs, and some of the city’s most interesting bar food.

And on the outermost fringes of the LES, behind lemon and orange trees and a sign that says “Traditional Greek Cooking” in Chinese, Kiki’s Greek Tavern brings homemade, grandma-style dishes to a no-frills hipster setting. Simple and satisfying specialties include eggplant mash with walnuts, calamari fresh off the grill, and shrimp pasta with ouzo cream.  

The arts arrive

In 2007, the New Museum opened on the Bowery. It’s a gawky seven storeys tall and dedicated entirely to contemporary art. Since then, the LES has emerged as one of the most energetic neighbourhoods for art in New York, as private galleries have migrated from venerable art districts like Chelsea to the Lower East Side and nearby Chinatown. In addition to “affordable” quality spaces, the Lower East Side offers a certain freedom from stuffy art world conventions, impressive walk-by traffic thanks to the area’s status as a lively nighttime hangout, and a tightly knit community known for going to bat for emerging artists.

Courtesy Julienne Schaer/NYC & Company

The New Museum

 

Some key from other neighbourhoods: The Upper East Side’s Galerie Perrotin is launching a huge new space on Orchard Street, and Williamsburg’s famed Pierogi Gallery has expanded beyond its Brooklyn base to open a space on Suffolk Street.

The LES is now home to more than 224 galleries, showing everyone from blue-chip artists to people having their first solo shows. For an eclectic sampling, pop into CANADA, Cuchifritos, and Reena Spaulings, alongside weird and wonderful marvels like the troll museum (a private collection of over 400 troll dolls displayed in a rent-controlled walk-up).

And since it’s the Lower East Side, another major perk of any gallery tour is wrapping up with some colourful bar hopping. You might even come full circle by visiting the speakeasy bar, Fig. 19. Much like the best of the Lower East Side, it’s an under-the-radar gem, hidden at the back of an art gallery and through an unmarked door.

Published Thursday, August 11th 2016

Header image credit: Katz's Delicatessen. Courtesy Julienne Schaer/NYC & Company

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