Saturday, May 7, 2011

Lower East Side

We set out for the Lower East Side (LES) today (Saturday), the New York District from where over 50% of all Americans can trace their ancestry. We caught the F train from W 23rd Street and 6th Ave to Delancey St station and found our way to 97 Orchard Street, the site of New York's unique Tenement Museum. Because we were there bang on opening time at 11.00am we were able to book into the two guided tours we wanted.

We joined a small group of 15 at 11.15am for the Piecing it Together tour of the tenement building. Looking South down Orchard Road towards Broome, Grand and Hester Streets, the buildings are exactly as they were in the 1900s, except that the road and the buildings would have been teeming with people, barrows, commerce, noise, filth and mayhem. Today at street level there are groovy little bars and boutiques and galleries and the people around look very hip and cool. It reminds us a lot of where we stayed in Hackney, London.

The building that is now the Tenement Museum was built in 1863 a time when there were no building codes, running water, electricity or gas and no proper ventilation (or fire escapes) and only 4 outside toilets. It's estimated that around 7000 working class immigrants would have lived and worked (in sweatshops) in this building over a period of 65 years, when it became unlivable (according to the new codes) in the 1930s. The Museum opened in 1992; 6 of the original 12 tiny, 3 room apartments (which housed families with lots of children, and their businesses) have been restored to their original condition. You can only visit this unique museum as part of a (small) guided tour.

Our guide was Adam Steinberg, an enthusiastic, articulate Education Officer at the Museum. I really admired the intelligent way he introduced us to the lives of the Levine and Rogarshevsky families, two Jewish families who lived in the building around the turn of the 20th century when the Lower East Side was the most densely populated place in the world. Both families were Jewish and both worked in the garment making industry. The Levines had their small garment factory (sweatshop) in their own apartment. The Rogarshevskies who lived in the building around twenty years after the Levines had gas power and light and running water by then and worked in a garment factory in Greenwich Village.

Adam was able to engender a lot questions from us about the immigrant experience, its impact on American social history and the values underpinning American politics and social reform today. Clever man!

But then it was time for lunch. During the tour we'd noticed the very interesting looking Congee Village at 100 Allen Street. We wouldn't normally be attracted to a Chinese restaurant, but this one had a very authentic sounding menu; the translations included: Sizzling frog casserole, Sour vegetable on Rice etc etc, and the decor, representing a "Chinese country village", was quite amazing - complete with lots of greenery and plastic bamboo and wood panelling and fairy lights etc, irresistible!

I was a bit adventurous and tried the roast duck and meat ball porridge (congee) and eggplant vegetable with bean curd. Rob wasn't at all adventurous and went for sweet and sour pork. We both agreed the food was wonderful - best we've eaten in New York.

We didn't have long to wait before our 2.00pm LES Next Steps neighbourhood walking tour, also booked through the Tenement Museum. We were lucky enough to only have 5 of us in this group: Raj, the leader (originally from NZ), one young woman who lives in Hell's Kitchen in NY and a thoughtful young man from Salt Lake City, and us. It gave us an opportunity to have very in depth discussions together as we walked around this district, with its ever changing mix of the old and the new, about the tensions between rampant capitalism and equality and opportunity, the place of pluralism in modern America and the racism that is at the heart of a lot of the immigration debate.

You only have to walk one block in this district and the socio economic and ethnic mix can change completely, from hip and happening to old time Chinatown (which is also in a constant state of change as new groups move in).

In Sarah Roosevelt Park, created after blocks of tenements were demolished in the twenties and thirties, we see a group of young American Junior League volunteers doing some refurbishments to the Tai Chi arena.

And we note how this Spanish Adventist Church has taken over an original Jewish Synagogue, and been respectful enough to keep the Star of David as the backdrop to their Christian cross.

But back at the intersection of Ludlow and Rivington Streets, just one or two blocks away, we are back to LES hipster cool. There are one or two high rises of luxury condos and boutique hotels going up around this block, in amongst the old restored tenement buildings. We talk more about that very loaded term gentrification.

We finish our walk at the Essex Street markets, which really reflect the changes in this district over the past few decades. There are artisanal boulangeries and cheese and chocolate shops as well as old fashioned Puerto Rican butchers and cheap Chinese and South American grocers, and the customers reflect all those ethnic and socio economic groups too.

Seeing we are in the area we take a passing look at the famous Katz's Deli, the location of THAT famous scene in When Harry Met Sally, back in the eighties. Surely that one claim to fame from so long ago cannot explain the number of people crowding into this old fashioned deli in such a hip and happening area.

We catch the F train at 2nd Avenue station back to 42nd Street where we want to pick up some tickets for a show on Sunday night. The life of a tourist is a tiring one so we decide to catch a trusty 1 line train back to W 23rd Street tonight rather than walk the 21 blocks.

No comments: