New York Icons: Lower East Side
Bowery to Williamsburg.
Originally Lenape tribal lands, then Dutch farms (or “bouwerij”) surrounded by “half-free” African enclaves — a buffer between the Dutch and Native Americans.
Immigration of Germans in the late 19th century was followed by Italians and Eastern Europeans — popular due to the close proximity to the city’s garment factories. The second-largest Jewish population outside of Tel Aviv, with a Yiddish Theatre District (“Jewish Rialto” or the “Yiddish Realto” with as many as 30 shows per night, declined following WWII) and iconic pushcarts. Historically LES was bounded by 14th Street, East River and First Avenue (current Alphabet City).
Tenements were narrow buildings divided into cramped living spaces full of newly-arrived immigrant families and by the turn of the 20th century, nearly 2.3 million people lived in tenement houses. Some bars were nicknamed “shock houses” because patrons would “get a shock, walk a block, and fall into the gutter” with notable examples such as Doctor’s (seventh drink free, sleeping benches), Billy Goat (two drink special between 5–5:30am) and the (aptly named) Dump. Liquor was frequently mixed with benzene, camphor and cocaine.
In 1917, food riots spread from Brooklyn with hundreds of housewives attacking policemen demanding “food for our children!” Slum conditions led to reform after Jacob Riis’ book How the Other Half Lives. In 2014, the 100 Gates Project set out to connect local businesses with artists and did so by creating a partnership where artists were allowed to create murals on the roll-down security gates of 100 storefronts. In 2016, the project celebrated its 100th mural on the gate of the iconic Katz’s Delicatessen.
Notable residents include the Marx Brothers, George Burns, James Cagney, George and Ira Gershwin, Jimmy Durante, Lady Gaga, Rabbi Moses Feinstein, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jack Kirby (Marvel comics) and Walter Matthau. Featured in the films The Basketball Diaries, Once Upon a Time in America, The Godfather Part II and When Harry Met Sally. Referenced in songs by Lady Gaga, Blondie, Santigold, Childish Gambino, Fun Lovin’ Criminals, Rihanna, Drake, and Madonna.
*Note: Asterisk indicates I need to visit
Bowery. New York’s oldest street upon an existing trail, beneath an elevated train line for three decades, and described by Theodore Roosevelt as: The Bowery is one of the great highways of humanity, a highway of seething life, of varied interest, of fun, of work, of sordid and terrible tragedy; and it is haunted by demons as evil as any that stalk through the pages of the “Inferno.”
Cherry St. №29–29½ was the oldest known house in Manhattan (constructed 1760 and reportedly housed George Washington officers during the Revolution) before being demolished in 1936. Cnr. Catherine St was the first Brooks Brothers store — the oldest American clothing retailer (established 1818, renamed 1850) — which introduced the “ready-to-wear” suit and outfitted 39 of 44 presidents.
Eldridge St. №60 was the birthplace of Ira Gershwin.
Henry St. №39 features grand tenement doorways.
Orchard St. Named after James Delancey’s orchard.
Rivington St. №126 was Schapiro’s Wine Company for almost a century (sold in 2000) that created the Kosher wine business — with grapes pressed in a block-long network of cellars below the street (ceased in 1967) and granted a sacramental wine exception during Prohibition.
Grand St. №404 in 1901 was the site of the first national convention of the Workingmen’s Circle — a Jewish socialist fraternal order. The Grand Street Ferry ran from the East River to its namesake street in Brooklyn. The Grand Street Ferry Railroad was a horse-drawn streetcar running between 42nd Street. The IRT Third Avenue Line (Third Avenue El) was an independently run elevated railway with the Grand Steet line being the last (1955) to operate in Manhattan (below 122nd St) and frequently used in movie backdrops.
Corlears Hook (1643)
Easternmost point (before landfill, near the current Corlears Hook Park) along the East River notorious for thieves and prostitutes and where the term “hookers” originated during the 19th century (a recorded 87 brothels in 1939). In 1643, thirty Native Americans were killed by colony men. In 1832, the site of a cholera hospital where 93 people died. In 1833, the location of some of the first tenements.
Bialystoker Synagogue* (1826)
Originally the Willett Street Methodist Episcopal Church (before purchased by the synagogue in 1905), it is the oldest operating Orthodox synagogue in the city and one of four early 19th century religious buildings in Lower Manhattan. Named after the founding immigrants from Białystok, Poland.
An Underground Railroad rest stop can be found in the attic accessed through a hidden door in the women’s gallery. The elaborate Torah Ark is believed to have been carved in Bialystok and shipped to New York. Restored in 1988.
Henry Street Settlement (1827, founded 1893)
Non-profit social services founded in 1893 as the Nurses’ Settlement, and still located in the original federal row houses. Includes the Harry De Jur Playhouse and Abrons Arts Center.
Welfare innovations include one of the city’s first off-street playgrounds (1902), the first public school nurse (1902), starting the Visiting Nurse Service, one of the nation’s first mental health clinics (1946), one of the first transitional housing facilities for the homeless (1972), the first Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (1994), and the city’s first Safe Haven shelter for homeless women (2007).
Harry De Jur Playhouse* (1915)
Originally the Neighborhood Playhouse, it was one of the first “Little Theatres” (350 seats) offering classical drama and served as the foundation for modern American dramatic theater. In 1927, the Henry Street Music School began operation. Early film projections resulted in many innovations such as fireproof curtains and heat-sensitive skylights.
Hosted the works of Eugene O’Neill, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, and Orson Welles (premier of the opera The Second Hurricane). Performances by Ethel Barrymore, James Cagney, George Burns, Fred Astaire, Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Dizzy Gillespie, and Buddy Rich. Aline Bernstein (MET Costume Institute founder) began her career in costumes here — and her eight-year affair with novelist Thomas Wolfe on a couch backstage!
Abrons Arts Center* (1975)
One of the first low-income arts facilities in the nation. The opening was attended by First Lady Betty Ford and the city mayor.
St. Augustine’s* (1828)
Originally the All Saints’ Free Church (“free” referring to no rental for pew seating). Houses the last surviving slave worshiping galleries high up the back of the church accessed by a cramped stairway — even though the church was built a full year after emancipation!
St. Mary Church* (1833)
The Church of St. Mary is the third-oldest Catholic parish in New York, with the original portion the second-oldest after St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral.
In 1831, anti-Catholics set fire to the church, but it was not completely destroyed and continued to operate. In 1871, red brick facade added.
Congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagadol (1850)
Until 1885 the Norfolk Street Baptist Church, then the first Eastern European congregation founded in city and the oldest Russian Jewish Orthodox congregation in the US. Translating to “House of Study” in Yiddish, it closed in 2007 and was largely destroyed by a suspicious fire in 2017.
Angel Orensanz Center* (1850)
The oldest synagogue in the city, largest in the US on completion, and fourth-oldest in the US. Formerly the Anshe Chesed Synagogue, Norfolk Street Congregation, and Anshe Slonim Synagogue. The interior is meant to resemble the cathedral of Notre-Dame and the sanctuary the Sistine Chapel. Currently home to the Shul of New York.
Abandoned in 1974, Spanish sculptor and painter Angel Orensanz purchased the property in 1986 before restoring and converted it into an art gallery and performance space. In 1997, Sarah Jessica Parker was married Matthew Broderick. In 2003, Avril Lavigne recorded her music video Losing Grip. In 2010, Taking Back Sunday recorded the album Live from Orensanz. In 2011, a live recording of MTV Unplugged by Florence + The Machine. In 2015, three performances of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. In 2015, featured in an episode of Jessica Jones. Notable performers in the space include Elie Wiesel (Nobel Prize), Philip Glass, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey.
Jodamo Building (1850)
Former retail store of E. Ridley & Sons — said to be the country’s largest retail store. One of the first stores to send out a catalogue, it closed in 1901 and in 1964 a letter was delivered to this address complaining that the Ridley’s catalog had not been delivered “for some time!” One side removed in 1932 to widen Allen Street.
Edward Ridley’s son continued to operate from a tiny office 40-foot under the building and in 1931 his assistant was found shot dead. Two years later in the same room Ridley Jr. was beaten to death and his new assistant (who was secretly married, stole $200,000 and ran a bootlegging operation from a nearby garage) also shot dead — with the same gun! One of the great unsolved crimes of the Lower East Side.
Congregation Chasam Sopher* (1853)
One of the oldest synagogue buildings in the US, the second-oldest synagogue building in the city, and the oldest still in use. A 2006 renovation installed new stained-glass windows and exposed the original wood.
Tenement Museum (1863)
Two historical tenement buildings and home to an estimated 15,000 people from over twenty nations. Originally 22 apartments and a basement saloon, the site was modified several times (fire escape, natural light, indoor plumbing, ventilation, gas, electricity) to conform with evolving housing laws. Rather than modify the building further, in 1935 the landlord evicted residents, sealed the upper floors leaving only the street-level storefronts open.
Rediscovered in the 1980s virtually untouched, the Tenement Museum was founded in 1988 and features tours of restored apartments and shops. In spite of the restoration, some parts of the upper floors are unstable and remain closed.
Eldridge Street Synagogue* (1887)
The first major synagogue in the city by Eastern Europeans and one of only two synagogues designated a city landmark. On opening, police were present for possible riot control. Notable Rabbis include the head Rabbi of St. Petersburg and famed Rabbi Abraham Aharon Yudelovich .
Features a large rose window with twelve rosettes representing each tribe of Israel above five windows symbolizing each book of the Torah. Many details such as marble, columns, doors and curtains are faux (i.e. painted). Sacred areas use fine walnut, pews of oak, and floors of pine. The main chandelier is upside-down (as the original gas lights faced upwards). One of the arches supporting the dome has a heart instead of a spade and a vintage toilet in the back of the sanctuary is housed by wooden walls.
Abandoned and decrepit for decades before rediscovery in the 1970s. While the original building took just ten months to build, the restoration took twenty years — with a basement dug out by hand! A section of wall on the left balcony was deliberately left bare to showcase its construction (horsehair used to bind the plaster is visible). In 2007, reopened as the Museum at Eldridge Street — which offers tours and occasional religious events. In 2010, the original stained glass window was replaced and is comprised of 1,200 individually shaped pieces etched with over 650 stars.
Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center* (1897)
Former P.S. 160 school that sat abandoned for almost a decade after a fire in the 1970s. Became a squat house before transforming into a community center for Spanish-speaking immigrants; and since 1993 a Latino community center. Used to host the Wiccan Family Temple Academy of Pagan Studies — the city’s first mystic school. Apparently one of the most haunted places in the city.
The Rumor Mills* (late 1800s)
“The Theater” is one of the last grand recording spaces left in the US — at 10,000-square-feet with 50-foot ceilings, lavish decoration (velvet, candles, cast-iron fish tank), several recording rooms, and one of the largest and rarest collections of vintage recording equipment/instruments in the world. Home to a 100-foot redwood tree thought to be the tallest in Manhattan.
Formerly the Clinton Star Theater (1914 to 1950) — one of the oldest Vaudeville theaters in the city that hosted Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx. Operated by producer J. Ralph, it also doubles as a super-exclusive night club accessible by invite only through an apartment building at 80 Clinton.
Rivington Street Public Baths* (1901)
The first public bathhouse in the city featuring indoor and outdoor pools, 67 showers, and 5 baths. In 1906, long lines in summer nearly caused a riot. In 1975, the building was closed and cemented in. Today it sits behind the Baruch Housing Projects.
Bathhouses were a 19th century hygiene response to the “Great Unwashed” where bathing for adults was hard to come by (the city originally created 20 floating baths in the Hudson and East rivers, but the water was too polluted).
Williamsburg Bridge (1903)
The longest suspension bridge in the world upon completion and one of two (the other being Manhattan Bridge) suspension bridges in the city to carry both car and rail traffic. When construction began, New York and Brooklyn were separate cities. The design said to have been inspired by the Eiffel Tower, who the architect worked with; neither were initially well-received. The most graffiti-heavy bridge in the city.
Each tower was originally planned to have a 140-foot decorative spire, and the four (now closed) restrooms were designed by the famous architect responsible for the tiled arches of Grand Central. Nicknamed “Jew’s Highway” following the mass migration of Jewish immigrants from the tenements to Williamsburg. Signs on the westbound approach read “Leaving Brooklyn: Oy Vey!” and “Leaving Brooklyn, Fuhgeddaboudit!”
The only city bridge not to be galvanized (cost cutting), leading to rapid degradation. In 1988, the structural integrity was rated at 22% and the main cables were estimated to only hold until 1995. Rebuilt through much of the 1990s and 2000s, a decrepit walkway was reopened as a bike path and is now the most heavily bicycled span in America!
In 1902, a fire nearly severed bridge cables. By 1908, all five ferry routes between Williamsburg and Lower East Side were out of business (the Grand St ferry is set for revival). Until 1948, trolleys ran across the bridge to an underground terminal on Essex Street — which is abandoned and slated to become The Lowline. In 2001, following 9/11 the bridge was closed for a week to all civilian traffic. In 2003, centenary celebrations included a truck-sized birthday cake (made by Domino Sugar, whose factory was on the Brooklyn side) and the marching of the 45-star American flag used in a game of “capture the flag” between workers after the placement of the final cable.
Featured in the 1928 Edward Hopper painting (From Williamsburg Bridge), 1962 Sonny Rollins album (The Bridge, he practiced on the bridge daily for years) and the 1996 public art piece by Chris Doyle (Commutable). Appeared in movies such as The Amazing Spider-Man, American Gangster, The French Connection, Johnny Suede, Live and Let Die, The Naked Brothers Band: The Movie, The Naked City, Once Upon a Time in America, Scent of a Woman, Serpico, and The Siege. Referenced in the novels The Alienist, City of Bones,The Last Olympian, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
Seward Park (1903)
The first municipal playground in America to featured cinder surfacing, fences, a recreation pavilion, children’s play and gymnastic equipment, and a large running track. In the 1940s, the Schiff Fountain was installed from a nearby park. Underwent restoration in 1999.
Church of Grace to Fujianese* (1905)
The Allen Street Bath was the last public bathhouses to close (one still operates) in 1975 before being auctioned off to the Chinese congregation in 1992. The building facade still features seahorse and seashell iconography.
Yonah Shimmel’s Knish Bakery (1910)
Established in 1890 as a pushcart and with a first location on Houston Street. Remains family-owned and still uses the original recipe. In 1995, the then-owner was implicated in loan-sharking. Knishes can be purchased online and shipped overnight anywhere in the US. Features in the film Whatever Works.
Katz’s Delicatessen (1910)
Kosher-style deli known for its pastrami on rye and orgasm scene (re-enacted by patrons at least once a week) in the film When Harry Meets Sally. Founded by the Iceland Brothers in 1888 and taken over by the Katz brothers in 1910, subway construction forced a move across the street. Customer receive a ticket that servers mark and bills are paid on exit (to avoid scams a $50 lost ticket fee applies).
The Katz’s tradition of sending food to their sons in the armed forces became the company slogan “send a salami to your boy in the army.” Another of the deli’s catch phrases came about when the sign maker was told to paint “Katz’s, that’s all” — which was interpreted literally. In 2013, celebrated their 125th anniversary with a pop-up gallery next door (artists included Baron Von Fancy). Longtime tradition of franks and beans on Fridays.
Featured in the films When Harry met Sally, Donnie Brasco, Across the Universe, Enchanted, We Own the Night, Sidewalks of New York, Deli Man, Looking for Kitty, and Contract on Cherry Street. Also seen in the television shows The Jim Gaffigan Show, Law & Order, Impractical Jokers and Man v. Food.
Forward Building (1912)
Home to the first Jewish-language newspaper, The Forward. Refurbished in 2006 and converted into luxury condos.
Stanton Street Synagogue* (1913)
Another one of the few “tenement synagogues.” Instead of pews, congregants sit in wood and cast-iron school desk-chairs produced in the early 1900s and the wall around the Ark is decorated with folk art paintings of the Tower of David and Rachel’s Tomb.
In 2001, congregants took the owner to a rabbinical court and the Supreme Court in order to prevent a sale. Since 2004, hosts an annual sidewalk chalking (writing victim’s names in front of their former homes) memorializing the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. In 2012, the majority of members were under the age of 35. From 2008 to 2014, the resident Rabbi applied his computer programming background to post the synagogue on Foursquare, Twitter and a personal blog called Yutopia.
Russ & Daughters (1920)
Established in 1914 as J. Russ International Appetizers (around the corner) and entirely family-operated. In 2013, it became the first restaurant to receive a Jewish Cultural Achievement Award. In 2013, published the book Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House That Herring Built. In 2014, opened a second restaurant on Orchard St. In 2016, opened a cafe at the Jewish Museum.
Featured in the films The Jews of New York, The Sturgeon Queens (after the affectionate nickname for their daughters) and television shows The Martha Stewart Show and Louie — coincidentally both now tarnished.
University Settlement House* (1920)
Founded in 1886 as The Neighborhood Guild — a settlement house comprised of recent college graduates that included many social reform writers such as Ernest Poole (Pulitzer Prize). Hailed by FDR as “a landmark in the social history of the nation.”
The Back Room (1920s)
One of only two speakeasies in the city that operated during Prohibition, when it was a secret room (through a rotating bookcase) at the back of Ratner’s kosher restaurant. Played host to theatre and movie actors of the “Roaring Twenties,” famous Jewish gangsters (Bugsy Siegel, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky) — and more recently Pearl Jam, Martha Stewart, Paul McCartney, Julian Lennon, Robert Plant, and Adele.
Features a fake sign (“Lower East Side Toy Company” although the original speakeasy had no signage), the original hidden entrance, cocktails served in teacups (as was common during Prohibition), multiple exists to various streets (the VIP room has four), and period decor — although original speakeasy’s were quite plain due to constant turnover. Featured in Boardwalk Empire.
Kehila Kedosha Janina* (1927)
The only remaining Romaniote Jewish (derived from ancient Greece) synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. The second floor women’s gallery contains a museum with artifacts, exhibits and a gift shop. Exhibited items are also displayed along the walls and behind the seats. Featured in the documentary film The Last Greeks on Broome Street.
Seward Park Campus (1929)
Located on the site of Seward Park High School, which was in turn built on the site of a courthouse and the Ludlow Street Jail — home to “Boss” Tweed and the first woman to run for President (although she wouldn’t have been able to vote!) for publishing details of an affair. Currently houses five different small schools.
Notable alumni include Julius Axelrod (Nobel Prize), Lou Bernstein, Sammy Cahn, Tony Curtis, Estelle Getty (Golden Girls), Thomas Sanders (basketball HOF), Julius Rosenberg (executed spy), Jerry Stiller and Walter Matthau.
Cooperative Village (1930)
Community of four cooperatives (Amalgamated Dwellings, Hillman HC, East River HC, Seward Park HC) containing 4,500 apartments over twelve buildings. Constructed by trade unions with members holding shares to apartments.
Amalgamated Dwellings (1930)
The second cooperative sponsored by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the second-oldest housing cooperative in the US (after the Bronx). Spanning an entire city block complete with center garden, library, auditorium, nursery and gym.
Hillman Housing Corporation (1950)
The third cooperative sponsored by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and named after its founder and first president. Sixty-five tenement buildings were torn down to clear the site. Each of the three buildings named after a cooperative or labor leader. Site of the most violent anti-Semitic riot in US history (with 300 injured). Building served as the exterior of the Lacuna company in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
East River Housing Corporation (1956)
One of the first United Housing Foundation buildings with 1,672 apartments in four buildings (each named after a labor leader). The tallest reinforced concrete buildings in the US upon completion.
Seward Park Housing Corporation (1959)
Twelve semi-attached towers. In 1999, the parking garage collapsed. Mural in the lobby by Hugo Gellert depicting Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Einstein.
Sara D. Roosevelt Park (1934)
Named after FDR’s mother (despite her written objection) and built on land initially reserved for street widening and for low-cost housing. M’Finda Kalunga Garden in memory of the city’s second (1794 to 1853) African burial ground, which was located nearby. Also demolished was the Grand Theatre (1904 to 1930), the first dedicated Yiddish theatre in the city.
Contains a basketball court, roller skating rink, soccer field and the “Garden of Eden” — a community garden created by local activist and environmentalist Adam Purple. Restrooms closed in 1994. Home to the New York City Bike Polo Club and the first “Lower East Side Reunion” in 2013.
Kossar’s Bialys (1960, founded 1936)
Formerly Mirsky and Kossar’s Bakery, Kossar’s Bialystoker Kuchen Bakery, Kossar’s Hot Bialys, and eventually just Kossar’s. The oldest Jewish bakery in the LES and only remaining Bialy bakery in the US (overtaken in popularity by bagels). Bialy stands for Bialystoker Kuchen, which is Yiddish for the “little bread from Bialystok” (Poland).
Former Clinton Street store was blown up in a mysterious explosion. Sold the business in 1998 and a 2015 renovation expanded the menu — although the bialys are made with the original recipe.
Manny Cantor Center* (1980)
Flagship headquarters and original site for the Educational Alliance, serving the Lower East Side since 1889 as a settlement house for Jewish immigrants. Art school, rooftop garden, theatre and social services. Renovated in 2011.
Paul Taylor Dance Company (2011, founded 1957)
Contemporary dance company by the famous dancer and composer, located on the site of the former 1940s Ralph Lippman Auditorium. The dance company has traveled the globe multiple times and performed in more than 540 cities and in sixty-four countries. Relocated from SoHo in 2011.
Formerly another speakeasy — Milk & Honey — Sasha Petraske’s legendary cocktail bar which operated there for 13 years and was inspired by Angel’s Share. It built a drinks program from out-of-print cocktail books, had no menu, and reservations only via an unlisted phone number (all novel concepts at the time).
- Altman Luggage (1920). Consolidated in the 1970s with Bettinger’s Luggage Shop (founded 1914). Regular shoppers included Fred Gwynne and James Gandolfini.
- A.W. Kaufman (1924). Third-generation European lingerie shop with most stock kept in stacked boxes.
- Cohen’s Fashion Optical (1932). Longtime competitor of Hyman Moscot, Jack Cohen also started with a pushcart on Orchard Street in 1927. First store across the road from Moscot, now the flagship for over 100 locations.
- Ideal Hosiery (1950s). Family-run and normally hosts neighborhood Jews during prayer. Boxes piled to the ceiling.
- Moishes Bakery (1972).
- Famous Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse (1975). Restaurant won in a poker game! The name comes from a sign that was already there from the previous restaurant (circa 1939) — nobody is Sammy or Romanian. Regular singing and dancing.
- Harris Levy Fine Linens since 1894 (1963, founded 1894). Founded in 1894 as a pushcart and in 1963 expanded into a former 1800s premier catering hall (one of three) named Pearl’s Mansion.
- The Slipper Room (1999). Burlesque and other performance artists. In 2001, fined and closed on two occasions for breaching the cabaret law — passed during Prohibition in which it was illegal for acts or patrons to dance without permission! Hung a “no dancing” sign then formed a coalition that changed the city’s law in 2018. Performers include Lady Gaga, Leonard Cohen, Scissor Sisters and U2.
- Moscot Eyewear (2013, founded 1915). Started as a pushcart and operating a store on Orchard Street from 1936 until 2013 (relocated across the street). Fifth-generation family with an in-house band called the Moscot All-Stars.
- Mercury Lounge (1993). Former servant’s residence to the Astor Mansion (connected to it by an underground labyrinth of tunnels), restaurant, tombstone retailer and current rock club. In 2000, The Strokes got their start here — and the Lounge’s booker quit to become the band’s manager!
- Zarin Fabrics (1999, founded 1936). Last of the fabric warehouses of the LES. To advertise the new location after a fire in 1987, drove around with a bullhorn announcing “Come visit Harry Zarin Company’s new fabric warehouse — and don’t forget to vote!”
- Sunshine Cinema (2001). Former site of the 600-seat Sunshine Theatre (1917, renamed Chopin Theatre in the 1930s) and operated as an indie cinema by Landmark until its close in 2018.
- Daredevil Tattoo (2013, established 1997). Seven blocks from the original location, features tattoo memorabilia — including artwork by the man who patented the first electric tattoo machine. Clients include Boy George, Emma Roberts and Kelly Osbourne.