Chang­ing places

Di­ver­sity is de­light­ful in Manhattan’s Lower East Side

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - LILY BRETT

After liv­ing in Manhattan’s SoHo for 25 years, my hus­band and I moved to the Lower East Side. I was ner­vous … A lot of things make me ner­vous. No one would ever mis­take me for a Zen priest. Although the SoHo we left was a far cry from the SoHo we had moved into, and I had never en­vis­aged my­self liv­ing across the road from Chanel and around the cor­ner from Tiffany and Co, I dreaded moving. But we had to, and we did.

My hus­band is a friendly type who will throw his arms around some­one he has only just met. He fell in love with the Lower East Side on our first day there. I wasn’t sur­prised by how much he loved the neigh­bour­hood but what re­ally shocked me was how much I would love the neigh­bour­hood. The Lower East Side, par­tic­u­larly the lower end of the Lower East side, is one of the last mostly undis­cov­ered ar­eas of Manhattan. New York­ers who pride them­selves on know­ing ev­ery­thing about this city, and are in­trepid ex­plor­ers of new res­tau­rants, art gal­leries and ar­eas, look be­wil­dered when I talk about how much I love the Lower East Side.

New York City is the most pop­u­lous city in the US and the most cul­tur­ally di­verse. We have the largest AfricanAmer­i­can com­mu­nity in the coun­try and the largest Asian-In­dian pop­u­la­tion in the western hemi­sphere. The city is one of the most cul­tur­ally di­verse in the world. And that is part of what makes New York so spe­cial. We all mix with each other in many parts of our daily lives but on the whole we lack this di­ver­sity when it comes to where we live. This is not true on the Lower East Side, which is multicultural, multi-gen­er­a­tional and so­cio-eco­nom­i­cally di­verse. The di­ver­sity is ev­i­dent on the streets. No one rushes, people laugh in the street, walk at a nor­mal pace and talk to each other. It all feels so nor­mal. Yet it is never bor­ing. The area has a vi­brancy, a vi­tal­ity, a quirk­i­ness, a sense of calm and com­par­a­tively lit­tle traf­fic.

I love the edgy look of some of the streets. The graf­fiti, the food stalls, the un­ren­o­vated and un­var­nished old build­ings, stores and ware­houses. The edgi­ness goes along with an anti-es­tab­lish­ment air. You can see the edgi­ness in the hipsters who live in the area and in the signs. The sign on the door of Cheeky Sand­wiches, on Orchard Street, reads: “Hours: Kinda Early to Kinda Late (for now)”. Signs of change are ev­i­dent ev­ery day. A new art gallery seems to open ev­ery week, many housed in un­ortho­dox spa­ces.

Raw­son Pro­jects and Regina Rex on Madi­son Street are in the base­ment of a ten­e­ment house with its sig­na­ture ex­te­rior fire es­cape and slightly run-down fa­cade. Ramiken Cru­cible is at the end of an al­ley behind a liquor shop, on Grand Street. End­less Edi­tions, on Henry Street, which has an eclec­tic and in­ter­est­ing range of pro­jects, pub­lishes art books, con­ducts on­line work­shops and ex­hibits art in a base­ment space with doors that lift up and open di­rectly on to the foot­path. The en­trance is down a rusted, per­ilous-look­ing spi­ral stair­case. It is the stair­case of my night­mares. I can’t even look down it with­out getting ver­tigo. Luck­ily, not ev­ery­one feels that way. The gallery seems to get a lot of vis­i­tors.

The gal­leries on the Lower East Side feel part of the neigh­bour­hood and don’t have the chill of too many of the large Chelsea gal­leries. They are not re­moved from the life around but part of the life-force.

Caro­line Til­leard of the Cuevas Til­leard Pro­jects, on Henry Street, is very clear about the gallery she and her part­ner, Anne Maria Cuevas, opened in 2014. “We wanted to cre­ate a less for­mal gallery at­mos­phere and one that re­ally cham­pi­oned the young artist in a very friendly way,” she says. “The Lower East Side is where all the young gal­leries are. We didn’t want that kind of very aus­tere and in­tim­i­dat­ing Chelsea gallery. We wanted to be a place where you could come and meet the artist. We get a lot of artists com­ing in to see what their peers are do­ing. When we have a big open­ing, we al­ways have a din­ner in the gallery and in­vite young col­lec­tors or people who have talked about art with us but who haven’t yet bought any­thing and they sit and have din­ner with the artist.”

The lo­cal res­tau­rants and cafes re­flect the same sense of be­long­ing to the com­mu­nity. Many of th­ese are in­no­va­tive and highly re­garded, from the ex­pen­sive and ex­tra­or­di­nary Mis­sion Chi­nese, on Grand Street, to the mod­est and authen­tic Span­ish, El Castil­lon, on Madi­son Street, and the very cheap and small Lam Zhou, on East Broad­way. At Lam Zhou I have watched dough be­ing twisted and flung into fresh noo­dles and hun­dreds of dumplings be­ing made at a small ta­ble. It is al­ways mes­meris­ing.

My favourite restau­rant in New York is Les En­fants de Bo­heme, on Henry Street. Ste­fan Jonot, the owner, has a the­ory about spa­ces. He says that spa­ces at­tract the people they are meant to at­tract. If that is true then it ex­plains why I eat at Les En­fants de Bo­heme so reg­u­larly. The food is won­der­ful and the at­mos­phere is lo­cal, low-key and high IQ. All the staff speak sev­eral lan­guages and have other lives. Michelange is a doc­u­men­tary film­maker, a hyp­nother­a­pist and a waiter. I have heard him dis­cussing the ori­gin of the word “col­lab­o­ra­tion” and the be­lief that for artists the re­ward has to be in­her­ent in the mak­ing of the art and not in any ex­pec­ta­tion of fi­nan­cial re­ward. And I have seen him dis­traught if a cus­tomer’s favourite item is not on the menu that day.

On the Lower East Side we talk to each other about how lucky we are to be liv­ing in the area. Ray Grif­fiths, a jew­eller who has a studio on Fifth Av­enue and has lived on the Lower East Side for 14 years, tells me: “The area feels like Manhattan in the 1950s. There are fam­i­lies who have lived here for 50, 70, 100 years. I am close to the wa­ter­front. I can run up and down the East River, which I love. On a hot sum­mer’s night you can see old guys playing check­ers and cards in the park.”

The park is Se­ward Park. It oc­cu­pies more than 1ha and there is al­ways some­thing go­ing on. There are tai chi classes, chil­dren playing, people work­ing out, stu­dents study­ing, mu­si­cians prac­tis­ing.

The mix of the old and the young, the newly ar­rived and the long es­tab­lished and the mix of lan­guages spo­ken is what I love most about the area. Last week I was in my lo­cal su­per­mar­ket. I of­ten get lost in su­per­mar­kets. I have no sense of di­rec­tion but like to be help­ful. I have sent hun­dreds of tourists in the wrong di­rec­tion.

This lo­cal su­per­mar­ket is mostly staffed by Span­ish speak­ers. I asked a woman who was load­ing shelves where I could find bread. She nod­ded, ran off and re­turned with a trol­ley full of chicken parts. They were on spe­cial. “Bread?” I said. She dropped the chicken thighs she was hold­ing and grabbed some chicken breasts. I shook my head. She of­fered me chicken wings. Lots of them. By then I think I was look­ing pained. She dug fur­ther down into the cart of chicken parts and of­fered me 10 chicken legs for $3.

I walked home with my chicken legs. I passed seven enor­mous, round pack­ets of noo­dles just sit­ting on the foot­path. I was tempted to take some home. They would have been a per­fect ac­com­pa­ni­ment to the chicken legs. But the pack­ets were too big. Be­sides which I have not stolen any­thing since I was caught “shoplift­ing” when I was a year old. I stopped at a 99-cent bar­gain store and bought a copy of Learn Span­ish in Six­teen Easy Lessons.

Aus­tralian au­thor Lily Brett’s most re­cent book is Only in New York; lily­brett.com. Frida Steren­berg is a free­lance pho­tog­ra­pher; fridasteren­berg.com.

Es­sex Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, top; Les En­fants de Bo­heme, on Henry Street, above; and Raw­son Pro­jects and Regina Rex on Madi­son Street, left

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