Diversity is delightful in Manhattan’s Lower East Side
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