I’ve heard it said so many times: “the United States has no history”. I’ve even head that statement from Americans themselves. Usually when they’re exploring Europe. But those who make this claim clearly haven’t given the matter much thought; and they’ve certainly not spent any time in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Visit this trendy neighbourhood today and it’s easy to miss the dense history that fills the streets of the Lower East Side. But if you know what you’re looking for (beyond delis and designer brands – thought there are plenty of those), you can travel back centuries in just a few hours.
Lower East Side History
From immigration to cultural diversity to food traditions, depression and progression, the Lower East Side history is a tale that has unfolded over centuries. In pictures and stories, here’s an introduction to the history of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
First there was farmland
It’s hard to imagine that the criss-cross of development that makes up the modern-day Lower East Side was once farm land, but until the 1840s, the area was no more than two farm estates: one owned by James Delancey, the other by Henry Rutgers.
When Delancey fled after the American Revolution, his land was seized, parcelled up and sold off. Rutger decided to follow suit selling off his own land and in doing so lay the foundations for businessmen to move into the area.
For a time, the Lower East Side became a place of prosperity where rich merchants chose to set up home…but the wealth didn’t linger for very long.
Did you know?
Brooks Brothers and Lord & Taylor both launched their first stores in the Lower East Side.
In a nod to Lower East Side history as farmland, check out Delancey, Henry and Rutgers Streets.
1840’s to 1870’s: From Ireland’s potato famine to Little Germany
Wikimedia: The Great Famine Memorial in Dublin
In the late 1800’s, some 3,000 miles away events were underway that would come to change the face of Manhattan and the Lower East Side.
As the potato famine swept through Ireland from 1845 to 1852 more than a million people fled their homes to avoid starvation. 650,000 Irish immigrants arrived in New York. Most of them ended up in the Lower East Side.
Meanwhile, circumstances were not so great in Germany either. Due to crippling economic conditions and a revolution, the 1840’s also saw an influx of Germans immigrants into New York and for a while Klienedutchland, Little Germany in the Lower East Side, was the largest enclave of German speakers outside Europe.
However, faring better than other immigrants, the German’s didn’t remain in the Lower East Side for very long. By the 1870’s most of them had left in favour of a better location north of Houston Street.
1880’s: The pogrom that lead to mass Jewish immigration
The first Jewish immigrants (23 of them) arrived in New York (New Amsterdam as it was then known) in 1654 from Brazil.
However, it was the 1880’s that saw the greatest number of Jewish people arrive in Manhattan. A pogrom (a violent riot with the intention of massacre) instigated by the Russian Empire caused nearly two million Jews to flee Eastern Europe for America.
By 1914, one and a half million Jews had arrived in New York. Around 600,000 settled in the Lower East Side.
The result: overcrowded tenements that were all but busting at the seams.
Don’t Miss: the Forward Building (pictured above) which was home to the socialist newspaper, Forvartz. The paper played a fundamental part in the lives of Jewish immigrants as it campaigned for better living conditions and educated new arrivals on the way things worked in America.
Today: These days the Forward building comprises high-end loft apartments that rent out for as much as $15,000 per month. The newspaper, meanwhile, is still published from offices in Midtown.
1880’s: Eldridge Street Synagogue
A preference to worship with people from their home village led to more than 500 synagogues and religious schools appearing in the Lower East Side where tenements and store fronts doubled as synagogues.
However, the Eldridge Street synagogue broke that trend in 1886. Purpose built by Eastern European Jews it became a place of mass worship and while the remarkable exterior is impressive enough, complete with Moorish and Romanesque features, it can’t compete with what lies inside….
From near destruction to renovation: By the 1940’s the Great Depression and dwindling immigrant quotas meant fewer congregation members and by the 1950’s the Eldridge Street synagogue was closed.
By the 1980’s there were pigeons roosting in the balconies and, according to the Eldridge Street museum founder, “it was as though the synagogue was held up by strings from Heaven.”
Thankfully the building was wonderfully restored (completed in 2007) and has won the National Trust for Historic Preservation Award.
Don’t walk on by – head inside to see the dramatic blue rose window and the fascinating history depicted in the museum. You can find more information here.
1890’s: Kletzker Brotherly Aid Society
It seemed that immigration and poverty came hand in hand in the Lower East Side, but life wasn’t without hope. The Independent Kletzker Brotherly Aid Society opened it’s doors in 1892 providing aid and assistance to Jewish immigrants who needed help with medical care and burials.
Modern Aid: Although the building has since changed use (it’s now a Chinese funeral home) the practice of giving aid is one that endures in the Lower East Side – check out the the neighbouring Tung Association which currently provides assistance to Chinese immigrants.
The early 1900’s: Tenements
Tenement buildings are one of the most identifiable aspects of the Lower East Side and as pretty and photogenic as they may look from the exterior, under the light of the 21st century, the tenements made for some of the worst living conditions in the whole of New York (and, indeed, America).
Flawed from the get-go, tenements were designed with the landlord’s profits in mind – maximum bodies in minimum space with no facilities (heating, plumbing, ventilation). It’s horrific to think that there were 80,000 tenements in New York and two-thirds of the city’s inhabitants lived in them.
Rent was high meaning 10 to 15 people commonly lived in each apartment and these cramped, unsanitary and often too hot/too cold conditions unsurprisingly led to disease: cholera and tuberculosis were particularly prevalent.
These conditions persisted for decades but after reading a report about the squalor in which so many people were living, New York’s Governor finally came to the aid of the tenants, imposing rules to improve living standards.
If you’re interested in the name of that Governor, it was Theodore Roosevelt.
You can get a glimpse of life inside a tenement by visiting the Tenement Museum.
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The early 1900’s: Garment District
New York has long been home to a prosperous garment district. By 1872 Ridley’s (the pink building above) claimed to be the country’s largest retail store and by 1900 almost a million New Yorkers worked in the garment industry… which was situated in the Lower East Side.
As history has already shown, life in the Lower East Side was far from pleasant at the turn of the 20th century when workers grafted away in sweatshops for up to 15 hours a day for just a few cents per hour. Of course, women were paid less. Worse: it’s thought around 60,000 children worked in the garment trade.
Eventually, the poor work conditions took their toll and strikes started, the most famous of which was the Great Revolt of 1909. For five weeks workers took to the streets risking threats and beatings. Sadly, the strike was unsuccessful.
It wasn’t until two years later that things changed when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire. The factory doors were locked at the time and 146 workers died as a result – many workers jumped out of the upper floor windows to escape the flames but died nevertheless.
The fire marked a turning point in the garment industry (at least on the legislation books) and the American Labour Movement, which started in the Lower East Side, eventually managed to secure better hours and conditions for workers.
1910’s: Jarmoulowsky’s Bank
As day-to-day life marched on, so did the needs of immigrants in the Lower East Side and by 1911 Jarmoulowsy’s private bank (established in 1873) had become so successful that it moved into this purpose-built demonstration of Beaux-Art architecture.
And the bank today? The bank subsequently folded during World War I under the scandal of financial mishandling.
As gentrification would have it, the building has been ear-marked for conversion into a boutique hotel (though the developers are taking their own sweet time about finishing the project).
1920’s: From Loew’s Canal to Hollwood
Loew’s Canal Street Movie Palace opened in 1927 to lighten the otherwise hard lives of the people who lived in the tenements. (Even with rule changes to improve living and work conditions, life was still no picnic for the residents of the Lower East Side).
The movie palace was able to fit 2,300 people and although it closed in the 1960’s (it’s now an electric store), the fascia of the building is a registered landmark.
Hollywood endings: Arts and theatre has an impressive track record that leaves a trail from New York all the way to Hollywood: the founders of Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Pictures and 20th Century Fox all came from the Lower East Side. And, Marcus Loew, who built the theatre, co-founded MGM studios.
1920’s: Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue
The Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue, built in 1927, was the last synagogue to be built in a tenement building on the Lower East Side.
Similar to the Eldridge Street Synagogue, congregation members have decreased rapidly as Jewish residents have moved en mass out of the Lower East Side (more on that below).
Did you know? Chinatown Dragon Fighters
The Lower East Side is also home to New York Fire Department’s oldest company, “Chinatown Dragon Fighters”, which started life as a volunteer service. The Chinatown Dragon Fighters were some of the first to arrive on the scene on 11 September 2001. Several of their firefighters died that day.
1930’s: Slum Clearance
In the 1930’s Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia started a slum clearance project that tore down many tenements in the area and replaced them with new public, affordable housing. However, Jewish residents had already started to migrate out of the area in the hope of better lives in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
Today only 10% of the Lower East Side’s residents are Jewish.
Williamsburg Bridge: The opening of the Williamsburg Bridge, Manhattan Bridge and the subway made mass migration possible and the number of Jewish people leaving the Lower East Side was so huge that the Williamsburg Bridge was dubbed the “Jew’s Highway”.
Today: there is an abandoned subway station that runs three blocks under Delancey Street, which has been in disuse since the 1930’s. There are hopes that this underground area will be turned into the Lowline – a subterranean space for people to enjoy while being surrounded by an abundance of plants and trees.
1950’s – 1990’s: The Beatnik’s, Hippies, Punks and Chinese immigration
The 1950’s marked a further period of change in the Lower East Side as the Beatnik’s moved in. They were subsequently followed by the Hippies and the Punks creating a new East Village where poverty and creativity lived side by side.
Meanwhile, in 1965, immigration quotas were abolished and a fresh wave of immigration began – this time from China. Although many rules had been put in place to enhance living conditions in New York, the harsh reality for many new immigrants was cramped housing and long work hours for low pay in garment factories. History, it would appear, was intent on repeating itself.
Today, around 50% of the Lower East Side is made up of Chinese residents.
Did you know? Lower East Side’s Food Heritage
The Lower East Side history of immigration is mirrored in the food that can be found in the neighbourhood.
Kossar’s Bialys is the oldest bialy bakery in the U.S.A. and all of its bialys are ‘Pas Yisroel’ i.e. made under the supervision of a rabbi.
What’s a bialy?
Bialys are a traditional Polish street food that many people liken to bagels but don’t be fooled. Although starting with the same dough, a bialy is baked (bagels are boiled then baked) and instead of a whole in the centre bialys have a small depression that is filled with onions or poppy seeds. Overall, the texture of a bialy is lighter and more moist (thanks in part to the onions) and, if you ask me, a whole heap tastier.
You can find out more about bialys (and get hold of a recipe) on Food Republic.
Pickles are another popular Eastern European food and once upon a time there were around 80 different pickle stands in the Lower East Side. These days, Pickle Guys is the only remaining place selling pickled fruits and vegetables in the neighbourhood but their selection of pickled items is wide enough that you’re likely to pick up a few pots’ worth of goodies.
But it’s not just Jewish food that you’ll find in the Lower East Side.
With the latest wave of immigration coming from China, it’s no surprise (or disappointment) that excellent Chinese food has also appeared in the neighbourhood. It may be a squash but cramming into Prosperity Dumpling to place your order is well worth it. Note: you’ll probably have to eat your dumplings outside because there is little to no standing space inside.
And then there’s Katz Deli.
Most visitors to New York will have heard of Katz Deli (regardless of what they know about the Lower East Side history) because Katz is listed in nearly every guide-book. Between the tourists and the locals, this famous deli regularly has queues snaking around the corner, but it’s still worth a visit. And on the plus side the long wait means you’ll have plenty of time to decide on your order.
199o’s: Gentrification and the Lower East Side’s ‘trendy’ side
It wasn’t until the 1990’s that gentrification began in earnest. New York University (NYU) started to buy properties in the Lower East Side and artists took a liking to the new, improved area (today, there are 100 galleries in the neighbourhood).
Since the 1990’s, gentrification has only gathered pace and change is happening so swiftly that the National Trust for Historic Preservation has put the Lower East Side on their list of American’s Most Endangered Places.
Development continues at 21st century speed, but immigration hasn’t stopped either so a visit to the Lower East Side can be an eclectic one. Whether you have lunch at Teany, a restaurant owned by the musician Moby, take a trip to the Tenement Museum or simply wander through the streets watching Chinese, Jewish and other nationalities coincide, exploring the Lower East Side is going to prove one of the most fascinating parts of any visit to New York.
It will also prove the naysayers wrong; America is not devoid of history. Far from it.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the Lower East Side, as well as sampling a few of the local foods, you can take a tour of the area. Click here for reviews, details and prices.
Planning the perfect trip to New York
Where to stay
On a budget: HI NYC Hostel. Hostelling International hostels are as reliable as they come. As well as a great location and all the usual facilities, there’s a great list of social activities to get you involved. Perfect if you’re travelling solo. (If you’re looking for an up and coming area, check out the Local NYC, a design hostel in Queens.
Want a central location: you can’t get a more central spot that the New York Marriott Marquis. Don’t miss the revolving roof top cocktail bar and restaurant. You’ll find a list of alternative hotels in New York here.
Want to take a gamble? Check out Priceline’s Express Deals. I’ve had discounts over 50% (almost $100 saved a night) using this site.
You can find out more about how to get great deals in my related article: How to Book Cheap Hotels (Using Priceline Express Deals).
Flying to New York
I’m primarily motivated by price when I fly from the UK to New York. I’ve happily flown with Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and on my next trip I’ll be checking out budget airline, Norwegian. If you can stomach a stopover in Iceland, Wow Air have some pretty unbeatable offers on right now too.
If you want to compare flight prices, I still find Skyscanner to be the best place to start. Whatever you do, don’t book before you check out my two money-saving articles, particularly the second one:
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Have you been to the Lower East Side? Did you discover the history or did you explore the more modern exhibits? Let me know about your experience in the comments below.
My tour of the Lower East Side was courtesy of Walks of New York.