I’ve never been to a city where there are such different neighbourhoods in close proximity like in New York. Each one offers something different. Obviously as a tourist in New York, the focus is on the tourist attractions in Midtown (see my 2 day New York itinerary here).
But if you have longer in the city, it’s great to explore some of what the other neighbourhoods have to offer too. I was lucky enough to have an extended stay in New York, and one of the areas I really, really liked was the Lower East Side.
This is the neighbourhood right in the south east corner of Manhattan island, and it runs roughly from between the Bowery and the East River -from Canal to Houston (pronounced House-ton in case you want to sound like a local!). Of all the areas in Manhattan, this one really stayed with me – I felt like I learned more about the city here than anywhere else. So why did I love it?
It fees like a window in to a piece of the real New York City
Of COURSE part of the real NYC is the tourist attractions – you have to see The Empire State building, you have to go to visit Times Square, it’s great to stroll round Central Park. But that isn’t every day reality for most people in the city.
One thing I loved about the Lower East Side was that there were hardly any tourists at all. What I saw was locals going about their day to day – now, I’m no NYC local – but I felt like I was absorbing some ‘normal life’ which I really enjoyed.
I’d read about local football (soccer) matches taking place at the Sara D Roosevelt park soccer fields, and went to watch a game one weekend. I sat in the sun, watching the soccer, eating an icecream. It was just lovely. And there’s loads more things you can do in the area which absorb a bit of that local culture.
Another great idea is to visit the Metrograph – it’s a super cool cinema not packed with tourists. It has two theaters, a sweet shop, a restaurant, a bar, a bookstore, and it screens archive-quality 35mm prints and new films in digital projection. It’s really quite amazing and well worth a visit.
It’s proud of and preserves its heritage
Traditionally, the Lower East Side was an immigrant, working class neighbourhood. Originally New Amsterdam covered this area, with the bulk of early settlers being Dutch. Then in the late 19th/early 20th century, again the bulk of immigrants to the city came to the Lower East Side, moving into the crowded tenement buildings there. Part of the area became Kleindeutschland (Little Germany), and this was followed by groups of Italians, Hungarians, Poles, Eastern European Jews, Russians and Ukrainians. By 1920, the Jewish neighbourhood was one of the largest of these ethnic groupings, and this heritage can still be found in the area today.
Since the 1960s, the area has been settled by immigrants primarily from Latin America. Today it’s a predominantly a Puerto Rican and Dominican community, and this diverse history of immigration is what makes the Lower East Side so special.
One of the ways this heritage is preserved is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. The Museum is actually housed in two preserved tenement buildings which were home to c.15,000 people from over 20 countries between 1863 and 2011. The museum promotes understanding and you can tour the tenement buildings on various experiences, including learning about the earliest immigrants, Holocaust survivors, Latin American immigrants, Chinese residents and much more.
The tours enable you to enter the restored tenement building (as it would have looked at the time). I took the Under One Roof tour which told the story of The Epsteins, Velezes and Wongs who had all lived at the address in different times, in different circumstances. There are many more tours on offer to suit you interests – this museum was actually my favourite in New York so I couldn’t recommend it enough.
It’s a melting pot of people and cultures
Unsurprisingly, given the diversity of people who have settled in the Lower East Side, it’s a melting pot of cultures.
The Jewish heritage in the area is really clear, with the neighbourhood still having many historic synagogues, plus many significant Jewish businesses such as Katz’s Deli (famous for that scene from When Harry met Sally). The deli is a perfect lunch spot if you’re in the area – the pastrami sandwich is absolutely out of this world.
Also in the area is part of China Town, known as Little Fuzhou. This immigrant population has been in decline since the 2010s due to the focus on gentrification of the area – this means there’s a rapid influx of higher income professionals (often non Chinese) in to the area. Whilst in some ways this is good (an emerging art scene, including the New Museum), in other ways it’s eroding the existing cultures, giving rise to an increased need to preserve the historic culture of the area. Also bordering this area is Little Italy, so why not grab some delicious Italian food like Cannoli or authentic coffee whilst you’re in the neighbourhood too!
I felt really lucky to visit at a time where I could still experience this diversity of culture in such a small area, and I hope in the future the area isn’t converted in to posh flats and the history all lost.
It’s a great place for exploring independent shops and nightlife
The Lower East side’s growing art scene and often indie feel means a treasure trove of independent and unique stores. A couple I discovered which I particularly like are Blue Stockings, Economy Candy and Slipper Room.
Bluestockings is a bookstore with a difference – it’s completely volunteer run and it has a cafe, doubles as an activist centre and is devoted to feminism and social activism. It feels like the right location for such a store. Economy Candy does what it says on the tin – sells candy – and it’s epic. Slipper Room is a burlesque and comedy theatre. It’s a really fun night out – and artists who have guested at the Slipper Room include Lady Gaga, U2 and the Scissor Sisters.
So there you have it – my initial impressions as a tourist of the Lower East Side – and I hope I’ve done it some form of justice and not shown any ignorance. I really learnt a lot from the area and thoroughly recommend a visit if you’re exploring New York. Stay safe and happy travelling everyone!