Lower East Side New York City, NY….Some may find New York City overwhelming because so much humanity is compacted into such a small footprint. I prefer a slightly altered perspective, that here you have the world at your feet. Practically any heritage is only footsteps away, a lesson I wanted to leave with my children during our NYC visit. And so we began one day’s agenda by disembarking the subway in the Lower East Side to explore a neighborhood propelled only by our own hoofs.
Before we dive in, let me underscore the wealth by letting you know Lower East Side is bounded by the Bowery, Chinatown, Nolita, Little Italy, East Village, SoHo, NoHo, Alphabet City and Two Bridges. I could easily pen a similar piece about each of these villages; meaning ten articles later I would have barely covered a slim sliver of a sizable city.
The goal is enticing you to explore more of these neighborhoods by focusing strictly on the Lower East Side. This was one of the first landing pads for European immigrants and collected a broad swath of cultures crammed into the first slums. The Tenement Museum (103 Orchard Street) offers sober testament to the squalor which new arrivals were subjected to. This is a relevant and worthy stop, but I wanted to steer clear of tourist stops to offer my children a slice of local life. The amusing challenge was that although the kids are adults now, Dad still planned carefully to ensure amusement!
Breakfast would be the initial endeavor. The Lower East Side was originally known as Little Germany due to the first wave of immigrants hailing from there, many bringing their Jewish culture to the neighborhood. While the Jewish influence would wane over time (folks from more than twenty different countries would stake the Lower east Side as their first homestead), it dominated for a long time and one of the remnants is Yonah Shimmel Knish Bakery.
A knish is a small pie stuffed with just about anything these days. Traditional stuffings are mashed potatoes, ground meat or sauerkraut, but the sky is the limit now. The baked snack is not as cherished as New York bagels, but I love knishes and Shimmel’s has been serving them since 1890, since 1910 at their current location.
Of course I had ulterior motives, because another Jewish treat which I believe originated in NYC is egg cream. Egg creams are colossally misnamed since neither is an ingredient in the concoction (a magnificent blend of milk, carbonated water and chocolate or vanilla syrup). The drink never gained popularity, probably because it loses appeal if bottled. You can only mix a good egg cream on the spot by dumping syrup into a fountain glass, adding milk and stirring, then streaming soda water in to create a foamy head. Few places whip up the labor intensive beverage any longer, but you can still order one at Shimmel’s. I was disappointed that I could not convince my daughter to splurge, but Eric doubled down: not only did he order a vanilla egg cream; he complemented his knish with a potato latke!
After a wonderful breakfast it was a short walk to another iconic installation of the neighborhood: Economy Candy. The joint began as a shoe and hat repair shop, but added a push cart out front to sell candy. When the Great Depression struck, that was the only thing doing business and sweets eventually took over the floor space. This remains a family business handed down over the generations and I was surprised the homey atmosphere struck a chord with my kids. They were enthralled with the broad selection, ranging from old favorites they had not seen for years to intriguing foreign confections they were unaware of. Although they spent more here than Dad felt prudent and I got stuck carrying their candy purchases around the rest of the day (as always, I was wearing my daypack), I relished their grooving on the local vibe.
Next up was a choice specifically intended to appeal to the kids. Trash & Vaudeville is a landmark rock ‘n roll fashion shop born from the neighborhood’s musical heritage. Lower East Side is home to several storied musical venues (CBGB, Fillmore East, Electric Circus), as well as home for a gang of acclaimed performers, including Al Jolson, the Marx Brothers, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Jimmie Durante. The shop was started by a local music aficionado during the mid-70’s when punk was in the ascent and their avant-garde offerings quickly caught on. Fans of Trash & Vaudeville included the Ramones, the Clash, Madonna, Debbie Harry (Blondie) and many more. Bruce Springsteen bought a plaid shirt right off the back of the store manager during a visit – it is the shirt he wears on the cover of his “River” album.
Rummaging through Trash & Vaudeville’s crazy floor displays is enhanced because you feel ‘hip’ just by being there. We actually got to witness a dashingly dressed woman purchase a pair of stilettos with six inch heels! My daughter picked up a pair of nifty t-shirts and we loitered here for some time because there were plenty of surprises around every corner: sometimes items for sale and sometimes the customers shopping there.
We’ve been walking around and I guess it’s time for another meal. With luck you enjoyed that knish, because we are off to another kosher delicatessen for lunch. Katz Delicatessen is legendary for good reason. While offering the full gamut of deli fare, they are most renowned for their pastrami on rye. Accompanied by a lovely dill pickle, I may be counted among fans of this tasty meat sandwich. Their pastrami is cured for thirty days and the most delicious I’ve ever sampled.
Katz is always busy, with as many locals as tourists piling in. The locals know the reputation is deserved and earned anew each day. Tourists consist of foodies and a lot of movie fans – if you saw the movie “When Harry Met Sally” and recall the famous scene where the line “I’ll have what she’s having” was uttered…that was shot right here! Despite the crowds, ordering is cafeteria style and the wait staff is always hustling, so no serious delays getting served.
How marvelous to enjoy such a range of diversions during a leisurely stroll. Without paying a single admission fee or cab fare we were treated to an intimate introduction to one of New York City’s neighborhoods. The visuals experienced by meandering Lower East Side streets were as engaging as anything else: an eclectic collection of architecture interspersed with lovely green spaces and often adorned with brilliant graffiti. Travel is more than ticking high volume tourist destinations off of a list. Sometimes it is simply taking the time to savor a new and different place.