Local passport: Lower East Side

7 March, 2011

THE FIRST TIME I VISITED THE LOWER EAST SIDE, sometime in the early 1990s, I followed my guidebook instructions and headed for the Sunday market on Orchard Street. The neighborhood was still ragged around the edges and the short walk from the subway led through gray-ish streets—half the storefronts had closed down and a good portion of the remaining were grayed over with grime. I peeked into a lingerie window: curled up brown leaves and cobwebs laced around the peek-a-boo mannequins. Or more accurately, mannequin parts—a foot here, a headless bust there. Dusty hats sat askew on old hat forms, sun-faded stocking boxes promised control top comfort. It looked like no one had shopped there in 30 years.

I was in search of some bargains on Orchard Street, which on that day was still an open-air market of multi-generational vendors. Leather jackets hung from the awnings, scarves and bras swung crazily in the wind. There was no “merchandising”: every item was on display in haphazard order as if someone dumped the contents of Grandma’s attic out into the street.

My friend and I paused at a table of shoes. Within a few seconds a large meaty hand snatched the shoe from my friend’s hand. We looked up at a small woman swathed in an apron, a dress, and a sweater. Her body was disproportionate to the hand that grabbed the shoe from us. Yelling “men’s shoes, men’s shoes,” she waved us away. We scampered down the street without looking at anything else, turned the corner and ate a fat and flaky rugelach at Gertel’s Bakery.

Today, what’s left of Orchard Street’s market is made in China. That babushka is probably long gone, as are most of the old shops there, replaced by shops and cafes catering to a new generation of more fashionable residents. The Tenement Museum, which opened its doors the same year of my first visit, chronicles that life that’s increasingly hard to detect in a neighborhood of boutiques and bars. I got there just in time to see the last of it.

My story in The Wall Street Journal about the museum’s new visitor’s center looks at the challenge and responsibility of balancing the old and new.

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