Interview with Joyce Mendelsohn, author of The Lower East Side Remembered and Revisited

Joyce MendelsohnJoyce Mendelsohn is the author of  The Lower East Side Remembered and Revisited: A History and Guide to a Legendary New York Neighborhood.

Question: What are some of the most dramatic changes to the Lower East Side in the last ten years?

Joyce Mendelsohn: Aggressive development has changed the character and streetscape of the Lower East Side since the first edition of this book was published eight years ago. In the new edition I examine the dynamics of the neighborhood reinventing itself. As a culture of youth and affluence emerges, it is becoming a place of stark contrasts between locals and newcomers. Designer boutiques, music clubs, trendy bars, and upscale restaurants take over spaces once occupied by bargain shops, bodegas, and local eateries. Luxury residential towers, condos and rentals, are replacing tenements. Expensive hotels are springing up as the area becomes a destination for tourists and business travelers. More than fifty current photographs have been added to accompany the expanded and revised text that includes a new section on the Bowery.

Q: Is it very hard to find affordable housing on the Lower East Side?

JM: With a booming economy driving a hot real estate market beginning in the early 2000s, recent construction and soaring housing costs have forced low- and middle-income residents to move away and discouraged others of modest means from moving in. Luxury towers are replacing tenements. Renovated walk-ups are pricing out tenants. Once limited-equity coops are now selling at market rate. Except for public housing, low- and middle-income people are finding it increasingly difficult to find affordable housing.

Q: Are there any legendary restaurants, food stores, and mom-and-pop clothing shops to be found?

JM: Ratner’s, Bernstein on Essex, and Gertel’s Bakery have closed. The Garden Cafeteria was replaced by a Chinese restaurant. Schapiro’s Winery shut its local store but operates from other locations. However, Russ & Daughters, Katz’s Deli, Kossar’s Bialys, Yonah Schimmel’s Knishes, Streit’s Matzos, and Economy Candy remain and retain the flavor of the old neighborhood. Guss’ Pickles has announced that it is moving to Brooklyn. Several multigenerational clothing and fabric stores are still operating on Orchard Street and surrounding blocks.

Q: What are some of the newer restaurants, bars, and music clubs and where are they located?

JM.: Clinton Street and surrounding blocks have become a cutting-edge culinary area featuring restaurants W-D 50, Falai Panetteria, Alias, Cube, Sachiko’s, and Clinton Street Bakery. Music clubs include Mercury Lounge at Houston and Essex; Pianos, The Living Room, and Cakeshop on Ludlow; and Arlene’s Grocery on Stanton off Orchard.

Q: During the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, religious and social service organizations served new immigrants. Are any of these institutions still functioning?

JM: Many long-standing social service and religious organizations stay true to their original mission to serve the community by adjusting to changing populations. Aged Roman Catholic churches, like St. Mary’s and St. Theresa’s, that were once were Irish parishes now hold masses in English, Spanish, and Chinese. Settlement houses, such as University Settlement, Henry Street Settlement, and the Educational Alliance continue to provide vocational, educational, counseling, and recreational services to needy clients, and at the same time, present avant-garde theater productions aimed at sophisticated audiences.

Q: Do any of the old synagogues continue to hold services?

JM: Several synagogues, including the Bialystoker Synagogue, Congregation Chasam Sopher, Congregation Kehila Kedosha Janina, and Stanton Street Shul continue to hold traditional services in their venerable buildings. They were restored with money from private donors and with funding obtained by the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, which presently is planning for the rehabilitation and reuse of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol. Other synagogues with declining congregations have adapted to different functions. The Eldridge Street Synagogue is now the Museum at Eldridge Street and Anshe Chesed has been transformed into the Angel Orensanz Foundation Center, a venue for art shows, photo shoots, concerts, weddings, and other special events. Both Eldridge and Orensanz retain space for Jewish religious services.

Q: What is the impact of landmark designation and zoning laws?

JM: In 2001, over 500 properties in the Lower East Side Historic District were placed in the National Register of Historic Places, making them eligible for state preservation grants and extending federal tax incentives to their owners for preservation-friendly restoration of their building façades. This designation does not protect façades from inappropriate alterations or buildings from demolition. Many people are convinced that only designation as a historic district by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission can protect the architectural heritage and special character of the Lower East Side from rampant development. A proposal submitted by a coalition of community groups is awaiting action by the Commission.

In a stunning boost to preservationists, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the Lower East Side on their list of the 11 most endangered places in America in 2008 to highlight the urgency of the situation. That same year, the City Council approved a proposal by the Department of City Planning to rezone 111 blocks in the East Village and the Lower East Side to regulate height limits to preserve their low-scale character.

Q: Tourists to New York typically head for the famous landmarks like the Empire State Building or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What would you tell out-of-town visitors to entice them to add the Lower East Side to their “must-see” list?

JM.: Don’t miss the opportunity to visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, where you will see reconstructed furnished apartments showing how immigrants lived in crowded quarters during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Tours are limited, so buy tickets in advance online at Arrive early to browse in the Museum Shop at 108 Orchard, with its fine selection of books about New York and unique, affordable gift items. Make it a day by taking the museum’s walking tour, or book a tour from the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy,, that will take you into some of the neighborhood’s venerable synagogues.

Q: Did anything surprise you in your research on the neighborhood?

JM: I was stunned to discover how many distinguished architects designed buildings in the neighborhood and how all of those structures survive. A few, like Ernest Flagg’s model tenement; Stokes’s and Howells’s University Settlement; Babb, Cook & Welch’s Seward Park Library Branch of the New York Public Library; and Henry Hardenbergh’s commercial building retain their original functions, while Carrère & Hastings’s Hamilton Fish Park Gymnasium has been modified for current usage. Others have acquired new identities: a library designed by McKim, Mead & White became a church; a synagogue by Emery Roth turned into residential and studio space; another synagogue by Alexander Saeltzer is now a venue for cultural programs and special events; a public bath by York & Sawyer was converted into a Chinese church.

Q: What’s your favorite thing about the Lower East Side?

JM: I love the food. Snacking on Grand Street: savoring a luscious cake doughnut from the Doughnut Plant and noshing on a bialy at Kossar’s; sampling the Pickle Man on Essex; wandering in heaven at Economy Candy on Rivington; and enjoying the flavors of Laboratorio Del Gelato on Orchard. Of course, there’s the food shopping. At the top of my list is Russ & Daughters for appetizers, fish, and salads; then exploring the variety of stalls at the Essex Street Market, especially Jeffrey’s Meats, Saxelby Cheesemongers, and Roni-Sue’s Chocolates. The number of restaurants is mind-boggling. I love eating in Katz’s Deli on Houston, and can’t get the sizzling shrimp at Schiller’s Liquor Bar on Rivington out of my mind.  (Consult my book for exact addresses, and enjoy!)

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