In the mid ’60s when life was sheer bliss (selective recall) and shopping required an actual ‘physical’ store visit, the Lower East Side offered a vast array of options, mainly at bargain prices, and largely due to eager shop owners formerly from Eastern European countries. One outstanding memory was a shop specializing in French designer labels, with haute couture style. The owner, an immigrant from Ukraine, was an overly assertive salesperson who enjoyed slipping samples into dressing rooms, as young lithe women were in various stages of undress. His favorite label, Cacharel, was often encouraged to those of us who wore sample sizes. I could still hear him shout out, ‘send that brunette a cock arell to try on’!
Bob Dylan’s, the times they are a changin’ is once again blasting in my brain. Thus, I will reserve the real estate segment of the East Villages evolution for another time. There are absolutely no charts, graphs or reasonable explanations for the surge, other than NYC bursting at its seams with the most audaciously well-heeled group of (mainly) young buyers ready at the gate. The growth, in this particular area, for those like myself who remember (other versions of) Mr. Cocka Rell selling goods, is possibly the most astounding.
Another example of evolution, at its best, is Russ & Daughters, a Lower East Side appetizing store, which began as a family run business and morphed into one of the cities most cache dining spots. Mr. Russ, who was blessed with daughters (not sons), had the courage to place & Daughters on his awning, at a time when women entering business was unheard of. Fast forward into the 21st century; his grandchildren can now be credited with the innovations required to stay in the highly competitive food industry. And have successfully added the Jewish Museum to its roster of ‘appetizing outlets’.
As a lover of all things with historic significance, the Angel Orensanz Foundation, housed in a Gothic Revival Synagogue & built in 1849, is a perfect example. It is the oldest surviving synagogue building in NYC and the 4th oldest in the US. It was built by Reform Congregation Ansche Chessed (people of kindness) for a primarily German Jewish population. In 1986 Spanish sculptor and painter Angel Orensanz purchased the property by restoring and converting it into an art gallery and performance space. It was designated a historic landmark the following year. It remains one of the most sought after venues for a variety of events, but, as one would guess, mainly weddings.
On the topic of venues with an artistic provenance, The Nuyorican Poets Café founded in 1973 and originally housed in the living room of writer and poet Miguel Algarians E. Village apartment, is one. After only 2years, it quickly outgrew its space, and was forced to relocate. Over the past several decades, the Café, located at 236 East 3rd Street, has emerged as one of the country’s most highly respected arts organizations. It is described by Exec. Director Daniel Gallant, as an informal collective salon, offering poets, musicians and artists a welcoming space, while leaning more towards performance than literature. and geared for artists not yet ready for prime time. When Daniel first took the helm of The Nuyorican Café in 2007, and contacted me regarding the film division, the Nuyorican became my first café / performance venue. I have had the unique opportunity of representing this unusual conceptual space since. The café, which has been referred to as a cultural icon, focuses on risk takers while nurturing their developmental side. Artists are given the stage to perform cutting edge work to a diverse, multi-generational audience. Daniel’s emphasis on education is manifested thru events geared towards public speaking, through the spoken word.
But most impressive, is that while many small business owners/ arts related organizations in the area have been forced to shut down, The Nuyorican Café has been able to triple its size based on a generous grant from the city of New York.
As a perfect metaphor for this growth, Daniel Gallant explains that upon entering the Café, when glancing to the right you are still able to see elements of the former Lower East Side. However, when you look left you can understand the vast changes in the area, vis a vis, rent hikes, cost of living, and new construction, surrounded on all sides. As an added tribute, The Café’s Theatre Program has been honored with an OBIE grant for excellence in theatre.
As I continue to explore this multi-faceted section of lower Manhattan, I would be remiss not to include another ‘oldie but goodie’. Katz’s Delicatessen, on the corner of E Houston & Ludlow, a food emporium with history deeply seeped into its textured walls / floors and ceilings, and reeking of the aromas of pickled food products, cured meats, and the aging souls of its waiters! Founded in 1888, it remains one of the cities most popular (tourist as well as local) food attractions. With one of the most iconic posters at the entrance; ‘send a salami to your boy in the army’ (vintage, WWII). As well as one of movie’s most memorable scenes… from ‘when harry met sally’. Who can ever forget Meg Ryan’s simulated sexual sighs, while eating a pastrami sandwich, there ? Prompting cinemas most quotable response; ‘I’ll have what she’s having’. [*footnote: spoken from the sardonic mouth of director Rob Reiner’s mother]!
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, located at 97 & 103 Orchard Street is a National Historic site. The 2 tenement buildings were home to an estimated 15.000 people from over 20 nations between 1863 and 2011. The building at 97 Orchard was contracted by Prussian born immigrant Lukas Grockner in 1863 but was modified over the years to conform to housing laws. When first constructed, it contained 22 apartments. Due to the many requirements from NYC housing, in 1935 the landlord was forced to evict the remaining residents to avoid further modifications, leaving only the ground floor & basement levels open for business. No further changes had been made until the Lower East Side Tenement Museum became involved in 1988. Under the direction of Anita Jacobson & Ruth L. Abram, the Tenement Museum was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1994. The site received a Save American Treasures matching grant for $250.000, in 2000 for preservation work.
The buildings reflect, in a perfectly executed time capsule, what 19th and early 20th century living conditions were like and the idea of what constituted acceptable housing. Most importantly, the Museum promotes tolerance and historic perspective on the immigrant experience. Something that every American, under the current political climate, should be forced to view. Most especially, the Republicans responsible for creating one of the country’s most horrific immigration mandates.
I dedicate this article to the memory of my friend Faith Hope Consolo, one of Real Estates leading commercial brokers, whose untimely death left a deep void in the city.