Unless you’re a resident, I’m guessing most of you have yet to see NYC’s Lower East Side in the daylight, or if you have, it was mostly likely at sunrise while on your way home to nurse a debilitating hangover. I, for one, only visited this fun-loving neighborhood after 10 pm in my first year as a New York resident, and it was during my recent trip around the LES that I was taken aback by those haunts I chose to frequent. A trip to the Lower East Side before sunset will come with a lot of these revelations—“that’s the Cake Shop? And Fat Baby’s right here? But they seemed so far apart…” As these familiar names began to take shape in the daylight, I actually couldn’t believe that I had willingly entered some of these establishments. For example, the entrance to the aptly named Dark Room is marked only by steep, oil-stained stairs and a set of heavy, graffitied steel doors that, even as inanimate objects, look like they are up to no good. Who knew?
For those who like to sleep in and stay out late, the Lower East Side is definitely the place to be, and it might be hard to believe that this poster-strewn stretch of blocks used to be a farm owned by James Delancey (hence Delancey Street and Orchard Street, named after the location of the farm’s orchard). What’s easy to believe, considering the Lower East Side’s screw-you attitude, is the fate faired by Mr. Delancey, a Loyalist who was keen to build an affluent square that would serve as an aristocratic hub for the wealthy and well-bred neighbors he hoped to attract. Before Delancey was able to “yuppify” his hood, however, the Revolutionary War was won and since his allegiances were to the losing side, a large portion of his money was confiscated and Delancey’s uppity butt was forced back home to England. Today, even though the LES’s average rent demands a hefty salary, you might mistake a trendy millionaire for someone sleeping on the streets, and you’d have to search high and low for anyone acting well-mannered. Delancey be damned.
However, despite all of its wild nights, the Lower East Side was and is a neighborhood dominated by working class immigrants. Today, as Chinatown expands to the north, there is a growing Asian population dominates the neighborhood, and well as a growing Puerto Rican presence. In the past, the LES was populated by immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Ukraine and it was at once known as “Little Germany.” Unlike the high-end boutiques that crowd its streets today, the Lower East Side was then known for pushcart markets that spilled out into the streets; cheap goods were sold on the cobbled drives while tightly-packed tenements loomed overhead.
Since the LES was once known for its outdoor shopping, make your first stop the Hester Street Fair (corner of Essex and Hester, http://www.hesterstreetfair.com/). Running from April to October, this small flea is both manageable and filled with top-notch finds.
Take a peak in Nomad, a traveling vintage store staged in the back of a truck for stackable rings ($5 each) and sunglasses for a steal ($14).
Once you head in through the gates, be sure to stop at either La Newyorkina for a Hibiscus popsicle ($4) or Melt for the Elvis (an ice cream sandwich with peanut butter cookies and banana ice cream, $4). Hopefully you’ve brought your appetite though because more food awaits within, and be sure to check out Naughty & Nice for some trippy artwork (Jesus and his flock of…unicorns?) and Wink and Flip for on-trend accessories at reasonable prices.
If you’re willing to fork up the dough, head up Orchard to visit the Tenement Museum, but at $22 for general admission and $16 for students, I can’t rightly claim this stop as budget-friendly (103 Orchard St., http://www.tenement.org/). So, if your own square-footage is depressing enough, continue on north to spend your hard-earned cash on something you really need at Economy Candy (108 Rivington between Essex and Ludlow, http://www.economycandy.com/). Although the crowd at this tiny shop can be panic-inducing, be sure to take a quick, nostalgic stroll-through if only to relive your childhood through candy.
Tell me the last time you saw Sixlets. Or Skor bars. Or Mallocups! Probably not since your grubby hands were pilfering them at the five-and-dime. Which leads to the obvious question—unless the owners of Economy Candy have discovered time travel and feel it would be more lucrative to continue to sell candy rather than patent their earth-shattering invention—where the heck are they getting this candy from?
From Economy Candy, I suggest you continue to eat by grabbing a knish from Yonah Schimmel’s ($5, 137 E. Houston, http://knishery.com/). Established on East Houston in 1910, this knishery got its start in 1890 as a pushcart run by a Romanian immigrant who gave the deli its name. Yonah Schimmel is one of the many vestiges of the Lower East Side’s proud Jewish history; other establishments to grab some nosh? Katz Deli (site of Sally from When Harry Met Sally’s…ahem…pleasurable lunch), Russ & Daughters (also originated as a pushcart in 1907), and Kossar’s Bialys (the oldest bialy bakery in the United States). If you have never had a knish, this was also my first time and I’m very much looking forward to eating this delicious cross between mashed potatoes and a French fry in the future.
From Houston, head down Allen Street to Rockwood Music Hall for some free entertainment (196 Allen St., http://www.rockwoodmusichall.com/). Rockwood is in the business of promoting new indie music, and so grab a drink and watch some dreams being made. These aspiring acts are extremely talented, and serve as a reminder of just how hard it can be to make it in NYC. But who knows? Perhaps a few hours spent in Rockwood will allow you to one day say “I knew them when…”
From Rockwood, give in to the LES’s charm and keep on drinking (I know you already know where, but Hair of the Dog on the corner of Orchard and Stanton has $1 drafts from 8-9pm), or grab dinner and a front row seat for some superb people-watching at the Meatball Shop (84 Stanton, http://www.themeatballshop.com/). Serving…you guessed it…meatballs in a variety of forms, the Meatball Shop’s creative menu comes complete with a dry erase marker for you to tick off what meat, sauce, and side combination you fancy. I recommend you try the root beer on tap and save room for the dessert menu, where you can be creative with your choice in ice cream sandwiches (perhaps your second of the day? No judgment. The LES is by necessity a judgment free zone).