Lower East Side Overview
In the late 80s and early 90s, the Lower East Side was regarded as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the United States. Just two decades later, the neighbor would be almost unrecognizable to those who knew it then. Just how much has changed? In 2008, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the Lower East Side on its annual "11 Most Endangered Places" list, citing potential irreparable harm to the neighborhood's architectural and social history due to rapid development. Today, the neighborhood is one of New York's most diverse, bringing together a number of cultures and socioeconomic classes, while boasting a vibrant art and nightlife scene.
In the the sections below, you'll get a glimpse into life in the Lower East Side. But before you go anywhere, make sure you scroll through the photos in the gallery below. Nothing can tell the story of a neighborhood as well as a few good photos.
LOWER EAST SIDE HISTORY
In the early 18th century, the Lower East Side was rural farmland owned primarily by two wealthy families. The principal landowner, James DeLancey, was an influential member of government in the mid-1700s. Delancey Street was named after him, and Orchard Street was named after his farm's fruit orchards. Because DeLancey was a supporter of the British, the U.S. government confiscated his farm after the Revolutionary War and divided it into sellable lots.
The other landowner was Henry Rutgers, an outspoken advocate for American independence. In the 1820s, after the Rutgers family began leasing parcels of their land for development, the Lower East Side began evolving into a middle and upper class Protestant neighborhood. Both Henry Street and Rutgers Street were named in honor of Henry Rutgers. And yes, it's the same Rutgers from the eponymous New Jersey university.
Many residents moved north after it the neighborhood became a landing ground for recent immigrants in the 1840s. Most of the original immigrants were German - the area was nicknamed Kleindeutschland (Little Germany) - but immigrants from all over the world soon began to arrive. Apartment buildings called tenements were built to house them, and large families crammed into tiny, low-quality apartments that lacked basic utilities.
Between 1880 and 1924, Jewish immigrants settled in the LES, and the neighborhood became predominantly Jewish. Living conditions remained poor, and eventually a variety of laws were instituted that required landlords to improve conditions. Many tenements were eventually torn down, and the first public housing buildings that were built to replace them opened in 1934.
Some tenement buildings are still standing in the LES - one is now the Tenement Museum, and many others have been converted into expensive apartments. During the last ten years, hotels and condominium towers have been built, and trendy restaurants, clubs and boutiques have opened where discount retailers once operated. Despite the many changes that the neighborhood has undergone, the LES has retained many traits with its past, including its popularity as a landing spot for new New Yorkers.
LOWER EAST SIDE VIBE
Perhaps no section on this website is in need of more frequent updates than the vibe of the Lower East Side, simply because no neighborhood has undergone quite as much change in the last ten to fifteen years. One quick way to see how rapid this change has been compared to other parts of the City is to take a look at this map showing gentrification in New York since 2000. Home values, one way to measure gentrification, have increased 200-300% in the last decade, compared with 40-80% in other parts of Manhattan. That's not to say that the Lower East Side has lost its rich history or has become a "cookie-cutter" neighborhood - it absolutely has not.
The Lower East Side has a vibrant art scene and is home to many of New York's best bars and restaurants. A walk around the neighborhood will reveal its rich architectural history with plenty of still standing examples of its storied past. In fact, the recent push to preserve the neighborhood has slowed some of the development and caused people to figure out how to integrate their plans within the footprint of the neighborhood, rather then try to rebuild it.
LOWER EAST SIDE Transportation
Compared to its northern neighbor, the East Village, the Lower East Side is a little bit more equipped with transportation options. Many of the subways heading into Queens and Brooklyn cut through the Lower East side, which means LES residents have access to the outlying boroughs as well as many parts of Manhattan.
Lower East Side Subway & Walking Times
Depending on where you live in the Lower East Side, you would also have easy access to the ferry terminal in the Financial District, which is a great way to get to the outlying boroughs. Also if you are feeling adventurous, you can skip public transportation altogether and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.
LOWER EAST SIDE Guidebook Landmarks
Eldridge Street Synagogue
Established in 1887, the Eldridge Street Synagogue was one of the first Eastern European Jewish houses of worship built in the United States. Besides being culturally and historically significant, it's an architectural gem, featuring 70-foot ceilings, beautiful stained glass patterns, Moorish Revival archways and colorful mosaics. Since its restoration in 2007, the building holds a stained glass work by famed contemporary artist Kiki Smith, and also houses the Museum at Eldridge Street.
Lower East Side Tenement Museum
If you've ever wondered what life used to be like on the LES, the Tenement Museum can show you. Tours bring visitors into an old tenement building at 97 Orchard Street, showing the cramped, shared quarters and tough living conditions that were par for the course for immigrants in the neighborhood from the 1860s to the 1930s. The upper floors of the building remained untouched from 1935 until the museum was founded in 1988, so the experience is as close as you can get to going back in time.
Manhattan Bridge Arch
Fresh off of their triumphant design of the New York Public Library, New York-based architects Carrère and Hastings were awarded the project to create a gateway to Manhattan. The final project, which was constructed in 1915, feature a looming arch and colonnade to welcome visitors that certainly evokes images of Paris, France. Somewhat strangely, the main decoration of the arch is a frieze by Charles Rumsey, of a decidedly un-New York pastime, buffalo hunting. The arch and colonnade were cleaned and renovated in 2000.
LOWER EAST SIDE Insider LANDMARKS
Hua Mei Bird Garden
Hidden in Sara D. Roosevelt Park, just south of Delancey Street, is a community garden home to an unexpected scene: dozens of songbirds lined up in bamboo cages. Every morning, this section of the park is frequented by elderly Chinese men who collect the birds as pets. Various types of birds, including the grayish-yellowish hua mei, the most popular songbird in China, sing out their tunes to welcome the day.
Okay, not so much an insider landmark, but certainly one where you'll see just as many native New Yorkers as out-of-towners. On the corner of Houston and Ludlow Streets, Katz's is home to the most famous sandwiches in town—in a town that takes its sandwiches seriously. The Jewish kosher style delicatessen dates back to 1888, and served as a major community hub for immigrants on the Lower East Side in the early 20th century. People still flock there for pastrami sandwiches, hot dogs, and to dare each other to reenact that scene from When Harry Met Sally....
LOWER EAST SIDE Parks & Recreation
East River Park (45.9 acres)
The East River Park owes its existence to the FDR Drive (the main thoroughfare running N-S on the east side of Manhattan) and, more specifically, to Robert Moses, the road's chief architect. Moses wanted to take advantage of the vast construction project to incorporate some more green space into the City. To do so, he needed to actually expand the coast of the City, which he did with a 10-foot concrete extension. The resulting Park is a great mix of active and passive spaces with everything from basketball courts to BBQ areas to fitness stations. It's the largest park on the east coast of the city and a great place for those looking for a workout or just a leisurely stroll.
Hamilton Fish Park (4.3 acres)
Hamilton Fish Park is best known for its enormous pool which serves as an oasis for local children on hot summer days. The original pool was constructed at the height of the Great Depression by the WPA, in an effort to keep up morale and put people to work. The Park has undergone major facelifts over the years with the addition of basketball and handball courts, playgrounds, and reinvigorated landscpaing, but the pool remains the main attraction for parkgoers.
Sara Delano Roosevelt Park (7.9 acres)
There are a lot of NYC parks named after presidents (Teddy Roosevelt, John Madison, and George Washington to name a few), but Sara Delano Roosevelt Park holds the distinction of being the the only park named after a president's mother. Since its inception in 1934, SDR Park has been a welcome green space in an area otherwise dominated by concrete. The Park is definitely intended for play with a soccer field, volley ball and basketball courts, and a playground that was called "America's finest playground" when the Park first opened.
Seward Park (3.1 acres)
All over Seward Park, there are features that pay tribute to its past. The Park was originally developed by a group of private citizens called the Outdoor Recreation League, who were committed to providing spaces for children to play other than the crowded streets. The group developed a playground on what was previously condemned land and the playground stood for nearly fifty years before the Park was refurbished in the 1940's. In the 1990's, the Park was again renovated, this time restoring many of its original features. The Park also pays homage to its namesake William Seward, who is best known for his purchase of Alaska from Russia. The Park features a seal fountain, Mt. McKinley play space, and a sled dog statue.