This weekend, I got a treat – Heather arrived in New York City!
Heather and I have known each other since we were six – and I think we’re still pretty much the same today: an unchanged sense of humor, an unparalleled ability to chat rubbish to anyone who’ll listen and penchant for kiss chase. Today was the first day showing her the sights.
After stocking up on coffee, I gave her a quick tour of the areas I know best – Washington Square Park, SoHo, Little Italy and Chinatown. And of course, there was time for a knish.
But when we got down to the Lower East Side, I decided to pass the guiding over to the professionals.
You’ll remember that I’ve visited The Tenement Museum before for talks and tours around the tenement house they’ve frozen in time (and I’ve loved it). But never before have I gone on one of their tours around the area. We opted for the ‘Then & Now’ tour, pulled on our hats, boots and gloves and gathered with about 10 others and our guide, Rachel.
For the next two hours, we wandered the nearby blocks as Rachel showed us pictures of how the streets looked 60-100 years ago. Gone are the elevated railways, Jewish communities and some tenement houses. Instead, there are parks, churches and art collectives. She explained how the area, which was once crammed with Hispanic people and Germans, now sees an influx of Chinese (well, in some areas – the hipsters have nabbed the rest).
Because of this change of clientele, one bodega which was once named ‘Hispanic Grocery’ has now added to its name: The Chinese Hispanic Grocery. The owners – who deem their store to be the safest area of the city – wanted to make the new arrivals feel welcome.
I’ve always known that the Lower East Side has a pretty troubled history – poverty, overcrowding and crime. Rachel told us how, even when some of these issues were cleared up in the first half of the century, they returned in the second.
One example was Sara Roosevelt Park – named after FDR’s mother. Rachel explained that, when the park was opened in 1934, the president, his wife and mother came to the site – allowing families overlooking the park from the tenement buildings to wave at them below. It was much-needed by the area: basketball courts, green spaces, after-school activities supervised by adults.
But decades later, it was pretty manky. Drug dealers and prostitutes moved in, and the locals stayed clear of it. Only when mayors like Ed Koch lumbered into town did it clean up – and although it’s now covered in snow, it really is a lovely, wide area that doesn’t feel unsafe at all.
We moved on, checking out synagogues, churches and the Essex Street Market, before winding up back at the museum, where we were desperately in need of a cup of tea.
The tour was pretty great – Rachel was friendly and knowledgeable and had answers to all of our questions. It gave us a good overview of the area – business, immigration and religion – but I also felt it was a bit general. But for people visiting with no knowledge of the area, Then & Now is definitely a good place to start.
After thawing out over a tea, we decided to finish off our walking tour with a trek across the Brooklyn Bridge as the sun was setting. I can never get enough of that view…
More of our adventures to follow!