Manhattan’s Lower East side is the North Star of New York City’s gritty soul – and remains so despite the Big Apple becoming a deserted COVID-19 orchard. While this pandemic has reduced most of Manhattan’s tourist attractions down to nearly nil, it has gifted the Lower East Side more of what it does best: being on the fringe.
This neighborhood, once the bustling, jam-packed new frontier of American immigration, slowly transitioned over the last decade from a dodgy place most people avoided into Manhattan’s newly hip, off-the-beaten-path quarter.
Although geographically it makes sense to call it the Lower East Side (aka LES), its name actually derives from the parts of the neighborhood averaging only 20ft (6m) above sea level, as compared to Manhattan’s Upper East Side, rising as high as 175ft (53m) above sea level. In real estate terms, you might call the LES bargain swampland, a label that was certainly evinced when Superstorm Sandy drowned the neighborhood in 2012.
After a raucous suburban Long Island childhood, I’ve been living in Manhattan’s LES since 1985. I began giving walking tours around my neighborhood a few years ago, so I know it well. In terms of people jams, my tour is a literal walk in the park, where social distancing is a cinch. I’ve made a few other concessions to the pandemic – masks are required, for example, and we no longer go inside certain businesses.
Because of cramped quarters, bars have doubled as New Yorker’s living rooms for centuries. That’s no longer the case. But, one upside to the pandemic’s impact on NYC has been the resurrection of locals meeting for outdoor happy hours. As New Yorkers mingle throughout Gotham’s streets and parks, we’ve all rediscovered that we can survive socially without bars. The city once known as the place to see Broadway plays, scale skyscrapers, and dine to your heart’s content now features outdoor venues offering North America’s best people watching. The underdog Lower East Side has been ready for this trend since the Dutch began running New York in 1624.
In 1910, the LES was considered the world’s most notorious slum when it crammed 2.3 million residents within 535 acres; that’s 400,000 people per mi2 (154,000 per km2). Today, the entire population of Manhattan island is 1.6 million. What makes these statistics even more flabbergasting is that, in 1910, the LES was mostly four-story tenement buildings, compared to modern Manhattan’s skyline boasting mostly skyscrapers.
The LES has hosted many immigration waves, with the largest clans arriving in this order: Dutch, English, Irish, German, Italian, Jewish, Chinese, Puerto Rican. The ultimate quest of those groups soon became moving out of the LES to greener parts of the city or the suburbs. A ghost town until 10 years ago, this now trendy neighborhood was resurrected once people realized they could live as affordably here as in the outer boroughs and reap all the cultural benefits of Manhattan without a long commute (if any).
COVID-19 has upended our former way of living, globally. But, pandemic or not, here’s some of what you can safely encounter in Manhattan’s LES on foot.
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