From Jewish Delis to Dominican and Chinese restaurants: the story of the Lower East Side

Written by  Tabitha Laffernis


There is an instantly welcoming feel to the streets of the Lower East Side, with every inch of the locale echoing its past identities. It is constantly evolving – from its various lives as a merchant corridor, bohemian hub, and live music stomping ground. Its first incarnation was as an immigrant neighborhood – a veritable melting pot harboring a diverse roster of ethnicities. The neighborhood started booming in the 19th and early 20th centuries with the arrival of successive waves of German, Italian, Polish, Irish, and Ukrainian immigrants, with customs and traditions following. The predominant immigrant culture, whose heritage is still evident at every turn, was Ashkenazi Jewish.

Gentrification didn’t gain momentum until the early to mid-2000s, though that short time has seen tenements become gut renovated, and the streets and sidewalks tracked daily by pushcarts are now home to trendy bars, locavore restaurants, and independent galleries. A faintly grungy edge remains, and its residents, a blend of young professionals, artists, and immigrant families – today mostly Dominican and Puerto Rican, and several Asian communities, remain diverse and stoically loyal to the area. The unique energy and idiosyncrasies of the Lower East Side also continue to thrive on the diverse influences and flavors coming from the adjacent neighborhoods of Chinatown, Two Bridges, East Village, and NoLita.

For women immigrants, there is perhaps no better place to start than the famed Jewish deli, Russ & Daughters. It is a key part of the immigrant discourse, with Joel Russ, a Polish Jew who arrived in New York in the early 20th century, beginning his journey as a mushroom seller, later buying a pushcart. Eventually, Russ opened a permanent shop in 1914, located on Orchard Street. Four years later, the store moved to its current location on East Houston Street. As his three daughters (Hattie, Ida, and Anne) grew up, they began to learn the ropes of the business. It was not until the Great Depression, however, that Russ changed the store’s name from the J. Russ Appetizing Store to Russ & Daughters, a testament to his daughters’ hard work and invaluable presence.

Foodies and rom-com fans will also recognize another East Houston Street haunt – Katz’s Delicatessen. It became part of every tourist’s to-do list after a star turn in “When Harry Met Sally,” with the deli’s famed Reuben sandwich stealing the spotlight in a key scene of the movie. However, Katz’s had been famous on the Lower East Side long before the film hit the screens. Opened in 1888 by two Jewish brothers (from Russia or Germany depending on the sources), the original Ludlow Street location rapidly became a hub for immigrant families, gathering and mingling within the walls of the sit-down deli. It also became a haven for Yiddish performers, who had slowly gravitated west from Russia after their craft was banned in 1883: first to Europe, then across the Atlantic. During World War II, the deli’s presence was no longer simply limited to the immigrant culture, but had become part of broader American culture – supporting the troops with the “Send A Salami To Your Boy In The Army” campaign. Another food outlet, Kossar’s Bialys, also has strong ties to the area, as the oldest bialy bakery in the country, opened by Russian Jewish immigrants in 1936 and still standing today.

Angel Orensanz Center, previously the Anshe Chesed Synagogue

The area’s Jewish heritage is evident in more than just food outlets, with several places of worship peppering the locale. The Bialystoker Synagogue, a lavish synagogue founded by Polish Orthodox Jews, was in its first incarnation a Methodist Episcopal Church. A group of immigrant Jews from the Polish city of Bialystok purchased the building in 1905, moving their fast-growing congregation from its previous home on Orchard Street to the now-famous location on Bialystoker Place. On nearby Norfolk Street stands the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, home to New York City’s oldest Eastern European congregation, and the first Russian Jewish Orthodox congregation in the country. Also on Norfolk Street is the Angel Orensanz Center, previously the Anshe Chesed Synagogue, its bright facade giving way to an interior inspired by Paris’ Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Sistine Chapel. Originally built by a congregation of German, Dutch, and Polish Jews in 1849, the synagogue was converted into a gallery and performance space in the late 1980s, although it is still used today for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.

Other places of worship, buildings, community organizations, and ethnic restaurants attest to the rich immigration past of the neighborhood, and to its changing demographics today. On Grand Street is St. Mary’s Church, originally founded in 1832 by Irish Catholic immigrants, today playing host to a largely Latino congregation. On Allen Street stands the Church of Grace to Fujianese, one of four branches serving Chinese immigrants from the Fujian province, formerly a bathhouse and popular congregation spot for early Chinese immigrants who settled in the area.

Charming rowhouses on the Lower East Side saw the birth of community nursing in the United States. Lilian Wald, the daughter of German Jewish immigrants, was 25 in 1892 when she started teaching women immigrants resident in the Lower East Side the basics of home healthcare.

Old tenement-style rowhouses in the Lower East Side

One of Wald’s first nursing experiences happened to be for a woman who had given birth in her home and been abandoned by her doctor because she couldn’t afford the medical fees. Wald tended to the woman and vowed to bring medical care and education to the Lower East Side, forming the Nurses’ Settlement. Now known as the Henry Street Settlement, the nonprofit still provides healthcare, social, and other services to poor residents of the neighborhood, today primarily Latino and Asian immigrants.

The Tenement Museum on Orchard Street, one of the few remaining tenement apartment buildings of the late 19th century, stands as equal parts memorial, time travel, and history lesson. The museum’s popular walking tours offer tourists and locals a keen insight into the neighborhood that was once the most densely populated in New York. Weaving through restored homes, sweatshops and store sites, or even outside along the sidewalk, a wander through the commercial lanes of the Lower East Side means you’ll more than likely stumble across a group enthralled by the unique history of the area.

The Lower East Side is a little quieter today, though it is still a port of people striving to make it in New York. Walk-ups, cladded with fire escapes and small windows, still characterize the neighborhood – look up, wherever you are, and you’ll see that though the characters might have changed, the story remains the same.



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