New York --We're standing on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side, just past the big barrels set out in front of Guss' Pickles, enveloped in the aroma of vinegar and pickling spices. The street is lined with shop windows screaming bargains in leathers, hosiery, men's suits. But we're looking for boutiques -- the cutting edge proclaiming that an area once known for its immigrant population is now emerging as the latest chic New York neighborhood.
A man wearing a yarmulke comes out of a store, hurries across the street, and asks what we're looking for.
"Down the street," he says when he sees the address. "But why would you want to go there?" he adds with a slight grimace, pressing a card into my hand. "The bargains are here," and he gestures to his store, Global International. "Famous Designer Menswear," a sign in the window says.
It's a neighborhood where contrasts fill every block, in a part of New York where old and new converge in dizzying counterpoint. Farther north on Orchard, across Delancey, we find the address we're looking for, DDC Lab, windows artfully scribbled with white paint as though a graffiti artist had run amok. Inside, the men's and women's clothing is artful, too, and though a nifty white coat from an Italian designer in a techno fabric is intriguing and on sale, it's too small for anyone we know. Everything else in here and in most of the boutiques we poke into is definitely designer chic, and not bargain priced. Only blocks away from the leather stores and five pairs of women's hose for $5, it's a world apart.
After years of staying in midtown on visits to New York, it seemed time for a new point of reference. I had traveled the long blocks to restaurants on the Lower East Side by taxi, and I had wandered the ever-glitzier shopping areas of Soho. But I had never truly walked the neighborhoods in the lower part of Manhattan -- and if you don't walk New York you'll never discover its wonders.
So for a quick visit with my teenage son, I booked a modest hotel in Tribeca and set about to explore. To get to the Lower East Side from Tribeca, you traverse big swaths of Chinatown. A brisk walk in early morning means threading through workers unloading giant bags of shellfish and women with net bags choosing bok choy and cabbages from outdoor markets along Mott and other streets. Along Bowery, the restaurant supply-store signs advertise stoves and giant pots, and little noodle shops are already filled with customers slurping their morning meal.
Once across a tiny stretch of park at Forsyth, I'm in the Lower East Side. The restaurants that draw the young and hip -- WD-50, Schiller's Liquor Bar, 71 Clinton Street, Crudo -- are shuttered in the early morning. On East Houston Street, though, Russ & Daughters is just opening for the day. Inside, gleaming cases of smoked salmon, herring, caviar, and cheeses are artfully arranged in the store that first opened in 1914. An immigrant from Eastern Europe, the first owner began selling herring from a cart, opened a little store, and then passed it on to his daughters. Four generations of the Russ family have run the business, which started as Russ' Cutrate Appetizers. Down the street is Katz's Delicatessen, one of the last bastions of old-fashioned Jewish deli fare in the area.
The walk is an introduction to our exploration of the immigrant experience at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum later that day. The term "museum" is redefined here: Instead of viewing objects in cases or perusing written historical documents, visitors view history in its context on tours of actual tenements. We join the "Getting By" tour of the museum's tenement at 97 Orchard. Our guide starts by describing his family background -- a Puerto Rican family living in Brooklyn -- and asking ours, which range from Midwest roots and German, Russian, and Dutch ancestors to several in the group who are from Britain, Scotland, and Belgium. The red-brick tenement building, which went up in 1860 and originally had a German beer garden in the bottom floor, had been home to waves of immigrants (the museum estimates that 7,500 people from 25 countries lived there from 1864 to 1935). Leading us through the dark halls, the guide says it was built as a cold-water flat without indoor plumbing or lighting and with little ventilation. Each apartment had three small rooms for sometimes large families, who got water from an outside spigot and used outhouses in the tiny backyard.
Two of the apartments are furnished and decorated with period objects and mementos from the families who once lived there. A sewing machine, as well as paper patterns, photographs, and clothing, gives a glimpse of how the German-Jewish Gumpertz family made it through the depression of the 1870s. A tape recording of a daughter of the Baldizzi family, who lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s in another apartment, tells of fun as well as hardships. The tenement building, which over the years had been renovated to add water and lights, was closed when the landlord decided not to comply with new city health regulations. The tenement museum bought it in 1988. The museum also runs two other tours, one describing immigrants in the garment industry in the early 20th century and another "living history" presentation with costumed intepreters.
By the time we left the tour, we were hungry. Luckily, this new dining mecca has a restaurant for every yen. How about grilled cheese, a childhood favorite of both my son's and mine. Grilled Cheese is a funky little place on Ludlow Street with art for sale on the walls and a short list of grilled sandwiches on the menu. Grilled cheese with Canadian bacon, spinach, and tomato is a perfect midday pick-me-up. We duck into Ludlow Guitars, where my bass-playing son ogles the vintage models priced at thousands of dollars, and we peruse the vinyl records and vintage fashions at Rejoice Clothing and Music Exchange.
The day's light is waning and our feet are tired by the time we stumble into teany, which matches its name in size and features 96 varieties of tea. This little place, where even in the chilly twilight several couples are snuggled close around tables on the patio, is partly owned by electronic musician Moby. The fare is vegan for the most part and the patrons -- young women chatting, a guy reading, a young woman telling her parents about her wedding plans -- are dressed in layers of fashionably scruffy clothing. "Very hipster," opines my son as he sips his chai and I drink a delicate oolong tea.
Very new Lower East Side, I think as we walk out into the darkening city.
Alison Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.