By JoAnn Greco
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 29, 2009; C02
As a student at New York University 30 years ago, I often cut class to troll the Lower East Side in search of pickles and local color, knishes and . . . memories.
When I was a child, my parents -- following in the footsteps of their immigrant parents -- had taken my brother and me shopping here year after year for bargain and not-too-stylish school clothes. I remember the cheap leather goods hanging from racks and the piles of men's hats, displayed as they had been since the turn of the century when the neighborhood was chockablock with newcomers to America (the Irish, the Italians, the Jews) buying, selling and trading. By the '60s, bell-bottoms and halter tops were in, but modernity never truly arrived here.
Since moving to Philadelphia in 1991, I hadn't been back to this workaday neighborhood bounded roughly by Houston and Canal streets and Essex Street and the Bowery. I knew that the area had hung in there over the years but had lost much of its oomph. But I grew curious a few years ago, when a turning point seemed to arrive. A handful of 20-story hotels opened, and long-empty storefronts lifted their graffiti-smeared grates to unveil fancy boutiques and galleries.
Then last year the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared the neighborhood's authenticity (the low-scale buildings, the old-fashioned stores, the persistent clinging to the past) "endangered." I wondered whether the neighborhood had simply caught up with the times -- or was it truly about to be obliterated by them?
Setting out one Thursday afternoon from my perch at the newly constructed Bowery Hotel, a few blocks north of the area, I quickly reached Orchard Street, one of the neighborhood's main drags. At Ben Freedman Gent's Furnishings, a white-shirted Orthodox Jew with forelocks spoke rapid Hebrew into his cellphone. Fire escapes still fronted the brick buildings. The wares had been updated -- the handbags and shoes seemed to be at least from the 1980s -- but not upgraded.
Down the block, though, Earnest Sewn, a boutique in an ornate stone building with rusted iron balconies, proffered artfully torn $230 jeans, glossy Taschen coffee-table books and $25 wooden hairbrushes.
Across the street from the projects that line the area's east end, I found the Pickle Guys, which, it turns out, has been open only since 2002. Owner Al Kaufmann says he started the store specifically to bring pickles back to Essex Street, since many of the classic purveyors had left over the decades. I handed him a $20 bill for a 75-cent sour dill, plump, briny and brimming with possibility. "You want me to open an account for you?" he inquired with a raised eyebrow.
Next door, a Judaica shop sold teffilin, yarmulkes and tallis. Its Hebrew sign merged in my mind's eye with the jumble of Chinese and Bengali and Spanish signs suspended from other storefronts, offering a Depression-era tableau from a Berenice Abbott photo.
For a look at the immigrant heritage still so present, I bought a ticket to "Piecing It Together: Immigrants in the Garment Industry," one of several tours offered by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.
About 10 of us (a French family, a couple from Arlington, several New Yorkers) followed our guide to a nearby building. Opening the door, he revealed a dark hallway in all its peeling-paint, soot-covered glory. From the 1860s to the 1930s, when the area was New York's major immigrant portal, an estimated 7,000 people from 20 nations had lived in this building. In a three-room apartment, a dressmaker's model draped in fabric stood beside a sewing machine. The Levine family had run a small garment factory out of this space during the 1890s, our guide told us. Today, he claimed, about 180 sweatshops -- the none-too-flattering term given to small factories where workers toil in sub-par conditions, often for sub-legal wages -- still operate in the neighborhood.
As I exited the tour, I noticed that the street signs were marked "New York City Orchard Street Bargain District," even though $2 million apartments and $400 hotel rooms have invaded the area.
I encountered one newcomer, Phillia Kim Downs, flipping through a fashion magazine while sitting at the bar of the two-year-old designers' co-op, the Dressing Room. "The neighborhood's perfect for this," she said. "It has all of that tailoring history, and it's still relatively affordable." Downs's own work leans toward pop; others offer a more classic take. Downstairs, there's vintage.
I peeked into the much-talked-about Hotel on Rivington, all mock mod with its white and red tubular entryway and Space Age touches. Its restaurant, however, celebrates the surroundings with a courtyard situated between picturesquely dilapidated tenements.
Across the street, I spied Economy Candy, a neighborhood legend since 1937. The bulk barrels have given way to functional steel shelving, but there's still loose candy to be had for $1.99 a pound, and such vending machine classics as Beeman's gum sit next to $8 Scharffen Berger chocolate bars.
It was all very encouraging: newcomers embracing the past and oldsters stepping up to the future. The shop talk may have changed -- some 40 galleries can be found here -- and the eateries may have gotten fancier. Too many tenements have been defaced and even erased. But this place continues to feel different: Its unloveliness remains resolute, the Williamsburg Bridge still swoops off Delancey Street, and the jabber of multiple languages is ever-present. Endangered, maybe. But gone? Never.
JoAnn Greco is a Philadelphia-based writer and the co-founder of the online magazine the City Traveler (http://www.thecitytraveler.com).