Echoes of the past in the Lower Lower East Side . . .

My curious position in NY as a freelance housepainter brings me into odd neighborhoods, most recently to the area just south of the Williamsburg Bridge, the pocket of co-op hi-rises divided from the Lower East Side by the industrial bulk of the bridge, contained to the West by the ever-expanding bustle of Chinatown and to the East by the expressway and the river. 

The lower Lower East Side is a remnant of a time when the LES was Jewish (Leon Trotsky spent time there before heading back to Russia to play his part in the Glorious Proletarian Revolution), a collection of tenements like north of Delancey. In the 40’s and 50’s a coalition of Jewish socialists and organizations like the Ladies Garment Worker’s Union got together, bought land from the city, demolished the tenements and built co-ops to provide decent housing for their members – the current blocks of stolid brick hi-rises with their gated coutyards.

   Inside, the flats are comfortable enough, in that 40’s and 50’s hi rise kind of way with some odd curiousities – for example some elevators stop on every floor during the Sabbath because the Orthodox are not allowed to do work of any kind on that day. It is an odd neighborhood, neither one thing nor another. Parts of Grand Street remind me of suburban Jewish areas in Toronto, with Orthodox Jews in black suits and yarmulkes walking past strip mall like rows of bagel shops and delis. My first day in the neighborhood, a new deli had opened, and a woman was handing out containers of what smelled like chicken soup, next to a big bowl with what looked like the world’s biggest matzoh ball sitting in some sort of gravy – about as appetizing as a huge ball of lard.

Then comes the inevitable Chinese take-away, a pizza place staffed by overworked Latinos, a bike shop with the bikes piled up inside, repairs being done right out on the sidewalk with prospective customers standing around watching – an informality you rarely see in Manhattan amymore. 

Old Jews, pioneers I imagine from the original settlement, so old and bent over they need walkers or have to lean, bent right over, against a wall to wait for the bus, circulate in the daytime. Their children, or grandchildren, capitalists now, have sold off many of the co-ops and the professional class has moved in, yet for whatever reason they haven’t brought in the usual coffee shops, bars, what have you. 

Up Essex, the old pickle shop I remember from the first time I went to the area, is still there, further down the street a Jewish family-run paint store then, suddenly, in that classic Manhattan lack of transition, the Mandarin-scripted signs, the crowded streets of Chinatown. To the North, the brute industrial strength of the Williamsburg Bridge, the trains clattering back and forth behind the iron cage, then the even more brutal faces of the projects which ring that stretch of the Lower East Side, right up to 14th street – the ultimate example of the fortress style public housing, with sheer brick faces rising maybe fifteen stories high – housing built all over America in the 60’s, in an even more spectacular, and violent, failure than the the dismal concrete towers the same mindset built in Britain. 

Yet in the afternoon, the estates are quiet, the greens below the towers well-kept, city workers in blue uniforms circulating around the playgrounds, the old Puerto Rican men hanging around the shops along Pitt Ave, a postcard of the Manhattan I used to know . ..