The Lower East Side, sometimes abbreviated as LES, is a neighborhood in the southeastern part of the New York City borough of Manhattan, roughly located between the Bowery and the East River, and Canal Street and Houston Street. Traditionally an immigrant, working-class neighborhood, it began rapid gentrification in the mid-2000s, prompting The National Trust for Historic Preservation to place the neighborhood on their list of America’s Most Endangered Places.
The Lower East Side is roughly bounded by the Bowery to the west, East Houston Street to the north, the F.D.R. Drive to the east and Canal Street to the south. The western boundary below Grand Street veers east off of the Bowery to approximately Essex Street.
The neighborhood is bordered in the south and west by Chinatown – which extends north to roughly Grand Street, in the west by NoLIta and in the north by East Village.
Historically, the “Lower East Side” referred to the area alongside the East River from about the Manhattan Bridge and Canal Street up to 14th Street, and roughly bounded on the west by Broadway. It included areas known today as East Village, Alphabet City, Chinatown, Bowery, Little Italy, and NoLIta. Parts of the East Village are still known as Loisaida, a Latino pronunciation of “Lower East Side.” Avenue C is known directly as “Loisaida” and is home to the Loisaida Festival every summer.
Politically, the neighborhood is located in New York’s 8th, 12th, and 14th congressional districts, the New York State Assembly’s 64th district, the New York State Senate’s 26th district, and New York City Council’s 1st and 2nd district.
One of the oldest neighborhoods of the city, the Lower East Side has long been a lower-class worker neighborhood and often a poor and ethnically diverse section of New York. As well as Irish, Italians, Poles, Ukrainians, and other ethnic groups, it once had a sizeable German population and was known as Little Germany (Kleindeutschland). Today it is a predominantly Puerto Rican and Dominican community, and in the process of gentrification (as documented by the portraits of its residents in the Clinton+Rivington chapter of The Corners Project.)
The Lower East Side is perhaps best known as having once been a center of Jewish culture. In her 2000 book Lower East Side memories: A Jewish place in America, Hasia Diner explains that the Lower East Side is especially remembered as a place of Jewish beginnings in contemporary, impoverished Ashkenazi American Jewish culture. Vestiges of the area’s Jewish heritage exist in shops on Hester and Essex Streets, and on Grand Street near Allen Street. There is still an Orthodox Jewish community with yeshiva day schools and a mikvah. A few Judaica shops can be found along Essex Street and a few Jewish scribes and variety stores. Some kosher delis and bakeries as well as a few “kosher style” delis, including the famous Katz’s Deli, are located in the neighborhood. Downtown Second Avenue on the Lower East Side was the home to many Yiddish theatre productions in the Yiddish Theater District during the early part of the 20th century, and Second Avenue came to be known as ‘Yiddish Broadway’, though most of the theaters are gone. Songwriter Irving Berlin, actor John Garfield, and singer Eddie Cantor grew up here. More recently, it has been settled by immigrants, primarily from Latin America.
In what is now the East Village, the earlier population of Poles and Ukrainians has been largely supplanted with newer immigrants, and the arrival of large numbers of Japanese people over the last fifteen years or so has led to the proliferation of Japanese restaurants and specialty food markets. There is also a notable population of Bangladeshis and other immigrants from Muslim countries, many of whom are congregants of the small Madina Masjid (Mosque), located on First Avenue and 11th Street.
The neighborhood also presents many historic synagogues, such as the Bialystoker Synagogue, Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the Eldridge Street Synagogue, Kehila Kedosha Janina (the only Greek synagogue in the Western Hemisphere), the Angel Orensanz Center (the fourth oldest synagogue building in the United States), and various smaller synagogues along East Broadway. Another landmark, the First Roumanian-American congregation (the Rivington Street synagogue) partially collapsed in 2006, and was subsequently demolished. In addition, there is a major Hare Krishna temple and several Buddhist houses of worship.
Incoming Chinese people have also made their mark on the Lower East Side in recent decades. The part of the neighborhood south of Delancey Street and west of Allen Street has in large measure become part of Chinatown, and Grand Street is one of the major business and shopping streets of Chinatown. Also contained within the neighborhood are strips of lighting and restaurant supply shops on the Bowery.
While the Lower East Side has seen a series of immigrant communities pass through, American Jews relate to the neighborhood in a particularly strong manner, much as Chinatown in San Francisco holds a special place in the imagination of Chinese Americans, and Astoria in the hearts of Greek Americans. In the late twentieth century, the strong pull of the Lower East Side on the imagination of American Jews led to the preservation of a number of buildings associated with the Jewish immigrant community.
The East Village was once considered the Lower East Side’s northwest corner. However, in the 1960s, the demographics of the area above Houston Street began to change, as hipsters, musicians, and artists moved in. Newcomers and real estate brokers popularized the East Village name, and the term was adopted by the popular media by the mid-1960s. As the East Village developed a culture separate from the rest of the Lower East Side, the two areas came to be seen as two separate neighborhoods rather than the former being part of the latter.
In the early 2000s, the gentrification of the East Village spread to the Lower East Side, making it one of the trendiest neighborhoods in Manhattan. Orchard Street, despite its “Bargain District” moniker, is now lined with upscale boutiques. Similarly, trendy restaurants, including Clinton St. Baking Company & Restaurant, wd~50, Cube 63, and Falai are found on a stretch of tree-lined Clinton Street that New York Magazine described as the “hippest restaurant row” in the Lower East Side.
In November 2007, the Blue Condominium, a 32-unit, 16 story luxury condominium tower was completed at 105 Norfolk Street just north of Delancey Street, the pixellated, faceted blue design of which starkly contrasts with the surrounding neighborhood. Following the construction of the Hotel on Rivington one block away, several luxury condominiums around Houston, and the New Museum on Bowery, this new wave of construction is another sign that the gentrification cycle is entering a high-luxury phase similar to in SoHo and Nolita in the previous decade.
More recently, the gentrification that was previously confined to north of Delancey Street continued south. Several restaurants, bars, and galleries opened below Delancey Street after 2005, especially around the intersection of Broome and Orchard Streets. The neighborhood’s second boutique hotel, Blue Moon Hotel, opened on Orchard Street just south of Delancey Street in early 2006. However, unlike The Hotel on Rivington, the Blue Moon used an existing tenement building, and its exterior is almost identical to neighboring buildings. In September 2013, it was announced that the Essex Crossing redevelopment project was to be built in the area, centered around the intersection of Essex and Delancey Streets, but mostly utilizing land south of Delancey Street.
The neighborhood has become home to numerous contemporary art galleries. One of the very first was ABC No Rio. Begun by a group of Colab no wave artists (some living on Ludlow Street), ABC No Rio opened an outsider gallery space that invited community participation and encouraged the widespread production of art. Taking an activist approach to art that grew out of The Real Estate Show (the take over of an abandoned building by artists to open an outsider gallery only to have it chained closed by the police) ABC No Rio kept its sense of activism, community, and outsiderness. The product of this open, expansive approach to art was a space for creating new works that did not have links to the art market place and that were able to explore new artistic possibilities.
Other outsider galleries sprung up throughout the Lower East Side and East Village—some 200 at the height of the scene in the 1980s, including the 124 Ridge Street Gallery among others. In December 2007, the New Museum relocated to a brand-new, critically acclaimed building on Bowery at Prince. A growing number of galleries are opening in the Bowery neighborhood to be in close proximity to the museum. The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space, which opened in 2012, exhibits photography featuring the neighborhood in addition to chronicling its history of activism.
The neighborhood is also home to several graffiti artists, such as Chico.
Nightlife and live music
As the neighborhood gentrified and has become safer at night, it has become a popular late night destination. Orchard, Ludlow and Essex between Rivington Street and Stanton Street have become especially packed at night, and the resulting noise is a cause of tension between bar owners and longtime residents. However, as gentrification continues, many established landmarks and venues have been lost.
The Lower East Side is also home to many live music venues. Punk bands played at C-Squat and alternative rock bands play at Bowery Ballroom on Delancey Street and Mercury Lounge on East Houston Street. Punk bands play at Otto’s Shrunken Head and R-Bar. Punk and alternative bands play at Bowery Electric just north of the old CBGB’s location, while lesser-known bands played at Tonic (which closed on April 13, 2007) and Rothko (now closed) on Suffolk Street. There are also bars that offer performance space, such as Pianos, the Living Room, and Cake Shop on Ludlow Street and Arlene’s Grocery on Stanton Street.
The Lower East Side is the home to many private parks, such as La Plaza Cultural. The Sara D. Roosevelt Park and Seward Park are among the public parks in the area.
The Lower East Side Preparatory High School is a second-chance school that enables students, aged 17–21, to obtain their high school diplomas. It is a bilingual Chinese-English school with a high proportion of Asian students.
The Seward Park Campus comprises five schools with an average graduation rate of about 80%. The original school in the building was opened 1929 and closed 2006.
There are multiple New York City Subway stations in the neighborhood, including Grand Street (B D), Bowery (J Z), Second Avenue (F), Delancey Street – Essex Street (F J M Z), and East Broadway (F). New York City Bus routes include M9, M14A, M14D, M15, M15 SBS, M21, M22, M103, B39.
The Williamsburg Bridge and Manhattan Bridge connect the Lower East Side to Brooklyn. The FDR Drive is on the neighborhood’s south and east ends.
There are multiple bike lanes in the area. Bike lanes are present on Allen, Chrystie, Clinton, Delancey, Grand, Houston, Montgomery, Madison, Rivington, Stanton, and Suffolk Streets; Bowery, East Broadway, and FDR Drive; the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges; and the East River Greenway.