I was on the Lower East Side the other night—someone made me go. Honest.
To make the best of a bad situation, I decided to stroll the northern-most block of Ludlow Street. It was a short trip down memory lane. Back in the early and mid '90s, I spent a good amount of time here. Ludlow is where the "rebirth" of the Lower East Side arguably began, with hip bars, restaurants, music clubs and boutiques springing up in the basements of old tenements. (It seemed innocent enough at the time; who knew then where it would lead?) So one might expect the street to be among the most utterly transformed by the area's recent gentrification and hipification.
Not so. Strangely enough, I found the block to be among the most unchanged in the neighborhood. Certainly, it is no longer even a shade of the LES of old. The pillow seller, the notions stores—every hardscrabble manufacturer in fact—are gone. But the street is a fairly well-preserved snapshot of how it looked in 1993 or so. There is, yes, a monstrous hulking condo thing at the north end of the street, inevitably christened The Ludlow (see above). But next to it are Max Fish and The Pink Pony (below), two hangouts that by now rank as ancient in LES years.
A few doors down is the even older El Sombrero Restaurant, better known to locals as "The Hat." Once upon a time, in the bad old LES, this was the only place you could get a cheap meal at 2 a.m. The salsa was amazing and the food was decent, if you ignored the urban folklore about the night a rat crashed through the ceiling and landed on someone's table. Poor musicians and actors ate there. It still seems to be a hipster hangout, just as it was then.
Other things are gone, or course. The anonymous black basement space above, a joint known as the Dark Room, used to be Todo Con Nada, a semi-legendary storefront theatre space that thrived in the 1990s, spawning a collective of minor downtown stage artists (the kind of people who win Obie Awards). The space often presented four different shows a night. It was run by one Aaron Beall, a Barnum type who lived upstairs and was once called the Joseph Papp of Off-Off-Broadway.
Next door is an old "Bar" sign, a remnant of the Ludlow Street Cafe, a bohemian music hall and popular brunch place which reigned at a time when you couldn't get brunch anywhere on the Lower East Side.
Pianos Restaurant and Bar has retained the old sign which once advertised an actual piano store. 15 years ago, while still a piano store, the space often hosted theatre productions in its back room. It was a venue in the first annual New York International Theatre Festival.
The 1990s history of Ludlow Street may not be as historically potent as the immigrant experiences that went down on the strip during the 150 years previous. But, for now, remnants of a genuine fringe artistic enclave are still visible. You take what you can get these days.