In case you haven't noticed from my postings, I've been spending a lot of time in Chinatown lately. I've unfairly ignored this neighborhood as a tourist trip for years. But lately, as the City gentrifies and homogenizes, I've come to recognize Chinatown as one of the few Manhattan neighborhoods to retain a fierce grip on its historical identity. Things change slowly here. Old buildings survive, and a low-scale architecture dominates. There is also still a sense of mystery and willful isolation to the area which one simply does not get in neighborhoods brimming with chain stores and fresh condos. One really doesn't know what's going on behind certain doors and hesitates before entering an unknown establishment.
I've mainly been walking around the tight knot of street that once represented the heart of old Chinatown: Mott, Bayard, Pell and Doyers. The other day, though, I went further south to the stretch of East Broadway between the Bowery and Manhattan Bridge. I've learned since that, in the past 20 years or so, this street has been a commercial hub for more recent waves of Chinatown immigrants. Vibrant and teeming, it certainly is.
But I was most struck by how the strip reminded me, more than any other street in Manhattan I can name, of what an immigrant commercial stronghold must have been like a century ago. People rushed to and fro, communicating mainly in their own languages. Liquor stores, countless barber shops, restaurants, a hole in the wall tea purveyor featuring a wall of wooden drawers, each containing a different blend. The street throbbed with an activity all its own that didn't have anything to do with the rest of the metropolis. The district seemed akin to an Essex Street or Hester Street circa 1900. (Granted, I can only base this opinion on photos I have seen and written accounts of the time.)
A block south was Henry Street. It, too, impressed me as a time capsule. The north side of the street boasted was an unbroken, unmodernized sting of tenements that surely had not changed in more than 100 years. Take a black-and-white picture of this streetscape and you could well imagine you were looking at the Lower East Side of the late 19th Century.
The details on many of these buildings are quite singular. One, well-maintained, five-story tenement bore twin carvings of roaring lion's heads on each floor and a cornice that read "Manhattan." Another has two rather lurid carytids on either side of the front entrance. I think the families living in that building have had to do a lot of explaining about those figure to their small children over the years.