Better take this tour quick. Anything that even resembles history in the Lower East Side is disappearing faster that Bloomberg's scruples. Some destinations, like Gertel's Bakery and the First Roumanian-American Congregation Synagogue, were lost only recently. Start on Houston Street, the northern border of the LES. Strangely enough, some of the best things left in the neighborhood are on this busy strip.
YONAH SCHIMMEL KNISHES: Amazing this place is still here, given it rents, not owns. Only joint in Manhattan that I know that specializes in the ur-NY delicacy, the knish. And they're pretty good, if you get them on a good day. The store's been here since 1910 and given the grumpiness of the help, it seems like they've been working straight since then. Check out the dumb waiter; it leads to a basement brick oven where the knishes are baked.
RUSS & DAUGHTERS: Two blocks east and four years younger, this "appetizing" store is as sleek and clean as Schimmel is creaky and dusty. An apt business model on how to honor tradition and stay contemporary simultaneously. The place gleams white with mouth-watering promise. For smoked fish and other bagel toppings, lower Manhattan has no match. But most anything's a good bet here.
KATZ'S DELI: The third business in the Olde Lower East Triumvirate completed by Yonah and Russ. The sprawling, byzantine, wondrous 121-year-old Katz's isn't just a good Jewish deli; it's a place like no other on the planet. The ticket-taking payment system is used by no one else in the City. The walls are living histories of ancient signage, past celebrity visitations and aged decor. Each counterman is a character with a sense of pride and a way of doing things. The meats are expensive, but a dog, fries and a Dr. Brown's will get you out cheaply. And whatever you do, Don't Lose Your Ticket!
ECONOMY CANDY: Turn down Essex Street, walk to Rivington and turn right. Wonder where all the candy in the world comes from? It comes from this place! Bursting with every sort of treat ever invented, from the low brow to the high end, and many you've probably forgotten about. In business since 1937.
STREIT'S MATZO FACTORY: Turn around and walk west a couple blocks. One of the older holdouts of what was once a Jewish stronghold, the Streit's factory and store at Rivington and Suffolk Streets has been here since 1925. (Shapiro's used to be right next door.) Most Streit's matzo are produced elsewhere, but this factory still turns out a fraction of the output, kept on mainly for tradition's sake. The factory's been put on the market, so don't depend of the matzo makers to be here forever. While you're here, look across the street at the imposing neo-Gothic P.S. 160 and imagine being an immigrant kid going there 100 years ago. Intimidating much?
ESSEX MARKET: Return to Essex Street. One of the last of the working indoor markets that were created in New York during the Depression. It's still a vibrant place of business with old-time green grocers alongside hoity-toity artisanal cheesemongers, as well as ancient kosher winemaker Shapiro's last foothold in the nabe. Plus a nook to house chef Kenny Shopsin's eccentricities. Roam, browse, eat.
KOSSAR'S BIALYS: Turn south on Essex and walk to Grand. Like Schimmel, Kossar's is a relic of a specialist. Bialys? Who does that anymore? They make bagels, too, but the onion-flecked bialys are works of art. The interior is just this side of a working factory (which it is), with wooden palettes, metal racks and flour everywhere. Too bad about the new character-free awning.
MIKVAH: Walk further west down Grand to where the street meets East Broadway. Here there is a Dutch-style building. Inside is a Mikvah, a ritualized bath used by Orthodox Jewish women once a month—one of the few such in the City.
BIALYSTOKER SYNAGOGUE: On your way back to Essex, turn right up Willet to take in this ancient, roughly beautiful 1928 house of worship, once a Methodist Episcopal Church. It looks so old, it might have been deposited here by a glacier millions of years ago.
FORWARD BUILDING: Walk all the way down Essex to East Broadway and gaze up at the majesty of the old Jewish Daily Forward newspaper building. The towering structure used to be a mess, but has now been shined up due to a condo conversion.
ELDRIDGE STREET SYNAGOGUE: Jog a few blocks east to Eldridge, between Division and Canal. There is arguably no house of worship more impressive than the flamboyant Moorish structure colloquially known as the Eldridge Street Synagogue. Built in 1886, it is slowly, bit by bit, being restored. Even in its half-finished state, it is awe inspiring, particular the large circular stained-glass window in the facade. It's open to the public most days; check times beforehand.
GUSS' PICKLES: Skip two blocks west to Orchard, and walk north towards Broome Street to find one of the last, and the oldest, picklemonger in the area. The old business used to be on Essex, and its story used to be a lot simpler. Now there's a war between this shop and one of Long Island as to who truly carries on the torch of the original Guss. Nevermind that. This Guss' is here, not in (ahem) Cederhurst, and the pickles barrels are filled with treats.
LOWER EAST SIDE TENAMENT MUSEUM: Walk up Orchard near Delancey to get an idea how life was (hard, punishing, many steps) for the original LES immigrants with a tour of this fine and compact museum.
MAX FISH/PINK PONY/THE HAT RESTAURANT: For the final block before getting back to Houston, use Ludlow Street, where, for a trip back to more recent LES history—the 1980s and 1990s—you'll find the well-preserved trio of the good-time bar Max Fish, cafe The Pink Pony and cheapo Mexican eatery El Sombrero ("The Hat"). Squint your eyes and you can easily imagine how the nabe's first wave of boho hipsters lived before they were priced out.
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