Exploring the Lower East Side
Egg creams, historic synagogues, and more
By Arnold Berke | Online Only | Mar. 1, 2008
(Lower East Side Tenement Museum)
For more information on the Museum at Eldridge Street, visit www.eldridgestreet.org. There you will learn about tours of the 1887 synagogue; lectures, musical performances, school programs, and other events held there; and exhibitions on its restoration, histories of immigrant families, and the neighborhood. The site also offers historical photos of the synagogue and a slide show on the restoration process.
The neighborhood around the Museum at Eldridge Street is a rich tapestry of history, culture, and architecture—its very street names (Orchard, Canal, Bowery, Hester, Delancy, Rivington, etc.) redolent of the city's history. The best way to see the sights is to start just a few blocks away at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. To take a guided tour of this well-preserved tenement house at 97 Orchard St.—where 7,000 immigrants from 20 nations lived between 1863 and 1935—go first to the museum's visitors center and shop at 108 Orchard St. A guided tour will give you a peek at the lives of actual past residents—Sephardic Jews to Sicilian Catholics—who lived in the tenement and on the bustling streets of the neighborhood.
Take to those streets yourself to visit these landmarks:
+ Wing Shoon Restaurant / Garden Cafeteria (165 East Broadway): The diner is the former site of the Garden, a kosher dairy restaurant that ran from 1911 to 1983. Among its famous clientele of writers, intellectuals, and political activists was Nobel-Prize-winning novelist and short-story writer writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. The food was classic East European: matzoh-ball soup, herring, kasha, blintzes, and the like. As a sign of the ethnic times, the building is festooned with signs in Chinese.
+ Jewish Daily Forward Building (173 East Broadway): This was the home of the Yiddish daily the Forverts, the immigrant Jewish community's most influential newspaper. Founded in 1897, the publication was dedicated to informing and improving the lives of its readers and was a strong supporter of the labor movement. In its pages first appeared much of the early writings of Isaac Bashevis Singer. The building now houses condominiums.
+ Seward Park Library (192 East Broadway): One of the most-used branch libraries in New York, the 1910 structure held the largest collection of Yiddish books in the city. It has been completely renovated.
+ Educational Alliance (197 East Broadway): This 1889 building housed one of the earliest settlement houses in the neighborhood. It was built by uptown German Jews to aid their poorer East European "cousins." Among the offerings were citizenship classes and English instruction—but no classes in Yiddish. "Edgies," as it is now called, is a community center serving local groups of many ethnicities.
+ Shtiebel Row (East Broadway between Clinton and Montgomery streets): A block that once housed dozens of small storefront synagogues. A few shuls there continue to hold services today. The oldest yeshiva in America, Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem (established in 1907), is also on this block.
+ Mikvah of the East Side (311-13 East Broadway): This 1904 Beaux-Arts building first housed the Young Men's Benevolent Association and was converted into a mikvah (ritual bath) in 1941.
+ Henry Street Settlement (263-267 Henry St.): Three red-brick row houses served as the offices of this settlement house, founded in 1893 by Lillian Wald to provide home nursing care plus a variety of other social, cultural, and educational services.
+ Loew's Canal Street Theater (31 Canal St.): The narrow terra-cotta façade of the 1927 silent movie theater and its auditorium were designed by famous movie-house architect Thomas Lamb in the Spanish Baroque style. The auditorium is now an electronics warehouse.
+ Jarmulowsky Bank Building (corner of Canal and Orchard streets): This 1895 structure, in its day the tallest on the Lower East Side, once housed a bank established by Sender Jarmulowsky, a founding member of the Eldridge Street congregation. The bank went bankrupt in 1912.
+ Ira Gershwin Birthplace (60 Eldridge St.): The long-time lyricist partner of brother George and such other luminaries as Kurt Weil and Jerome Kern was born in 1896 in this tenement.
+ Kehila Kedosha Janina (280 Broome St.): Built in 1927 by a congregation whose members had emigrated from Janina, Greece, this is the only Romaniote synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. Romaniotes trace themselves back to Roman times. A museum of Greek-Jewish history is open on Sundays.
+ Bialystoker Synagogue (7 Willett St. at Grand St.): This structure, built as a Methodist church in 1826, was purchased by the Bialystoker congregation (emigrants from Poland) in 1905. It remains a very active congregation, and its sanctuary, adorned with murals of Zodiac signs, has been restored.
+ Former Anshe Slonim Synagogue (172 Norfolk St.): New York's oldest surviving synagogue and the first building on the Lower East Side erected as a synagogue (in 1850), the structure now houses the Angel Orensanz Foundation, a cultural center. The architect was Alexander Saeltzer, who also designed the old Astor Library (now the Public Theater).
+ Iglesia del Nazareno (61-63 Rivington St.): The colonial revival structure designed by McKim, Mead and White was built in 1905 as a branch of the New York Public Library. It featured an open-air rooftop reading room, which offered a naturally lit and breezy setting, at a time when many of its patrons lived in dark, cramped tenement quarters.
For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.