East Village (Manhattan) tour
A rich and complicated neighborhood with numerous facets
Consider combining (part of) the East Village with (part of) the Lower East Side for a longer tour that encompasses what was once seen as a single neighborhood.
From 14th Street to Houston Street, the East Village was once considered part of the greater Lower East Side, albeit with an activist history of its own. But since the 1960s, it's carved out a different identity or, rather, identities, from college town (NYU, New School, Cooper Union) to hippies and punks, from nightlife capital to home of churches (some quite creative), synagogues, and mosques. It's got the famous St. Marks Place, as well as far less-traveled streets.
Depending on how you look at it, the East Village is a neighborhood where tenant activists and squatters/homesteaders reclaimed streets plagued by blight (and the drug trade), birthed community gardens from rubble, and established affordable housing--and a place where real estate developers have relentlessly renovated and built anew. Or, maybe, it's both--because it contains multitudes.
The East Village houses Little Tokyo and also a string of modern Chinese restaurants, but once was "Little Germany: (aka Kleindeutschland) and a home for eastern European Jewish immigrants.
It's a neighborhood with small restaurants, quirky shops, and a lively bar scene, as well as a thriving home for the arts, including visual arts, spoken word, music, and theater--even as small venues, and the wild spirit of decades past, diminish.
It's a tolerant neighborhood, home to a longstanding gay presence, as well as numerous social service organizations. In fact, a homeless shelter on the Bowery neighbors the chi-chi John Varvatos shop that once housed the punk mecca CBGB.
The East Village today also houses the institutions (museum, credit union, churches) and restaurants of Little Ukraine, which has gained new attention since Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine. There's also a smaller Polish and Slovenian presence, as well as remnants of an Irish one.
The neighborhood contains the lost Yiddish Rialto, with the remnant Walk of Fame outside the (former) Second Avenue Deli, as well as several synagogue buildings, some extant and others converted, that, when built, were in the Lower East Side.
At the western end of the East Village are Union Square and Astor Place, sites where commercial development has proceeded most forcefully, feeding on the proximity of the West Village and the growing university presence.
At the eastern end is Alphabet City (Avenues A,B,C, & D), around Tompkins Square Park, with part of the area dubbed "Loisaida" (Spanglish for "Lower East Side") by the Nuyorican population, those Puerto Ricans (and their descendants) who arrived significantly in the 1940s and 1950s. That eastern section has a particularly large array of community gardens, which signal how community spirit trumped abandonment.
East Village tour highlights
We can walk briskly and thus see much more of the neighborhood than most other tours.
That means we can range from Union Square at the north to Houston Street at the south, and from the Bowery at west to Avenue C/D at the east. The western end is well-gentrified, the eastern far less so, depending on the blocks. (Avenue D is anchored by public housing.)
We'll see some unusual things, like the magical mosaics a neighborhood artist added to light poles, the city's first public housing development, and an early 19th-century garden cemetery. We can walk on busy St. Mark's Place, other more charming shopping & dining blocks., and go to Tompkins Square Park and other sites memorialized in Rent.
If you're hungry, we can snack, but it would unwise just to focus on food. That said, there are numerous bakeries, ice cream shops, coffeehouses, and a classic Italian pasticceria. If you want any dinner or drinking recommendations, let me know.
Distance from Midtown Manhattan: 10-20 minutes by subway/bus/taxi
Basic tour length: 2.5+ hours (see fees). Longer if we add the adjacent Lower East Side.
Starting place: Varies, but typically near Union Square. We can also start near Houston Street or Astor Place/Cooper Square.
Ending place: Depends on starting place.
Highlights: Immigrant history, Jewish history, new development, shopping and snacking,
Before (or after) tour: Union Square Greenmarket (M,W,F, Sat.). Many food & snack options.
After (or during) tour: Many food & drink options.
Potential tour extensions with me: Lower East Side. Williamsburg (easy trip on L train to Brooklyn).
Why I like leading this tour: The East Village is large and complicated, with many layers. Some (good) tours focus on food, or punk rock history, or Little Ukraine, or architecture. I've finally spent enough time scouting around to synthesize a wide-ranging tour.