Lower East Side (Manhattan) tour
Beyond the typical neighborhood tour: history, heritage, and the cutting edge.
The Lower East Side is New York's (and the nation's) great immigrant neighborhood, most notably the gateway for Jews from Eastern Europe, who left an enormous imprint. (Some 80% of American Jews can trace their heritage to the Lower East Side.)
A visit to the neighborhood offers many signs of that heritage--in religious institutions, social service agencies, labor monuments, and retail stores. But that is hardly the full picture of the neighborhood today.
A walk around the Lower East Side reveals complexity and contradiction, with layers of immigration (from Europe and later China) and migration (from Puerto Rico), union-built housing, changes wrought by community organizing, and, most recently, enormous changes wrought by gentrification.
So it's unwise to focus simply on nostalgia, though significant legacy businesses--like Katz's Deli, Russ & Daughters appetizing shop, and Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery--have bridged the neighborhood's past and present, and are worth a visit (at least if we can avoid lines!).
After decades of decline, the Lower East Side has become a "hot" neighborhood, with waves of gentrifiers following the earlier immigrants/migrants, and the artists and nonconformists who embraced the less buffed version of the neighborhood. In the evening, it's a nightlife magnet.
Your guide's grandparents lived and worked on the Lower East Side. He was taken to the neighborhood as a child by his parents. As an adult, he has wandered, dined, partied, and performed on the Lower East Side.
Lower East Side tour highlights
We can walk briskly and thus see much more of the neighborhood than most other tours.
Our tour typically includes: a visit to Kossar's Bialys, the New York's famed bialy bakery (and next to the great Doughnut Plant). Also worth a stop are Yonah Schimmel's Knishery, The Pickle Guys. and the expansive Essex Street Market. We can also pop into Katz's Deli and/or Russ & Daughters, depending on crowds. (Recommendation: start early.)
We can snack (or not), but this is by no means mainly a food tour. We will go past the Eldridge Street Synagogue, the first great synagogue built by Eastern European Jews, in what is today Chinatown. (They offer hour-long tours, for a fee, on most days.)
We will see synagogues converted from churches, former synagogues converted to a church and a Buddhist temple, and even a functioning church that predates immigration. We'll see housing built for the poor and working-class, some of which still serves that function, the new luxury condos that symbolize the neighborhood's gentrification and the new Essex Crossing development project that's replaced, among other things, the historic Essex Street Market, which has returned in new form.
We'll view the building that once housed the Jewish Daily Forward, housing built by the activist garment workers union, and various "settlement houses" built to educate and assimilate immigrants, which have evolved their social services for today's clientele.
Other sights include the performance spaces, galleries, restaurants, and nightclubs of the "new" Lower East Side, plus some clusters of street art. The Lower East Side is by no means a unit; it has disparate elements geared to newcomers with more money and to longer-standing residents with less.
To some degree, the spirit of the old Jewish Lower East Side--a crowded, teeming area with new arrivals--persists: it's manifested in Chinatown, which has encroached significantly on the old boundaries of the Lower East Side.
Also nearby: East Village & Little Ukraine
If time, we can explore a piece of the East Village, once considered within the boundaries of the Lower East Side, home to the "Yiddish Rialto," and some former/extant synagogues.
Some blocks of the East Village also map Little Ukraine, including restaurants, churches, stores, and organizations that have persisted, as the population has dispersed.
The East Village, even more than the Lower East Side, has become a place to eat, drink, and party, but also has a significant history of tenant activism, squatting, and counter-cultural activities.
Distance from Midtown Manhattan: 15-25 minutes by subway/bus/taxi
Basic tour length: 2-2.5+ hours (see fees)
Starting place: Varies, but typically near an F train stop (Essex Market or Houston Street).
Ending place: Varies, but typically near Houston Street or Delancey Street.
Highlights: Immigrant history, Jewish history, new development, shopping and snacking, galleries
Before (or after) tour: Visit Tenement Museum (please book separately)
After (or during) tour: Visit Katz's to eat. (Here's an entertaining article and video about Katz's.) Many snacking opportunities: knishes at Yonah Schimmel's, the Essex Street Market, Kossar's Bialys, and more. Note: Yonah Schimmel's and The Pickle Guys are certified kosher; the others are not.
Potential tour extensions with me: Williamsburg (just across Williamsburg Bridge to Brooklyn). A piece of the East Village (formerly considered part of the Lower East Side), which includes the old Yiddish Rialto, and remnants of Little Ukraine.
Why I like leading this tour: This neighborhood is easily pigeonholed in movies or memory (or even some other available tours) as a few iconic businesses, but there's so much more to show people.