At Large

A Walk on the Lower East Side

You learn about immigrant life -- and find out about America's roots.

By 11.12.02

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So I am now a protected species, the New York lady was saying. She was at the corner of Broome and Orchard Streets on New York's Lower East Side, wryly contemplating the Tenement Museum. Admission is $9, and you make reservations in advance. You learn about immigrant life, and find out about your roots. But, as the New York lady was also saying, her parents had met and married on Hester Street only a few blocks away, but then they left the Lower East Side as soon as they could, and along with innumerable other Jewish families made their way to the Bronx. They wanted to put tenement life as far behind them as possible, so why, the New York lady asked, should she be interested in it now? Besides, she said darkly, the idea of a tenement museum struck her as self-conscious kitsch.

She may have had a point. In addition to discovering your roots at the museum, you may also hold a dinner party. The museum's "roster of selected caterers updates down-home recipes with gourmet meals that span the globe." The Lower East Side, in fact, is not what it was, and the old neighborhood exists now only in bits and pieces.

But what is there is worth seeing. For one thing, the fine old Bialystoker Synagogue on Wilet Street still stands. It was built as a church in 1826, but in 1905 it was bought by Jewish immigrants from Bialystok, Poland. Around the corner from the Tenement Museum, meanwhile, is the Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue. It is home to a dwindling congregation of Romaniote Jews, whose ancestors were shipwrecked off Greece some 2,000 years ago while they were being taken to Rome as slaves. Few people visit the synagogue now, but its tiny museum has a fine collection of Judaica, so perhaps more people should.

But it is unlikely that will happen. The people who visit the old neighborhood now are in search of other things. Orchard Street, where immigrants once sold goods from pushcarts, is still a place to find bargains. The pushcarts, however, have been replaced by big tables, and the salesmen now are mostly Asians or Hispanics. Leather jackets and luggage were moving briskly there at knock-down prices last Sunday.

The other big neighborhood attraction, of course, is the food. You start at Katz's Delicatessen on East Houston Street. It is big and barn-like, with formica tables, and it is almost always crowded. Katz's coined the slogan "Send a salami to your boy in the Army" in World War II, and the mostly Hispanic countermen now have it emblazoned on their T-shirts. A corned beef sandwich there last Sunday ($10.50) was a little dry, but the hot dogs ($2.50), as always, were incomparable. Even the New York lady said they were the best she ever tasted.

After Katz's, you just nosh. Guss Pickles lost its lease, but the other day it was selling crunchy sour pickles ($6 a quart), sauerkraut and garlic olives from big plastic tubs on the street just across the Tenement Museum. You go from there to Russ & Daughters on Houston Street for smoked fish, and then on to Kossar's Bialystoker Kuchen Bakery on Grand Street for bulkas. If the line at Kossar's is too long, however, you try your luck elsewhere. There is a tiny bakery not far away. It is really just a hole in the wall, and it sells bialys for 50 cents and miniature bagels for 30 cents. They are chewy and plain, and they are not tarted up with cinnamon or raisins or the other awful things they stick on them in supermarkets.

Meanwhile you may find yourself growing quite sentimental about the old Lower East Side. Most of the 2 million Jews who arrived in this country between the late 1800s and 1920 from Russia and Eastern Europe settled there, and amidst the tenements they established literary societies, theater companies and publishing houses. Their intellectual and artistic legacy was at least as great as that of the old Plymouth Colony. And they also gave us bialys.

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About the Author

John Corry is a former New York Times media critic and reporter.