"A New Page in an Unpredictable Tale," New York Times, February 2006
New York Times By Jeff Vandam Published February 26, 2006
LIKE almost every other point in the history of the Lower East Side, the first weeks of 2006 have been a time of inconsistency. Just as new luxury condominium developments begin to arrive by the bushel — the Blue building, 16 stories of pixelated blue glass currently rising above Norfolk Street, is one example — one of the earliest vanguards of the area's newfound prosperity, the restaurant 71 Clinton Fresh Food, is to close next month, never again to serve its salmon tartare and pork jowls.
For bad or good, it is the constant change and unpredictability that have attracted countless residents to what may be Manhattan's most unusual neighborhood. Each generation to arrive over the last two centuries has left its mark and contributed to the overall visual effect, from the Eastern European settlers of the 19th century to Chinese and Latin Americans in the 20th, to smirking hipsters and high-end condo buyers in the 21st.
"You still have bodegas where you can get a $3 sandwich right next to the fancy sandwich shop," said Joseph Cunin, executive director of the Lower East Side Business Improvement District. "For a lot of people, that may actually be newsworthy, that this neighborhood has intrinsic characteristics like that."
As tenement after tenement is gut-renovated, and buyers begin snatching up apartments in the cluster of towers near the East River sometimes known as Co-op Village, the Lower East Side is rapidly growing once again. For many new buyers, the neighborhood and, for the most part, its prices continue to pleasantly surprise.
"We were daunted by the prices of two-bedroom apartments in Manhattan," said George Kimmel, 47, who with his fiancée, Yoko Shirakata, 39, bought a two-bedroom apartment on the 15th floor in the Seward Park Housing Corporation tower for $710,000 last October. When the two began their search last year, their price range often steered them toward Brooklyn, where they didn't want to go. When they started researching the Lower East Side, they were pleasantly shocked by its value.
"We realized we could live there for the same price as Carroll Gardens or Park Slope," said Mr. Kimmel, a lawyer. (He and Ms. Shirakata, an accountant, are to marry next month.) "And one thing we learned when we moved into the neighborhood was that the prices for all kinds of things are cheaper — groceries are cheaper, the sundries you have to buy for the house are cheaper."
Now, the couple take pleasure in shopping at discount hardware shops and trying different dishes at China 88, a below-the-radar restaurant within a mall on East Broadway, all a short walk away. "We can get dim sum on Sunday without standing in line," Mr. Kimmel said.
What You'll Find
As advertised, the Lower East Side is nothing if not a staggeringly broad mix of lifestyles and cultures. Occupying a chunk of Lower Manhattan, the neighborhood offers a mix of old-school grit, ethnic multiplicity and, as of late, urban luxury. Nearly every block presents a surprise, from a company that makes skullcaps to a Mexican bakery, from a feminist bookstore to an accordion shop.
Yet no matter what the flavor, in nearly every part of the neighborhood one need walk only a few blocks to happen upon a newish property like the Hotel on Rivington, steel and glass opulence among tenements.
"We're kind of getting ringed with condos," said Neal Young, a broker at Halstead Property who lives in the neighborhood and specializes in co-ops there. "The Lower East Side has become obviously pretty hot, certainly north of Delancey."
Though estimates of the neighborhood's true boundaries differ — older maps included the East Village within the Lower East Side's purview — East Houston Street is now considered the northern border. With eight lanes of honking, creeping traffic and unbeatable standbys like Katz's Delicatessen, Houston is also the main thoroughfare for partygoing gadabouts, who exit the Second Avenue F train station and turn onto streets like Ludlow and Clinton, bastions of stylish bars and restaurants.
Aside from tenements, condo buildings and the rare town house, many buyers are concentrating on Co-op Village, a mass of brick towers and thousands of apartments dating from before World War II to the late 1950's. Several years ago, price caps in the buildings, originally built by labor unions, were abandoned. Since then, their roomy floor plans and spectacular views have been getting noticed, despite some buildings' limited proximity to a subway station.
South of Delancey Street, a rumbling roadway that ends at the Williamsburg Bridge, life is quieter, with less-trafficked streets and fewer buzz-generating nightspots. As for a southern border, the Lower East Side more or less stretches through parts of Chinatown to streets near the Manhattan Bridge, home to Seward Park, the Henry Street Settlement, countless restaurants and markets and housing projects.
What You'll Pay
Despite its large land area and apartment stock, the actual housing market seems smaller than many Manhattan neighborhoods, and availability is low.
"There's just not enough to go around," said Glenn Schiller, a senior vice president at the Corcoran Group. "People still desire to be there, because for the same comparable space in SoHo or NoLIta, you're going significantly higher in price."
Yet as several new condo towers ascend skyward, so do prices. According to Mr. Schiller, $850 to $950 is the average price per square foot in the neighborhood, though some new buildings approach $1,000 or more. The buildings represent a rising tide that, along with cachet-creating clubs and restaurants, has drastically changed the overall cost picture.
"The numbers have been pretty staggering," said Mr. Young of Halstead. "In the last four years, you saw basically a doubling of prices."
At the Blue building, perhaps the most watched of the area's new developments, prices for one-bedroom condos start at $775,000, and at this early point in the building's construction, more than 30 percent of its 32 units are in contract, according to Barrie Mandel, a Corcoran senior vice president.
In Co-op Village, starting prices can be half those of new condos, though many entering the market need some renovation. Yet according to Jacob Goldman, a broker and the owner of LoHo Realty, significant increases in those buildings have also occurred.
"A one-bedroom didn't even go for $200,000" a few years ago, Mr. Goldman said. "Now they're at $400,000-plus, but it's still way below anything else in the market."
In the last month, his firm sold an unrenovated two-bedroom co-op in the Seward Park building for $650,000 and a recently renovated efficiency for $377,000.
One-bedroom apartments, said Mr. Young of Halstead, sell in the mid- to upper-$400,000 range.
The rental market is also a mixed bag. One-bedroom units generally start at around $1,700 a month, with two-bedrooms starting in the mid-$2,000's, though luxe accommodations command much more.
What to Do
As Ms. Takashira and Mr. Kimmel, the new buyers in the Seward Park building, have found, the dense and diverse neighborhood often reveals isolated secrets, like restaurants and bars that seem made just for them. There are also cultural mainstays, like the Landmark Sunshine Cinema on East Houston Street, which shows independent and foreign films. There are too many bars and restaurants to mention, but Clinton Street remains the neighborhood's upscale food court.
A Whole Foods is planned for the first phase of the Avalon Chrystie Place rental complex at the Bowery and Houston Street, though a spokesman said it would not open for another year. Meanwhile, a Y.M.C.A. is scheduled to open in the building next month (tours are available).
Yet residents need not wait for Whole Foods to find a vast array of shopping, as both the Bowery and Chinatown offer more variety in household goods and food than any one store could ever aspire to.
The Lower East Side has a number of public school options, with nearly two dozen schools in all. Several elementary schools have high percentages of students scoring well on state and city tests, including Public School 42 on Hester Street, where 76.4 percent of students met standards in English Language Arts and 83.6 in math, compared with citywide averages of 48.1 and 55 percent.
There are fewer middle schools; at M.S. 131 on Hester Street, 68.2 percent of students met standards in math and 42.1 percent in English Language Arts, compared with 35.5 percent and 38.9 percent citywide.
Though the neighborhood has several high schools, few listed average SAT scores on the most recent city school report cards. One that did was Seward Park High School on Grand Street, where students averaged 356 on the verbal part and 509 on math, compared with statewide averages of 497 and 511.
James de Lancey once held sway over the area, owning a large farm that was eventually carved up into streets, with some like Norfolk and Essex deriving their names from counties of England. As tenements rose during the first half of the 19th century, the area quickly gained a reputation as an enclave of working-class immigrants that has only lately begun to fade.
The Irish were first, followed by Jews and Eastern Europeans, who dominated the neighborhood until the mid-20th century. Conditions were notably squalid, as reflected in tours of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum on Orchard Street.
As in much of New York after World War II, decline and abandonment came quickly, to be followed by a new rush of immigrants from Latin America and China, populations that remain strong today.
The neighborhood's train lines are the F and the J, M and Z, with the F typically getting passengers to Midtown in under 20 minutes. Residents of Co-op Village often take the M14 and M22 buses for short rides to several subway stations.
What We Like
Having the perfect Lower East Side gastro-fest: chomping on a few gherkins at Guss's Pickles on Orchard Street, some Chinese pork jerky at Ling Kee on Canal Street and a broccoli knish at Yonah Schimmel on East Houston Street.
What We'd Change
The F train, the area's main mode of transportation, is not as frequent as residents say they would like, and it is a long walk from much of the neighborhood. The F is partnered with the V train, which ends at Second Avenue.