Must-See Lower East Side
by Chris Wallace, 02/13/2013
Bowery Ballroom photo by Joe Buglewicz • Katz's Delicatessen photo by Julienne Schaer
"I had gone [to the Lower East Side] in pursuit of bohemia and youth culture," writes Luc Sante in the preface to his celebrated book Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, an alternative look at NYC's past from the mid–19th century to the early 20th century. "I wanted to know about New York as circus and jungle, as the realm of danger and pleasure, the wilderness that it must have been then, as it is now."
He came to the right place. The eastern tenderloin of Lower Manhattan (bordered by Houston Street to the north, Bowery to the west, Canal Street to the south and the East River) was once one of the City's primary hubs of vice and bohemia. But what Sante found there was really history in tidal form—immigrants piling up, displacing generations who had, in turn, displaced those before them. Today, the tenements that housed the first surges of European immigrants still stand, and are filled with wave after wave of new colonists. Around them endure totemic edifices of epochs gone by.
Over the past two decades, the Lower East Side (or "LES") became renowned for its bars and clubs, but the chaos that came to define the area during the oughts is ebbing. Nowadays, the area's dives, cheap restaurants and clothing wholesalers are giving way to that newest surge, gentrification. Older favorites like skater bar Max Fish and Mexican joint El Sombrero huddle in the shadows of massive glass apartment buildings, spacious galleries and sparsely designed gelaterias. But even if it is less a wilderness these days, the LES is still undeniably a circus—a melting pot of art, culture and culinary magic whose creativity often inspires the rest of the City and points beyond. For more information about what to do and see in the neighborhood, read on.