May 22, 2008

Walking Off the Lower East Side: Henry Street



Henry Street was quiet when I visited. It's hard to imagine that the entire Lower East Side was once the most densely populated place on earth. At the peak of immigration into New York, the number of extended families living in cramped conditions in unsafe tenements buildings created conditions of extreme social stress. Walking past the Henry Street Settlement buildings (there are several stretched out over the neighborhood), I thought how tough it must have been for the immigrants and for the social workers like founder Lillian Wald. If I had grown up here under these conditions, all I would think about was how to get out.

The settlement associations still respond to the needs of the neighborhood residents, because those never go away. In fact, New York now has the greatest number of immigrants and foreign born (about 37%) since 1910, but many of the new residents live in homogeneous neighborhoods in other boroughs of the city. Chinatown is still expanding, but the older ethnic enclaves in lower Manhattan have withered. The value of Manhattan real estate forces economic pressures to tear down and build up, and so the ensuing gentrification of the past few years has erased some of the history.

It's a tough history to save. In reading some of the online comments on the NYT responding to the National Trust's listing of the Lower East Side on the Endangered Places list, I was surprised, and then not, by some of the hostile opinions. One line of argument is that the traditional life of the Lower East Side is long gone and that there's no point in trying to save it. The city should belong to the living, they say.

Well, I guess it's changing anyway. When I was in one of the Kosher bakeries this week, the owner was resigned to the fact of change. She said that the young people want to be doctors and lawyers. They don't want to be shopkeepers and keep the bakeries open.

Walking Henry Street, especially with the Federal and Greek Revival architecture of the Henry Street Settlements, gives the illusion of being in an even older New York, one long before the great waves of immigration.

Images: Top, "sign of the times"; top left, Henry Street Settlement; top right, apartment building, corner of Henry and Jefferson Streets, Lower East Side.

Part of a series about the Lower East Side. See related posts.
See map at the post Walking Off the Lower East Side: The Slow Fade to Shade.

More images at Flickr WOTBA.

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