Due to the fairly limited size of Manhattan and its relentless pace of development, or gentrification, or cannibalization, or whatever you want to call it, it’s easy to feel like none of its corners are left unturned. By which I mean, any given section of the island can be representative of any other, interchangeable, held up as the Manhattan of RIGHT NOW. None of it is outside the market, the connection, outside the knowledge that every square inch is equal to so much money. No place is set-up to surprise you; everybody walks these streets.
Which is why I think my new obsession is going to become the Lower East Side. I’m not talking about Orchard or Ludlow and their obscene Bourbon Street-esque weekend nights. I’m thinking more of the south-southeast elbow of the place – where the streets run basically true east west, pointed straight towards the Woolworth Building, diagonal to the grid. Whenever I find myself around these parts my first thought is always, “Oh right, New York keeps going here, this isn’t water yet.” Then I imagine what it used to look like, before the whole area was razed and replaced by giant public housing. It basically looked like what the Orchard & Ludlow blocks remain today – old tenements (sans the new large glass condos). You can still get some of that scene the closer you get to the Manhattan Bridge.
But the current paradigm and lay-out of the rest of the area helps give it its removed feel. These large apartment buildings make for swathes of open space, where the sunlight can shine in from more than just a certain angle. The streets are wider, and less busy – there’s the kind of lull you’d find across the river, in another borough. And then scattered throughout these (generally) post-war behemoths, you’ll come across the occasional old building, left over from another time. Of course, being myself, that’s the main thing that I’m looking for. It’s interesting to note which type of structures survived, given that there had to be a conscious decision to spare them from the wrecking ball.
So it’s not surprising that so many of them are houses of worship, some amongst the oldest in the city. Bialystoker Synagogue was founded as a congregation in 1865, by a group of Jews from Bialystok, Poland. They met first on Hester Street, then Orchard, before merging with a second congregation and moving to Willett Street (now Bialystoker Place) in 1905. But the building they moved into was even older. They purchased and converted (hehe) the old Willett Street Methodist Episcopal Church, which had itself been built in 1826, when the Lower East Side was becoming a wealthy residential district. The church was one of four in the LES – all still standing – to have been constructed from Manhattan schist quarried from the nearby Mount Pitt, on what would become Pitt Street. It became a common occurrence in the neighborhood for Jewish congregations to take over churches, as their own congregations moved away with the changing demographics.
Another of the Manhattan schist churches sits around the corner from Bialystoker Synagogue, on 290 Henry Street. Built originally in 1829 as the All Saint’s Free Episcopal Church (”free” because they didn’t charge rent for pews) it is today owned by Trinity Church, and houses their Saint Augustine’s Chapel. All Saint’s grew out of a mission established by the General Theological Seminary, by the site of the old Grand Street Ferry to Brooklyn. It grew under the leadership of Colonel Marinus Willett, the same Willett who would give his name to Willett Street, before Bialystoker Synagogue established itself there, and for which the street was eventually renamed. The synagogue currently refers to itself as the most active congregation in the Lower East Side. I’m not sure how Saint Augustine’s does.
Now there’s something predictably hypocritical about these churches and synagogues being preserved while everything else was torn down around them – in the process known as slum clearance. Sure, the idea may have come from good intentions: to replace cheap housing with a better kind of cheap housing, but I don’t know if you could call the results a success. What makes a neighborhood poor is that poor people live there. By which I mean it’s the people you have to help, not just the neighborhood. Is it enough to say, here’s where all the lower income folks can live? Here, we’ve carved out a proscribed space for you. You can clearly see the boundaries. Until we move you somewhere else. But don’t worry, we’re going to keep your churches and temples around, because, you know, what we really care about are your souls.
(Originally posted Oct. 9th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)