Last year, living in a bland NYU dorm on the outskirts of Chinatown, we chose to spend many weekend afternoons on the Lower East Side. We’d study at the coffee shop on Broome, eat donuts on Grand, or purchase teal tulle drop-waist dresses in a shop on Ludlow.
I had “discovered” this neighborhood my freshman year at NYU, assigned to a work/study job tutoring at P. S. 110, a brick building tucked beneath the Williamsburg Bridge on Delancey St., pushed just about as far east on the island as one can go.
I’d walk past Orchard Street every morning and greatly envy those that lived in the street’s old-fashioned apartments — those refurbished tenements above sun-filled coffee shops and little eyeglass stores and cafes. It was lively, with groups of people always huddled outside — but not busy in a hectic or sloppy way, like the frat-boy-filled sidewalks of nearby streets.
Of course, I thought it’d never be attainable to live here myself.
And so, when we began the apartment search, in the spring of that junior year, we began to look at apartments in the usual, more attainable places — windowless walk-ups in the East Village, a seedy-looking building in Alphabet City — and were beginning to strike out. But by some stroke of luck, scrolling through Craigslist listings one rainy Sunday afternoon, I spotted a headline boasting “Orchard St.” — and it was actually, somehow, within our price range. A few hours later, we had viewed the apartment and knew that we desperately wanted it.
To most prospective tenants, it likely was not ideal by any means. A small, T-shaped two-bedroom apartment on the 6th (and top) floor with no living area — simply a long, narrow hallway, with the two rooms jutting out on each side, and a tiny kitchen wedged between the bathroom and hallway. (Two of us in the larger bedroom would mean the twin beds would just about touch, leaving little room for any other furniture. Forget about a table for meals. Breakfast in bed! And lunch. And dinner…As for guests, well, they would learn to cozy up on the floor.)
But it was clean, and bright, and the downstairs lobby was filled with intricate, vintage details and the abundant windows looked out onto the fire escapes and rooftops across the street. And of course, it was on Orchard Street -– with all those classic tenement buildings and old-fashioned charm that had drawn us there in the first place.
And there was the Lower East Side’s crazy mix of it all: historic sites and graffiti-ed metal grates over bagel shops, old-timer Orthodox Jews, new upscale boutiques and the hipsters that frequent them, Dominican housing projects, dive bars, the sprawl of Chinatown across Allen Street, and the view of the Williamsburg Bridge spilling cars and bicyclists down Delancey Street into the evening. It was everything New York, boiled down into a neighborhood, and we loved it.
I was recently reading a restaurant review that declared that the Lower East Side –- and all its former charm — is “done.” I didn’t grow up in this neighborhood; After living here just a year, it’s hard to really claim it as “mine.” But it’s still sad to see the neighborhood change, to question if it can keep the same flavor that made the area so attractive in the first place. In just the one year we’ve lived here, long-standing restaurants and shops have closed, replaced by galleries, cafes with $25 sandwiches, shiny new condominiums, and myriad construction projects that never seem to go anywhere.
And even our own apartment. When we move out on June 1, the place will be gutted. This tiny, cozy apartment will be weaved into the units next door, forming huge, “luxury” 3-bedrooms — which I’m sure, will most likely have living areas. And so — the landlord likely itching to sweep us out of here — our rent ballooned with the new lease, construction was threatened, and we decided it was time to go. On to Brooklyn.
Weren’t we lucky to have lived on our favorite block? As dramatic as it sounds, it’s a remark we have made many times — every time we turned the corner onto our block, or sat on the stoop in the sun, or nibbled on tacos in the papel picado-covered restaurant across the street, looking out onto Orchard.
We’ve come to know the people here, our favorite restaurants, our favorite streets, the best way to spend a Saturday afternoon in the Lower East Side. Of course, we look forward to finding the same in our new Brooklyn neighborhood.
But still, it’s hard to leave Orchard Street.