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The Immigrant Experience on NYC’s Lower East Side

Tenements were the backbone of the immigrant experience in New York. By 1900, over 2 million people lived in these buildings of squalor. Most of the apartments had not light, no ventilation, no fire escapes and were completely unsanitary (drinking water from a well less than 10 feet from outhouses). The world was shocked by the publication of Jacob Riis’ “How The Other Half Lives” in 1890 which detailed these horrid conditions. Yet, despite the squalor, a beautiful culture flourished in the slums of the Lower East Side.

We lived in Manhattan from 1999-2004, but have since moved away. When we lived here, this area south of Houston and east of Broadway was a bit of a mystery to us, so when we had the opportunity to take a Lower East Side walking tour, we jumped at the chance. Our guide is from Walks of New York, which specializes in many different New York walking tours.

Paparazzi street art mural
Street art in the neighborhood

If the United States is the great melting pot, this neighborhood is the broth – everyone’s first dip in the great soup. Originally an aristocratic neighborhood (home to Lord and Taylor and Brooks Brothers), successive waves of immigration brought millions of newcomers to the slums.

First came the Irish, followed by Germans, then Italians, then Eastern European Jews, and finally wave after wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in this area (although we could argue that that a new group is moving in – the Hipsters). With each new wave, the neighborhood evolved. Our tour helped us see the experiences of these latter immigrant groups.

Ideal Hosiery is one of the many garment businesses on the Lower East Side
One of the many garment businesses in the neighborhood

We started our Lower East Side walking tour at the Forward Building, home to New York’s English-language Jewish newspaper, learning about the early political and social transformations of the residents of the neighborhood.

As we walked past buildings, our Walks of New York tour guide, Jeff Dobbins, explained how early immigrant benevolent associations served important functions in the community and have evolved over time – from Jewish to Chinese. And he pointed out how the tenement buildings changed and conditions improved for the residents of the neighborhood.

Hebrew writing at the Eldridge Street Synagogue

The centerpiece of the tour is a visit to the Eldridge Street Synagogue and the Museum at Eldridge Street. This was the first synagogue built in the U.S. by Eastern European Jews. Built in 1886 with Moorish details for $91,000, the synagogue has been a centerpiece of Jewish life ever since.

Our docent, Sylvia Weiner, told us beautiful stories about the Jewish experience in New York. The Eldridge Street Synagogue was renovated in 2007, when electricity was finally added to the building! For us, the highlight was the beautiful stained glass designed by artist Kiki Smith (we’ve been huge fans of her work for years).

The Kiki Smith designed stained glass in the Museum at Eldridge Street on the Lower East Side
Eldridge Street Synagogue with Kiki Smith Stained Glass

After walking the streets for several hours, we’d built up a hunger and Walks of New York ensured the tour had many edible delights. We headed to Kossar’s Bialys. We’d never had a bialystoker kuchen (or bialy) before, despite having lived in New York for years (how we missed this, I’ll never know).

A bialy is basically a bagel without the hole in the center. Instead, it is indented and filled with onions or garlic. Bialys are also baked (vs. bagels which are first boiled in water before they are baked in an oven). Kossar’s is the oldest maker of bialys in the United States and these delightful rolls come piping hot out of a 500 degree oven. They’re best consumed hot and are absolutely delicious!

Man making bialys at Kossar's
A craftsmen making bialys

The tour then headed over to Essex Street for some playfully abusive treatment by The Pickle Guys. These guys dish barbs and jokes, along with their vast array of pickled vegetables. The Pickle Guys’ barrels of vinegar-based goodness are representative of the large numbers of pickle carts that used to clog this street over a hundred years ago.

Large tubs of pickled vegetables at The Pickle Guys
All types of vegetables are pickled

The tour concluded with the story of a local boy who made good: Yonah Shimmel. Yonah was a Romanian Jewish immigrant who used to sell knishes from a pushcart on the Lower East Side. He was very successful and soon opened a storefront on Houston Street in 1890.

Ever since, Yonah’s family has been hawking these delicious knishes from the Yonah Shimmel’s Knish Bakery (or as it’s known to locals: The Knishery). We had an egg cream and sampled the various knishes. We loved the potato, but were lukewarm on the cabbage.

Returning to New York City is always a sort of homecoming for us. We love to wander the streets, see how the city has changed and what it has to offer. The Lower East Side walking tour with Walks of New York is that experience on a grander scale – seeing how the streets of New York have changed over the last 140 years. This was both a fun and educational way to spend a day in the Big Apple.

Chinese dragon on a fire engine in Chinatown
Artifacts of Jewish culture inside the Museum at Eldridge Street on a Lower East Side walking tour
Artifacts within the Museum at Eldridge Street
Tray of fresh baked bialy at Kossar's
You had me at ‘Bialy’

Walks of New York hosted us on this tour. All opinions of the beautiful, unusual, and delicious on this amazing tour are our own.

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Wednesday 21st of May 2014

Jeff is such an excellent and knowledgeable guide to NYC's neighborhoods. Looks like an awesome tour!

Katie Featherstone

Tuesday 13th of May 2014

Sounds like an interesting and unusual tour. Your street and food photos are very colourful!

Lance | Trips By Lance

Thursday 1st of May 2014

I love the Lower East Side. We are visiting the city this summer and I hope to get some time walking around the neighborhood.


Tuesday 22nd of April 2014

One of the things I love about New York is that it's so multi cultural. You can go to any part of town and eat food from all over the world. Chinatown is one of our favorite places to visit. Thanks for sharing.


Tuesday 22nd of April 2014

I learned a lot from this post, haven't really read much about NY before. Those bagels look amazing!

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