Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Short Time in the Big Apple: Lower East Side

By Jeff Burns

My wife and I made a quick trip to New York City during winter break, and since it was February, we decided to make it as indoors as possible, concentrating on museum visits. We got a good deal on a hotel on 7th Avenue, near Times Square and conveniently located near several subway stops.  After checking in, we headed to the legendary Katz's Deli, a NYC institution since 1888, made famous in television shows and movies like When Harry Met Sally It’s an icon.  You have to go there once.  Honestly, I’ve had better  - and worse - deli food, but it’s an experience.  Like everything else in the city, it’s claustrophobically crowded, and they use a unique, maybe confusing, system that you have to puzzle through.  You’re given a ticket upon entry and you line up at a carving station to order your sandwich. If you want sides and drinks, you line up at other stations.  Your orders get marked on your ticket, and then you try to find a table, elbow to elbow with other patrons. Cash only. I don’t know that we’ll ever go back, but we can say that we’ve done it.

Our first museum was the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.  It was kind of a conscious decision to do this first, because we knew that it would make a powerful impact, and it certainly does.  The only place that I can compare it to in terms of the somber tone and mood is the United States Holocaust Museum.  Be prepared.  Every exhibit is incredibly effective at being affective.  The attacks and their aftermath are personalized by the informative and tastefuly done displays.  Lines can be long, but you can purchase advance tickets online.

Next, it was off to the Lower East Side, neighborhoods full of history as they were occupied by successive waves of immigrants who made the area their home, Germans then Russian Jews and Eastern Europeans, Italians, Portuguese, Hispanics, Chinese, etc.  The place to start is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum where a former tenement, occupied for over a century until the 1880s, has been restored to represent different stages of its use.  The building itself is only accessible through guided tours, and this is the only downside.  In order to see everything, you have to take every tour. However, we resolved to make it a point to return on every future trip to New York in order to do just that. We took the longest tour, the shopkeepers tour. It started in the lower floor saloon and apartments that belonged to a German family, and we learned about the family, their German neighbors, and their contributions to American culture.  The tour ended with one of the coolest interactive artifacts displays I’ve ever seen in a museum.  The gift shop is a must-see as well. I wanted to read practically every book on sale, and there were hundreds of titles.  Be sure to check out their website before going. They have walking tours of the neighborhood, special events, and extended hours on Thursdays.  You can purchase tickets in advance and get discounts for booking multiple tours.  (Also, teachers get a tour discount – which we only learned about afterwards.)

A few blocks away is a quiet little museum that is well worth a visit, the Museum at Eldridge.  It is a beautifully restored Orthodox synagogue built by Russian Jews in the late 1800s. It is still used for services by its small congregation, but it is open for tours conducted by volunteers during the week. The interior is beautiful, and David, our guide, was full of information.  I highly recommend seeing it if you get the chance.

And while you’re in the area, take some time to just walk around and think about the changes the area has seen.  It is a huge melting pot of ethnicities, as Chinatown and Little Italy are literally side by side.  Now, it’s the hottest area of Manhattan, and we were told that it’s the hippest place to be, especially at night, and those small 350 square feet tenement apartments that housed families seeking the American dream now might rent for as much $4000 a month.  While you’re exploring, we highly recommend meals at the oldest dim sum restaurant in NYC, the Nom Wah Tea Parlor (cash or Amex only), and have a nosh, a meal, and an egg cream at Russ & Daughters, another iconic deli over a century old, albeit the cafĂ© in this neighborhood is only a couple of years old.  There’s just too much to do.  We’re already planning future trips!

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