Lower East Side History
The Lower East Side of Manhattan is a neighborhood that has embodied the hopes and struggles of generations of newcomers to America. Since the mid-19th century, Manhattan’s Lower East Side has been a magnet drawing people from all around the globe.
It is the place where hundreds of thousands of immigrants have taken their first steps on the road to the American dream. It is a section of the city that was once home to Africans freed from slavery, followed by Irish, German, Southern Italian, Eastern European and Sephardic Jewish immigrants fleeing from starvation, political turmoil, oppression and economic deprivation.
Although all of these groups have left their mark, it is the Jewish legacy that historically shaped the identity of the Lower East Side. Today, though smaller in size than during its peak years, the Jewish community continues to maintain its heritage. Indeed, the Jewish population is once again increasing, as young Orthodox families move into the area, attracted by a strong infrastructure of religious, educational, and cultural institutions.
Over the years, the ethnic mix of the neighborhood has diversified, with a large Latino community of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Mexicans, as well as a growing presence of immigrants from China and other Asian countries.
Visitors are drawn to the Lower East Side to connect with their heritage in the old neighborhood – to trace family memories, explore legendary streets, discover venerable synagogues and other historic places, visit tiny shops and sample foods evoking the past.
Currently, gentrification is making inroads as property values soar and tenements and commercial lofts are being converted to expensive housing. Along with the housing boom, there has been a proliferation of designer boutiques, art galleries, performance spaces, restaurants and music clubs. Today, a trendy young population is moving into the area, opening yet another chapter in the story of the Lower East Side.
* Adapted from the introduction to The Lower East Side Remembered & Revisited—History and Guide to a Legendary New York Neighborhood by Joyce Mendelsohn.