NEW YORK -- Over the last two decades I have always looked forward to buying the savory herring, lox, whitefish salad, and sable from the ever crowded, welcoming Lower East Side appetizing store, Russ and Daughters. The iconic store with a world-class reputation is now the subject of a book, "Russ and Daughters" (Shocken) by Mark Russ Federman, the quick-witted, intelligent, amiable schmoozer who skillfully ran the store from 1978-2009. "Russ" was founded in 1914 by Mark's immigrant grandfather and has survived with its family identity and its commitment to attentive personalized service intact through all the radical social changes the Lower East Side has gone through. (There were once 20 to 30 appetizing stores on the LES between the 1920s and the end of WW II -- "Russ" is the only one left.)
Federman's book is filled with arresting, charming anecdotes, family lore, recipes for fruit strudel and lox chowder, and a skillfully compressed history of the neighborhood. It's that story of the neighborhood's repeated transformations that interests me most.
Federman describes the shift on the Lower East Side from the mostly immigrant and poor Jewish and Italian, pushcart-filled, animated and relatively ordered streets of the 1920s and ‘30s to the 1970s and ‘80s. The latter period, dominated by Hispanic immigrants and hippies, was a graffiti- and crime-ridden, garbage strewn war zone. Federman writes that in the "1970's you could buy a tenement building on the Lower East Side for $25,000. But no one was buying.
I remember walking through many broken neighborhood streets, glutted with empty lots and abandoned tenements, where I often had to look warily over my shoulder for possible predators. I still shopped at my mother's favorite, Orchard Street's Ben Freedman's, one of the street's remaining old-fashioned clothing stores, whose salespeople never felt being agreeable was part of their job description.
Despite the neighborhood's squalor, violence and danger, Federman felt that, "sooner or later, uptown would move downtown." There were a few signs during those dark times that the neighborhood would begin to emerge again.
One was that writers, musicians, and especially artists and art galleries -- some 200 at the height of the scene in the 1980s -- had begun to move into the area. The other was that in the mid-'80s, in the East Village (extending from Houston St. north to 14th St. and from Third Avenue to the East River) tenements were being bought up and renovated by young professionals -- the beginnings of gentrification.
It took longer for the renewal to get underway on the Lower East Side proper. But from the mid-'90s, its transformation intensified to the point where one long-time resident and observer has written: "In terms of the old LES that I came to love and be a part of, no question, gentrification has forever changed what was." The customer base at Russ changed with the neighborhood, becoming better educated, well off, younger, and multi-ethnic.
You clearly didn't have to be Jewish or speak Yiddish to love lox and herring. Federman perceives the change only in positive terms: "The Lower East Side, for more than one hundred years the place everyone wanted to leave, has become a place where people want to come to settle -- if they can afford it."
Walking around its streets on a chill, gray, drizzly day, I have mixed feelings about what has taken place here. There are few people to be seen on a once teeming Orchard Street, but many stores for rent, a new luxury hotel going up and upscale boutiques, restaurants, and a hair salon lining the street. On surrounding blocks there is an expensive wine merchant, a vegan restaurant, a Swedish espresso bar, and too many hip or elegant cafés and restaurants to list. There are also new residential towers going up, and a hotel Thompson LES with rooms renting from $300 to $4,500 a night, and an outdoor rooftop pool. Its clientele consists primarily of actors, ad-people, and fashionistas from abroad, and staycationers -- young, moneyed New Yorkers who spend their vacations at home.
The old Lower East Side still survives in a parallel universe to the trendy and moneyed world of hotels and luxury condominiums, such as the Blue Building on Delancey Street encased in its skin of blue panels. There remain nine public housing projects, including Baruch Houses (the largest in Manhattan), and a poverty rate, which was at 22 percent in 2010.
On Allen Street, right near that over-the-top chic hotel, I wandered into Bluestockings, an independent cafe/bookstore reminiscent in style and stock of many small activist bookstores that cropped up in the ‘60s and once dotted the Lower East Side. The shop carried books on queer and gender studies, global capitalism, feminism, police and prisons, and black liberation. It reminded me that the Lower East Side had been a hotbed of political and cultural radicalism for many decades, and a remnant still exists.
Yes, the building boom and the invasion by the young, moneyed will mean the displacement of some long-standing Lower East Side families. Still, it would take the turning of the housing projects into market rent towers to transform the LES into the Upper East Side. But one shouldn't be blithe about gentrification. Nobody wants the Lower East Side to become just another hedge and trust fund dominated neighborhood.
Meanwhile, Russ and Daughters, a shop steeped in Lower East Side immigrant history, has made the transition into a store that attracts the gentrifiers without losing its soul.
Leonard Quart can be reached at email@example.com.