On Essex: Our New Series

Photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.

Essex Street, between Grand and Canal: there may be no other place that depicts so dramatically where the Lower East Side has been, and where it’s going. While most of the traditional Jewish businesses that once dotted the street are long gone, a few have endured. To be sure, there’s evidence of gentrification. But somehow, these two blocks still manage to accommodate old and new, trendy and tattered, Jewish, Latino and Chinese. It’s for this reason, that we’re beginning a long-term series called On Essex, an effort to tell the story of a remarkable block. The transformation will, no doubt, continue, almost certainly at a faster pace, in the years ahead.

Through the photography of Lo-Down contributor A. Jesse Jiryu Davis and the first-hand accounts of business owners and residents, we hope to understand these changes a little bit better. In the near future, we’ll begin to post individual profiles of many of the street’s businesses. But first, the big picture.

Photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.

At 41 Essex, Rabbi Zacharia Eisenbach, 65 years old, is carrying on the work of his father, who came to this country from Israel in the 1930’s. He is a sofer, a scribe who restores and writes Torah scrolls. Three other storefronts – Hebrew Religious Articles, Israel Wholesale Imports and Zelig Blumenthal – also continue to withstand the winds of change. At least two of those stores have developed robust online businesses, selling Judaica worldwide. But they are not the only businesses with rich histories on the block. Len Zerling (seated, below) runs G&S Sporting Goods, which has specialized in boxing gear since 1937.

Photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.

For four generations, M Schames & Son has been selling painting supplies at 3 Essex. And, of course, the Pickle Guys (owner Alan Kaufman pictured below), in business only for a few years, but soon to be a sort of standard-bearer. Their old nemesis, Guss’, which moved from Essex to Orchard in 2001, will depart the LES altogether, for Brooklyn, any day now. That will leave the Pickle Guys, in the heart of the Old Pickle District (once boasting 200 merchants), as the lone survivor.

Photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.
Photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.

 Essex Street has, of course, seen its fair share of gentrification. There are the million dollar apartments at 7 Essex, a couple of swanky bars (East Side Company Bar and White Star), FIFI Projects (an art gallery). But the diversity of businesses and organizations on this block is still impressive. There’s Safe Horizon (a shelter for victims of abuse and the homeless), a seafood importer, a clairvoyant, a tile store, “Main Squeeze Accordions” and a video game repair shop (pictured below). Add to this mix, a handful of service-oriented shops: a tailor, hair cutting salons, a pizza place and a wine merchant.

Photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.
Photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.

Above it all, dozens of cramped apartments and hundreds of residents, many of them living in distressing conditions. At 11 Essex (pictured above), a 5-story building visibly leaning into the street, the city ordered an evacuation back in May. Some fear it was all a ploy by the developer to turn this 1910 tenement into a luxury apartment building. A six month court battle with affordable housing advocates rages on.

Photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.

We’ll be watching for the outcome of that case, as well as the smaller changes taking place on the street below. The people who live and work On Essex will, no doubt, have a lot to say in 2010.