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“Next Steps” at the Tenement Museum

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We all know the one constant on the Lower East Side is change. Decade after decade, each emerging immigrant group has  refashioned the neighborhood to suit its needs. If you walk up Chrystie Street towards Delancey, you’ll see visual evidence of this phenomenon on the exterior of Templo Adventista del Septimo (the Seventh Day Adventist Church). A Star of David is still visible behind the large cross in the center of the facade, an indication of the building’s former life as a synagogue.

The building is one of the featured stops on the Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s new walking tour, “Next Steps,” an exploration of our neighborhood post-1935. Recently we were invited to tag along, during a special version of the tour led by Annie Polland (VP of Education) and Dave Favaloro (Director of Curatorial Affairs).

The first stop is just down the street from the Tenement Museum’s Orchard Street headquarters. Talk about change. Built as a residential building, then used as the Shearith Israel Settlement House and later as a wholesale and retail clothing business (the Max Feinberg signage has endured all these years), 86 Orchard is once again in transition. Any day now, the plywood will reveal Cafe Mezcal, a restaurant and Mexican cultural center.

Gentrification is one of the recurring themes in “Next Steps.” The tour also explores the city’s many plans (some successful, some not) for “urban renewal” — beginning in the 30’s and continuing today.

In the 30’s, the population on the Lower East Side began to shrink. The new immigrants were more likely to be Latino and Chinese, rather than Jewish, Italian or Irish. These shifts are illustrated on the tour with stops to a classic bodega (very solid stock tips along with your morning coffee, we’re told)…

And 133 Allen, built in 1904 as a public bathhouse — now Church of Grace to Fujianese.  Another trend, displacement of longtime residents, is not always apparent to the naked eye. But as Favaloro noted, the Lower East Side is no longer the primary destination for new arrivals to this country.  Dominicans, for example, are now more likely to end up in Washington Heights.

Here we have 170 Forsyth (the kids are cute but not part of the story), the former home of the Pena family. We’ve gotten to know Frances Pena in the past few weeks (she’s on the far left in the 1997 photo, below). The Tenement Museum’s office manager, she moved with her family to the Seward Park Extension years ago, after the building on Forsyth was torn down. Frances  lived for a time in Queens but is now back on the LES.

Photo courtesy of Frances Pena

From our vantage point in Sara D. Roosevelt Park, we glanced at 38 Delancey, a gleaming, new residential tower where one apartment is listed for $2,239,000.  Their web site promises, this is “where history meets hip.”

Favaloro and Polland ended the tour at the Essex Street Market, which is often praised for its diversity. At least for the time being, ethnic groceries manage to co-exist with gourmet chocolate, cheese and coffee purveyors.

Just before we arrived at our final destination, they walked the group past the neighborhood’s biggest eyesore, the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area.  “Next Steps” covers about 80 years of Lower East Side history. The former “urban renewal site” has languished since 1967, about half of that time. The Tenement Museum has wisely chosen to tackle the issue head on, engaging tour participants in the continuing debate. The Lo-Down, however, had no comment!

The “Next Steps” tour has already “soft launched” on weekends. It will be offered every day beginning in late June. More information is available on the Tenement Museum’s web site.

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