For our regular feature spotlighting the people who live and work on the Lower East Side, we talked with long-time LES resident, performer and artist Laura Foulke.
How long have you lived on the Lower East Side?
I moved to Ludlow Street in 1984. I got my place when a friend from college recommended me to the super in her building. It was an out-of-the-way, kind of sketchy street at the time. Being here was living on the edge; it was a frontier. I liked that. Most cab drivers had never even heard of Ludlow Street. You had to ask if they knew where to find Katz’s Deli.
What do you do?
I’m a singer/songwriter and artist. I’m currently in residency at Moscow 57, the Russian restaurant on Delancey Street. I’ve been appearing there weekly since the restaurant opened in February. It’s always a party, and it’s as much fun for a big group as it is for a date. The music from Ellen Kaye, Ethan Fein, Ben Brown and others is first-rate.
I also create an ongoing series of mixed-media installations there; the most recent one celebrates the history of the Lower East Side (up to the traditional boundary of 14th Street) from the 18th century to the present day.
Tell us about your apartment–the good, the bad and the ugly.
The good news is location, location, location. The bad news is, it’s a tiny top-floor apartment that I sometimes tell people is one of the exhibits at the Tenement Museum. It’s surprising how often they believe me.
What’s your favorite spot on the LES and why?
The East River Park is easily my favorite place on the LES in all but the very worst weather. I usually bike across Delancey and then down the river, sometimes all the way over to Battery Park, but part of the fun is choosing alternate routes through the neighborhood. The quickest and easiest way is to ride straight down Allen Street, but if I have time to stop and paint or enjoy a picnic, I like the lawn at Corlear’s Hook, near the old amphitheater. There’s a great view in either direction, and the little point of land there generally catches whatever breeze may be available.
Favorite cheap eats?
For pizza I definitely have to see my friend Salvatore Bartolomeo at Rosario’s at Stanton and Orchard. The pizza is awesome, and there’s no substitute for Salvatore’s cheerful greeting. When I first moved to the neighborhood, Sal and his father had their shop on Houston Street. It was just a sliver of a place with fluorescent lights overhead and a tiny television mounted in the back. They moved to Stanton when Ray’s opened up on Houston.
For dumplings and sesame pancake sandwiches I like Vanessa’s on Eldridge. I also love El Castillo de Jagua on Rivington for its life-saving breakfast, including the best hash browns I’ve ever had, and the amazing arroz con pollo. Souvlaki GR on Stanton combines savory, inexpensive food with the charming illusion that it is located on a Greek island. During the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, when the neighborhood went without power for almost a week, the owners served hot fries from their food truck and let everyone charge up their phones. That showed real class.
Favorite place for a special night?
I don’t eat out that often, and when I do, it’s usually a quick nosh rather than a full-on fine dining experience. I’m much more likely to go out late, to hear music or play a gig myself. The other night, I checked out a great band from Vienna, Nancy Transit, at Pianos. The night before, I had a few late-night drinks with friends in the bar at Arlene’s Grocery, where they were spinning pop hits from the ’80s into the wee hours. Another favored place on the LES is The Back Room, for a bit of swing music and a sip of bathtub gin.
How have you seen the neighborhood change?
When I first moved to the neighborhood, you couldn’t buy Tampax below Houston Street. There was nowhere to buy fresh produce—other than maybe a lime or a spongy tomato—between Houston Street and Chinatown. Arlene’s Grocery was a real bodega. There were several abandoned buildings being used as shooting galleries, and there was a line out in front of my building every day at 3 p.m of people “waiting for the man”—waiting to score heroin.
You could always get a cab going up First Avenue because there was virtually no competition. Laundry lines criss-crossed the street on the upper floors. On Chinese New Year, a lot of the streets would be ankle-deep in pink cherry bomb wrappers for about a week, as kids set off string after string. It was fantastic!
Today, safety comes first, I suppose—but there was a lot of fun to be had from living in a marginalized area.
What do you miss from the old LES?
The old Lower East Side was filled with every kind of person, from Jewish men selling party goods to Cubans and Puerto Ricans who blasted salsa on Sunday mornings. Rents were low, and kids who came up here often stayed in the neighborhood. There were virtually no chain stores or restaurant franchises, hardly any banks and certainly no hotels.
The neighborhood was full of artists and musicians, Wigstock was in its inception and nobody had ever even considered corporate sponsorship—for anything. The old-school management style of LES landlords ranged from laissez-faire to Wild Wild West, and there were some epic parties. My neighbors set up an above-ground pool in the back yard for one Fourth of July.
Another celebration featured tenants on both sides of the street strafing each other with bottle rockets through open windows. I also miss the friends we have lost along the way—to drugs, to AIDS, to suicide, to other towns and other ways of life. They made the Lower East Side what it was, and I still see them in all the old familiar places.
Is there a new arrival you love?
I recently had a great evening with friends at Sel Rrose on Delancey St., which is named for Marcel Duchamp’s alter ego, Rrose Selavy. The “Fountain” cocktail is accurately named—it’s enormous, thirst-quenching, and delicious—and the oyster happy hour is one of the best in the neighborhood.
What drives you crazy about the neighborhood?
I don’t seriously mind the clubs, the noise or the fratty congestion of “Hell Square,” but I really dislike the bloodcurdling screams at 4 a.m. which always wake me up in a panic, thinking that someone is being murdered. I also miss having a wide choice of great bars and live music venues in the neighborhood. It feels as though almost every place I liked has closed or moved to Brooklyn. Things are always changing in New York, but it seems as though the past year has been particularly devastating for local businesses.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen on the LES?
A lot of my LES stories are NSGA (not suitable for general audiences) but recently I was hanging out with my friend Peter Chance when a guy walked down Delancey playing the accordion in a suit and tie, high heels and a unicorn mask. That was a magical moment.
Who’s the best neighborhood character you’ve met and why?
My former neighbor, the late poet and Andy Warhol star Taylor Mead, who lived across the hall from me for many years, was—in a crowded market—easily the most infamous local character the Lower East Side had to offer. Taylor had a star’s sixth sense for media manipulation, and very few personal boundaries, meaning that he was delighted to appear on the cover of New York magazine as the proud occupant of the so-called worst apartment in New York—which it very possibly was.
Taylor was well known for his iconoclastic and occasionally vituperative public persona, but he was a great neighbor, friendly and chatty, and a genuine original of the old school. I was very sorry when he told me last spring that he was leaving the city to live with his niece, and of course truly sad to hear of his death shortly thereafter.
Tell us your best LES memory.
I’ve had a lot of fun over the years—cramming friends into my tiny apartment for dinner parties, painting up on the roof, playing with my band at the Ludlow Café, appearing at Angel Orensanz in the first New York Fringe Festival, drinking at Max Fish. They say if you can remember it, you weren’t there, and I guess that’s kind of how I feel about the great old times on the Lower East Side.