A History of the East Village in 10 Objects
The following is an updated re-posting originally authored by Dana Schulz.
As May is Lower East Side History Month, we at GVSHP thought it would be nice to revisit a post from 2012 which gives a nod to ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects,’ the British Museum’s BBC radio series and book.” We couldn’t resist compiling our own list in reference to the Village. Here, we look at the East Village through 10 objects, first recounting a few of the New York Times’ East Village mentions in their article “A History of New York in 50 Objects”…
The description of the shoes quotes the New York Historical Society:
By the mid-19th century, New York was home to more Germans than any other city except Berlin and Vienna. On the morning of Wednesday, June 15, 1904, the General Slocum, a wooden passenger steamboat, caught fire with about 1,300 German-Americans aboard, mostly women and children. They were on a church excursion to a picnic from Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany, on the Lower East Side. More than 1,000 people died either in the fire or in the water after the boat sank off the Bronx. Among them was 3-year-old Anna Liebenow, whose body was recovered several days later. Her black leather shoes were kept by her sister Adella, who was among the 321 known survivors, who mostly clung to rotted life preservers or swam to shore. Subsequent regulations improved passenger safety. But Little Germany was devastated by the disaster — the city’s worst until 9/11 — and most of its residents moved elsewhere to escape the memory.
Tony Cenicola of the New York Times wrote:
The first known mention of the bagel dates from 1610 in the community regulations of Krakow, Poland. The world’s biggest bagel factory is in Illinois. Still, no other food is so associated with New York as the “Jewish English muffin,” which spread from the Lower East Side in the early 20th century. “Pizza belongs to America now,” Josh Ozersky, a food writer, said, “but the bagel was always the undisputed property of New York.”
One of the most famous places in the neighborhood to pick up a bagel complete with lox and shmear is Russ & Daughters appetizing store on East Houston Street. As GVSHP noted in a past blog post, “Russ & Daughters explains on their website, ‘appetizing’ in this context is a noun that refers to a ‘Jewish food tradition that is most typical among American Jews, and it is particularly local to New York and New Yorkers.’ Further, ‘appetizing‘ also means ‘stuff one eats with bagels.’ This ‘stuff’ generally includes whitefish, herring, kippers, and other smoked fish. These stores became increasingly popular on the Lower East Side in the early 20th century due to a large influx of Eastern European Jews. In the 1960′s there were 30 appetizing stores on the LES alone! Now, Russ & Daughters is one of the last of its kind and is committed to preserving this unique food culture.
Tony Cenicola summed this one up as well:
It was called the Lower East Side, the East Village, Alphabet City. But in Nuyorican, the local Latino vernacular, it is Loisaida. Popularized by the poet Bittman Rivas in 1974, the name became official when the city-sanctioned Loisaida Avenue as another name for Avenue C in 1987. By 2000, a surge in immigration and higher birthrates nudged Hispanic New Yorkers past blacks as the city’s second-largest racial or ethnic group.
Now, let’s move on to some GVSHP originals!
Considered by many the oldest bar in the city, McSorley’s is an East Village institution, still only serving light or dark. As we recounted in a 2012 blog post, for 116 years women were not allowed into the establishment. The philosophy was, “Good Ale, Raw Onions, and No Ladies.” McSorley’s did not admit women until August 10, 1971, upon the signing of a bill by Mayor Lindsay , which was introduced by Council Member Carol Greitzer (one of her first as City Council Member), prohibiting discrimination in public places on the basis of sex. Even still, it wasn’t until 1986 that a women’s restroom was added (previously there were no closed-door stalls) and not until 1994 when the first female bartender poured beer from the taps.
In the 1950s, Ukrainian immigrants poured into the Lower East Side, reportedly topping 60,000. With them they brought traditional butcher shops that served up delicacies like kielbasa, blintzes, and smoked hams. The East Village Meat Market, located at 139 2nd Avenue near East 9th Street, has been serving up such Ukrainian staples for over forty years, and is one of the only establishments of its kind remaining in a neighborhood which was once filled with similar spots. They were a recipient of the 2016 Village Awards.
Centered around St. Mark’s Place, the East Village was a hub of rock n’ roll counter culture during the 1960’s and 70’s. One of the most recognizable names in this music scene is CBGB’s, which was located on the Bowery and Bleecker Street and closed its doors in 2006, 33 years after its opening. A blog post from the archives stated, “Its full name, CBGB’s & OMFUG, which stood for “Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers” actually belied the club’s status as an incubator for underground groups in the punk and rock scene. The Ramones, Blondie, Patti Smith, and the Talking Heads all got their start at what owner Hilly Krystal opened as a blues and country music club.” Not far away, at 105 2nd Avenue, was the Fillmore East, which hosted concerts from “1968 to 1971, including performances by the Allman Brothers Band, the Who, and the Doors. The venue was known for launching many seminal bands of the era, and because of its excellent acoustics, many albums were recorded there as well.” To round out this jamming trifecta, we have Webster Hall, still operating today on East 11th Street. Read all of its interesting history HERE.
During Prohibition (1919-1933), speakeasies (establishments that illegally served alcohol) began to sprout up all over the City. The East Village had several such places. John’s of 12th Street, Lanza’s, and DeRobertis Pasticceria are probably the most notable. Alcohol was often served in tea cups in the event of a raid.
The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art was founded in 1859 by entrepreneur, philanthropist, and inventor Peter Cooper, one of America’s richest businessmen at the time. It is one of the most selective colleges in the world, with programs in engineering, art and architecture. Cooper Union opened its doors to women from the beginning, another philanthropic ideal of Peter Cooper. The Great Hall, where Abraham Lincoln gave a speech in February of 1860 that he went on to credit with winning him the presidency, is a New York City Landmark. The designation report states:
Employing some of the first rolled sections (wrought-iron beams) ever used in New York City, this large six-story brownstone building was built in the Anglo-Italianate style. It displays the heavily-enframed round-arched windows which were such a conspicuous feature of this style and two handsome round-arched porches (loggias) at the north and south ends. The building was designed to accommodate an elevator practically before that invention had been made available for passenger use. Peter Cooper not only assisted in the perfection of the rolling machinery necessary to produce beams, but paid for and had built the machinery from which they were rolled from his own plant at Trenton, New Jersey. These pioneer beams are an integral part of this great building. They made possible the later development of the skyscraper.
According to the Green Guerillas website:
In 1973 Liz Christy, a Lower East Side artist, gathered her friends and neighbors together to clean out a vacant lot on the corner of Bowery and Houston Streets. Calling themselves the Green Guerillas, these visionaries created a vibrant community garden and sparked the modern community gardening movement in New York City.
The Green Guerillas tapped the time, talent, and energy of their members. They took on projects as varied and interesting as the city itself – they threw seed “green-aids” over the fences of vacant lots, installed window boxes, planted flowers in tree pits – and helped people transform city-owned vacant lots into community gardens that serve as botanic gardens, vest pocket parks, urban farms, and as expressions of art, ecology, and culture.
Today there are close to 650 community gardens in New York City’s five boroughs, 10% of which are in the East Village.
In the early 1900s, the East Village was teeming with theaters and movie houses. Second Avenue from Houston Street to 14th Street was the Yiddish Rialto, or Theater district, and was lined with venues showcasing theater performed, written, and directed by Jewish New Yorkers, often in Yiddish. It was one of the biggest theater districts in the City outside of Broadway.
There are plenty more objects that represent the East Village’s rich history, so please share your ideas with us!