Our Lower, Lower East Side

East River Housing

(East River Co-op’s, New York, New York. Image from East River Housing Corporation. The Fire Boat Haus of Manhattan Bend, is seen in the foreground)

Hulking in their mass and industrial in their Mid-Century aesthetic, the towers of the East River Co-op’s and their sister buildings, The Seward Park Housing Cooperative, are a powerful presence in the daily lives of those living in the Lower, Lower East Side. Built by Garment Unions in the 1950’s and 60’s, the buildings replaced the dilapidated tenement blocks which had fallen into decay. The architect, Herman Jessor, designed the complex so that residents could experience the light and air of The City, which was denied to the former occupants of the area.

The structures, when built, became beacons of hope for burgeoning families looking for a fresh start. Because of their location in the “Lower” Lower East Side, the Center of American Immigration in the 19th Century, they became enclaves for the Jewish population, among many others, and have remained so since their inception. In the process of their maturity, they have become NORC’s (Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities) for those families, passing down through generations; Crucibles of Immigrant History, behind the brusque utilitarian facades.

LES People

(Inhabitants of Co-op Village, in Manhattan’s “Lower” Lower East Side. Photo by Alan Chin of The New York Times)

A snapshot of Co-op Village was recently chronicled by Amy Chozick in The New York Times. Entitled “My Lower East Side” the article portrays a unique area of The City rich with overlapping ages and cultures. As a resident of one of these buildings, I can concur that the observations ring true. There is a piece of an older New York which resides here. It is, at times, an invisible energy which permeates the hallways of these massive structures. You can sense it in the faces of The Elder Generation. It is a quiet comfort which washes over. It is the unhurried New York, the slower New York, one which contains a vast amount of wisdom and quietude if you are open to harness it.

You can feel this energy in the celebration of the Sukkot, every October, when the annual raising of the Sukkah (hut) takes place on the children’s playground. The families of the area co-mingle in the annual week-long feast; The din of the Sukkah rolls long into the night, as does the laughter echoing off the red brick courtyard chambers.

Overview of Coop Village

(Aerial View of Co-op Village and Williamsburg Bridge, New York, New York)

This piece of New York, nondescript in its appearance, somehow holds its place within the fabric of The Lower East Side. Change is happening around, from the massive Domino Factory development across the River’s way, to the neighboring Essex Crossing development to the West. These forces, in other places of New York, have seemingly wiped the slate clean of a prior culture and its inhabitants. Here though, in The “Lower” Lower East Side, a place which many New Yorkers cannot place on their mental maps, I sense the culture will remain, in the mix of people calling this place home. It will pass down through the contact of generations, and the quiet nods of our Elders, exchanging glimpses on the elevator.

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