Save the Lower East Side: A National Treasure Under Siege

Streetscape, Lower East Side-Broome Street (Photo: Richard Moses / LESPI).

There’s nothing ordinary about the Lower East Side. The LES has long been a cauldron of cultures, people, and ideas, and once the densest place on earth—more densely populated than what was then Calcutta. From the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, as we document here, the LES was simultaneously a confounding challenge of immense poverty and human need and a hotbed of social ferment and vaulting idealism. That unprecedented tumult re-defined the meaning of “American” and gave birth to pioneering initiatives that shaped the city and the nation, substantially rewriting the social contract between government and the governed. Without the LES, our contemporary world would be far different. Preservationists must spotlight and preserve the built environment that speaks to this history. The LES may not be known for mansions and grand homes, but the fact that it was built for the people and not the rich only adds to its singularity. The neighborhoods, streetscapes and buildings tell great stories—stories of mass immigration and urban development, stories of game-changing civic and government innovation. The buildings themselves have their own distinction, evoking the people who built New York City and the modern United States—and offering up a veritable cornucopia of architectural detail.

LOWER MANHATTAN HISTORIC DISTRICTS (Yellow). LESPI boundaries for traditional LES (Red line). Percentages indicate Historic Districts per neighborhood.(Graphic-OBJ-Merica May Jensen) (Sources-LPC Map and NYC Open Data Neighborhoods).

As we enter the first months of a new mayoral administration, we want to communicate to the Landmarks Preservation Commission in the strongest possible terms why it is urgent to landmark the LES, before real estate developers bulldoze what remains. For years now, we have submitted landmarking proposals to the LPC, only to be rebuffed. Our applications have merit, we are told, but further study will be undertaken only within the Commission’s priorities within the five boroughs. Much of Manhattan may be rich in landmarks and historic districts compared to the outer boroughs—and we welcome new attention beyond Manhattan. But we are sounding the alarm. There is in fact a glaring lack of historic district designations in the Lower East Side. We declare to you, our supporters, and also to the LPC: The Lower East Side is not your ordinary Manhattan. It is a world-renowned, historic neighborhood in danger of disappearing. Neglect LES landmarking, and what will be lost is irreplaceable.

Landmark Sunshine Theater Before
Demolition (Photo: Curbed NY).
Office Tower Replacement for
Landmark Sunshine Theater
(Photo: D.Wye / LESPI).

This Blog post, from a special section of LESPI’s Winter 2022 Newsletter, was conceived and written by Board Members Deborah Wye and Phyllis Eckhaus. It defends and supports LESPI’s preservation mission. Several related posts are also found on the Blog, considering immigration, Progressive civic engagement, and tenements. More will follow in the months to come. The Lower East Side is much more than just another neighborhood—it has an emotional resonance for the generations who trace their family roots back to this unique place, and also for the country as a whole. It has helped to shape America’s identity. And much of it is still defined by wonderful streetscapes filled with beautifully ornate historic architecture, which is very much under threat of demolition and redevelopment. We hope you read, enjoy, ponder our blog posts—and are moved to join us in mobilizing to support the urgent cause of LES preservation.