Needed: A new Lower East Side Historic District

BY RICHARD MOSES AND ERIK BOTTCHER | There are few neighborhoods in the United States more historic than Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Walking the blocks around Orchard St., one is transported back in time. A wealth of rich terra-cotta ornamentation, regal stone entryways and exuberant wood and metal cornices delineate almost every structure. The buildings, remarkably intact, speak the voices of millions of immigrants who passed through them over the centuries. Millions of people from coast to coast trace their American roots to this neighborhood, which, at one point, was among the most densely populated on Earth.

Unfortunately, as real estate development closes in, these historic blocks are completely unprotected by the New York City Landmarks Law.

A map of the new Lower East Side Historic District proposed by the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative and the Friends of the Lower East Side.

The fight for a landmark district on the Lower East Side stretches back at least 17 years. Starting in 2002, the Tenement Museum, along with many allied organizations, had sponsored the creation of a historic district to prevent the buildings around the museum from disappearing. Without protections for the area, the Tenement Museum faced the prospect of becoming the only remaining tenement in a sea of metal-and-glass buildings. Although Community Board 3 voted to support the effort, unfortunately, the proposal did not go any further.

In 2012, the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative, or LESPI, began surveying the historic Lower East Side streets with an eye toward creating a potential new landmark historic district. We found, sadly, that the blocks north of Delancey St. were already too compromised by insensitive new development to include in a landmarked district.

Once our survey was completed, we joined forces with Friends of the Lower East Side, finalized the boundaries of a proposed historic district, and began petitioning and gathering institutional support (roughly 1,500 petition signatures and 35 local institutional supporters to date) to make our case to the city.

A distinctive cornice on a late-19th-century building on Eldridge St. between Grand and Broome Sts. Photo by Bruce Monroe

We gained the support of the local city councilmember, Margaret Chin.

Now, after several meetings over several years with the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, we are cautiously optimistic — with new leadership on the commission — that there will be movement on designation of the district.

What’s the holdup? This neighborhood surely meets the L.P.C.’s criteria for a historic district. Culturally, this place, which has shaped so many of our customs and values, is arguably unsurpassed in historic importance to our city and country. Architecturally, the proposed district exhibits amazing architectural detailing and ornamentation and boasts an unrivaled collection of “pre-law,” “old-law” and “new-law” tenements. The neighborhood is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, though that honor includes virtually no protection for the area’s physical fabric.

The forces that appear to be behind the delay are formidable but are not insurmountable. What can be done? For starters, people can sign LESPI’s online petition. Sign up to join our letter-writing campaigns, petitioning and rallies. Let the city know that the historic Lower East Side is important to you.

As far back as 2008, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included the Lower East Side as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. The only way to effectively preserve the historic streetscapes of this vital neighborhood is through New York City historic district designation. Therefore, we call upon the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to landmark, without delay, the historically intact areas of the Lower East Side south of Delancey St.

Moses is president and co-founder, Lower East Side Preservation Initiative; Bottcher is a member, LESPI board of directors; for more information, visit www.LESPI-nyc.org .

One Response to Needed: A new Lower East Side Historic District

  1. Linda Snelham-Moore

    Is this an old map? It is larger than the one I have just seen. Looks like a good idea to protect the neighborhood.

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