Reclaiming My Lower East Side Roots
The upcoming expansion of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum to include a kitchen where visitors can try immigrant fare is a welcome reminder of a lost neighborhood. My lost neighborhood. An infamous Ellis Island destination for generations of my Jewish ancestors, the Lower East Side was where my hippie parents chose to raise me in the 80s. I grew up a rare young Jew there, long after the rest of my ancestors had abandoned it for suburban Florida.
As a 24-year-old preschool librarian, I was forced to move out into the wilds of Bushwick, Brooklyn, all my friends too frightened to come visit me. Just as daringly cool people began to get drunk below Delancey Street, I was economically exiled. Every time I took the M train home to visit my parents, I was mortified by malnourished 35-year-olds wearing Ray Bans at night, posing outside The Eldridge, an exclusive nightclub named after the block where I became a Bar Mitzvah. I had missed the boat twice: too young to recall its Hebrew roots, and now too unhip to enjoy its reincarnation.
In 1919, hopeful Hebrews gazed at Ellis Island from the steerage deck of a third-class freighter, carrying my maternal grandparents, Bubbe and Zayde. They had struggled to leave their Lower East Side ghetto during the Depression, when it was an Eastern European shtetl transplant. But unlike me, a lonely bookworm, they had grown up surrounded by meshuge relatives who stuffed them with kugel on the Sabbath. The industrious Bubbe had made dimes as a lookout for illicit domino games on Pitt Street; Zayde taught art at the Educational Alliance, where they met. Soon after, they married, and shortly after that, moved to a sprawling house with their own swimming pool in Great Neck, Long Island, far from the poverty of their past. When their daughter Alizah married my dad in 1984, the newlyweds decided to buy a building on Eldridge Street for $25,000, returning to renovate debris from the shooting gallery it had become. They raised me and my younger brother there.
Post 9/11, my artist father, wearing a beret, insisted “this building is my most lucrative investment.” Yet, I hated growing up poor in a bad neighborhood, friends making fun of my address. Not until I fled to a barely affordable, Birkenstock-mandatory liberal arts college in Vermont at 20 did the dangerous and déclassé downtown I grew up in suddenly become a scenester stomping ground.
By 2008, my mother was buying $12 pounds of prosciutto from the Whole Foods on Houston Street, where fey fashionistas glared at each other over frisee. Now, though I had always wanted to escape the rough streets that raised me, the minute I couldn’t be there, I wanted to claim them. I missed the miscreants lounging on street corners clutching liquor bottles, preferring them to privileged partiers who knew nothing of the area’s profound past. I suddenly craved the old Lower East Side’s comforts, crushed ice sold from pushcarts, empty Colt45 bottles in corners of my playgrounds, hydrants blasting endless jets of shimmering water into loud summer streets.
Royal Young just completed his debut memoir “Fame Shark.” Follow him at <www.twitter.com/RoyalYoung>.