From struggling, desperate immigrants of the 1800s to struggling young immigrants now, Orchard Street has been a street of competing interests for a long time. One need only visit the nearby Tenement Museum to learn about the ‘before’. When I came to NYC, this and other LES streets were festooned with hanging schmatas—clothes for sale hung on racks and lines stretched across the street, many from immigrant Jewish shopkeepers, others from newly arrived Puerto Ricans. It didn’t take many years for them to move away, as the neighbourhood fell into disrepute and decay. It was as if nobody had the nerve to gentrify.
How quickly things change. I helped a friend hang his show at a chic gallery across the street from An Choi, a charming restaurant. I was taken by the distressed looking sign, thinking it might be a holdover from the past. It beckoned me toward its cozy interior with offerings of fragrant Phởs served with a fresh herb plate of cilantro, bean sprouts, Thai basil, lime & long hot peppers and biftek Bánh Mis, coupling an active bar scene whose hours roughly correspond to the kitchen’s.
Phở is a Vietnamese version of Jewish chicken noodle soup, appropriate in this neighbourhood. For a sense of Lower East Side history, watch Hester Street, (Joan Miklin Silver, 1975) about Jewish immigrants at the tail end of the 1800s.