Image: The former Ridley Department store on the corner of Orchard and Grand. Image by Ed Litvak featured in The Lo-Down: News from the Lower East Side.

“Storefront Stories,” the Tenement Museum walking tour of Orchard Street explores experiences of immigrant entrepreneurs of the past and present in heart of the Lower East Side’s historic shopping district. A salient point on the tour highlighted the commercial cycles the neighborhood has gone through- from pushcart to storefront- and with these developments, changes and adaptations from one family generation to another. The most recent iteration in this cycle is the momentum of gentrification that is presently changing the demographic in the neighborhood that has long been occupied by immigrant families and entrepreneurs. Interestingly, the Museum straddles preservation of the neighborhood’s history on one hand, while being an agent of change on the other. Drawing thousands of visitors to the area each week, upscale eateries and boutiques have sprung up to meet the influx of cultural and economic capital these tourists and visitors seek from and bring to the neighborhood.

The tour relates a meta story of neighborhood transition, told through a multiplicity of personal stories about the entrepreneurs and their families that ran businesses here. Anchoring each story are the buildings where their business were or are located. This focus on the built environment stressed stasis and change in the neighborhood’s landscape in both the use and structural fabric of the architecture. In regards to the architecture, conservation, preservation, and restoration of historic fabric are seen utilized by building owners in various ways. These practices reflect perceived economic, and historic values from building and business owners, as well as of the community.

The Jarmulowsky Bank, a 12 story building on the corner of Orchard and Canal, is in the midst of extensive conservation and restoration. The landmark status of the building prevents the exterior of the building from deviating from its Beaux-Arts form; however, the interior of the building is being converted for use as a luxury hotel. Perceived as a development that might seal the fate of the Orchard Street landscape, the Jarmulowsky Bank is representative of a wider dynamic where attention to the exterior look of buildings is utilized for changing uses.

Image: Success Hosiery sign. Photo by Jannis Werner.

Many new establishments in the neighborhood keep elements like signs, from older establishments. The “Success Hosiery” sign that hangs above their door of a contemporary art gallery, and the “Altman” sign that hangs above the luggage store now owned by a different family are just two examples. Casa Mezcal, a cocktail bar and restaurant, exhibits the layering of past and present on the façade of the iconic Max Feinburg building they occupy. Max Feinburg, a German immigrant had his name set in the brick home he had built for his family in the 1860s. Preserving the heritage of what came before them and the landmark Feinburg signature, Casa Mezcal has added imported limestone from Mexico to the building’s street level, a signature of their own material heritage.

While the above examples represent businesses that employ preservation, restoration, and conservation to suit their new enterprises, the Ridley Department store on the corner of Orchard and Grand is a building where the community rallied around preservation. The building was saved from demolition by community organizers, and gained landmark status that maintained the building’s pink Classical-Revival cast iron exterior. Like the Jarmulowsky Bank’s current transformation into a luxury hotel, the Ridley building was converted to luxury condos.

The idea of “authenticity” can be extracted from the narrative on the tour in regards to the “authentic” history of individuals and immigrant families that have made their living on the Lower East Side for generations. The stories of lived experience resonate in the buildings and material traces that remain in the neighborhood, and together these tangible and intangible elements relate an “authentic character of the neighborhood,” a place where cultural heritage and American entrepreneurship meet- the embodiment of the American dream.