Boho-Luxing the Lower East Side


I came of age as an artist living in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Outside my Henry Street loft was a confluence of disparate cultures, each battling for turf in their own way. If you headed north, you ran into the remnants of the 19th century Jewish immigrants, and if you kept going you’d find the last bastion of the Italians in Little Italy. Heading west was Chinatown, south was Puerto Rican and east was African-American.


For a long time it looked like the growth of the Chinese population was unstoppable and that Chinatown would be the heir apparent to this historic region. Little Italy fell first, then the Hasidic synagogues became Chinese churches and the infamous Garden Cafeteria—a favorite spot for writers at the nearby Forward Jewish Daily as well as Isaac Bashevis Singer in the day—became the Wing Shoon Seafood Restaurant.

But I was wrong. The winner was actually the next generation of hipster kids. My former loft building that once housed poor artists and sweat shops is now a handsomely appointed luxury building with an upscale design store where Jimmy used to fry up fish. The ethnic push and pull that I felt in the 70s is no longer the narrative.

For example, Holland Cotter’s New York Times overview of the art scene in my old hood captures some of the shift in the zeitgeist:

Among the art neighborhoods of Manhattan, the Lower East Side is by far the most picturesque. With its dusty synagogues, squeezed-together tenements, anarchist graffiti and shop signs in Yiddish, Spanish and Chinese, it’s a visual event whether you’re visiting galleries or not.

But the essence of a city is change, and this neighborhood is changing. The synagogues and signs are disappearing, along with the anarchist spirit and artist-friendly rents. Chic little bars and boutiques speak of rampant yuppification, although at the moment — and a sullen economy could prolong this — old and new are still trading places.

Art has its part in that negotiation, and always has. It both reflects and facilitates change. For more than a century the Educational Alliance on East Broadway has democratically provided instruction, studio space and exhibitions to artists. Important careers have emerged from it. Yet the sculpture on view in the alliance gallery now, though varied and energetic, smacks of an earlier generation. Contemporary Chelsea feels far, far away.

By contrast, Chelsea feels very close to another institution, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, which moved from far West 22nd Street to the Bowery a year ago. The museum exemplifies the developing boho-luxe mode of the Lower East Side. It makes a neighborhood that was once an alternative to establishment culture a welcoming home to that culture.

In line with this the museum is described as anchoring a local art scene, and in some sense it does, judging by the other Chelsea transplants clustered around it. Some, like Envoy, Feature, Thierry Goldberg Projects and White Box, have relocated. Others, like Lehmann Maupin, have opened second spaces here, joining galleries like Participant Inc. and Reena Spaulings Fine Art, which remain top attractions…

As in Chelsea, painting is dominant. And the New Museum sets the tone with two surveys, one devoted to the figurative painter Elizabeth Peyton, the other to the abstract work of Mary Heilmann. Enthusiasts of both will find agreeable things in galleries nearby.

Self serving perhaps, but I love Cotter’s line: As in Chelsea, painting is dominant. When I first arrived in New York City from California so long ago, Art Forum magazine sported a memorable cover that featured large block letters saying simply, PAINTING IS DEAD. No points granted for the art world’s powers of prognostication, nor for me in guessing where the LES would be in 2008.

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