The Wasteland on Orchard

On Orchard. From Ventriloquismnyc flickr.

On Orchard Street between Grand and Hester, I found a wasteland. Shutters cover every store on this block, except those under renovation to become all-glass storefronts. Walking in the area nearby I felt a gloom, darkest on this street. The glassy, eye-candy friendly window-fronts disturbed me almost as much as the emptiness of the street as such – they oozed conspicuous consumption, a type of shopping where image consciously and deliberately trumps utility.

New development on Orchard. From Ventriloquismnyc Flickr.

Other shops looked just closed, inexplicably. This area provided only the most glaring example of a blight that covers the Lower East Side and Chinatown. Street level retail shops, closed or moved without comment, dot the neighborhood. In places they make up maybe a third of the stores on a block, other places more. I still feel recently arrived in New York, and when I first started walking through Lower Manhattan, I took its street appearance in stride. Now, as I think and see more, I feel uneasy.

Other changes on Orchard. From Ventriloquismnyc Flickr.

I noticed a trend in the shuttered shops. Their signs looked old, faded, and more often than not used languages other than English. Throughout the Lower East Side and Chinatown, stores with Hebrew, Spanish and Chinese signs stood silent and empty. These said something about where New York has been, more about where it is going. It shows the neighborhood changes as a loss, erasing a diverse past for the supposed gain of a prosperous future.

E. Broadway. from Ventriloquismnyc Flickr.

I recognized the closed stores as a malaise when I walked further South, towards the Manhattan Bridge. Nearing the deepest parts of Chinatown, street life picks up. On East Broadway below the bridge, every store is open. Shoppers fill the sidewalks and shops spill out onto the street with food and goods to see and buy. The character of life visibly changes, filled suddenly with noise and activity. The comparative richness – a variety of kinds of commerce (everything from bus terminals to laundromats), plus a crowd of people blanketing the street – revealed the block on Orchard as a pocket of abandoned sadness in an otherwise vibrant neighborhood.

The most obvious difference between the two areas is real estate. The bridge – with car and train traffic – makes conversation occasionally unbearable, and doubtless spews a uneasy cocktail of environmental hazards into the air nearby. Not to diminish the importance of changes in the LES itself – decades of being the next and last big thing in Manhattan pushed property values too high for many small businesses to sustain. The remaining neighborhood betrayed itself, cutting the legs of affordable rents and a diverse street life out from under the folks that made it the place to be for so many years.

Gentrification means more than losing history. It means a loss of the human elements that make life happen in your neighborhood.

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