Orchard St. runs for eight blocks on the Lower East Side, from Chinatown’s Division St. to East Houston St. (It’s pronounced HOUSE-ton, not like the city in Texas, and part of Chinatown is inside the LES.) It’s a one-way street going from south to north, and often considered the heart of the LES.
Orchard St. takes its name from an orchard on James De Lancey, Jr.’s farm, back in the days when Manhattan was rural farmland with low population density. Though he fled to England in 1775, due to his unpopular political views, he continued making money from tenants renting his property.
In 1780, his brother and lawyers sold his New York properties. His farm was declared forfeit when the British evacuated the city in 1783. Later, he was paid £29,842 in compensation for losing his property, the next-highest such award paid to a New Yorker but less than half of what he’d sued for.
By the mid-19th century, the LES was an immigrant enclave full of low-rise, stuffed tenements. At first it was called Kleindeutschland, Little Germany. Before long, though, it was a much more heavily Jewish neighborhood.
Because of its well-known history, many people, myself included once upon a time, believe that was the ONLY place immigrants lived. Despite the well-documented existence of many other immigrant enclaves in NYC, and in countless cities in other states, the LES remains a de facto setting in a lot of historical fiction about immigrants.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Orchard St. was the main shopping thoroughfare. Peddlers of all types lined the streets with their pushcarts and kiosks, and many small business owners had stores. It was the proletarian version of Fifth Avenue, Unter den Linden, Champs-Élysées, and Nevskiy Prospekt.
Orchard St. was also known for its crowded tenements, many of which contained businesses on the lower levels. Upstairs, scores of people were packed onto each floor, and many families lived in single rooms. This was no genteel poverty, but true, abject poverty.
Two of these buildings are now the Tenement Museum, abandoned by the landlord in 1935 and unchanged till 1988. The one at 97 Orchard showcases the lives of its residents from 1869–1935, and the tenement at 103 Orchard tells the story of tenants from the 1950s to the 1980s. They also have many historical archives and educational programs.
Despite restorations, parts of the upper floors are unstable and closed to the public.
Copyright Jay Manday
Of course, thanks to gentrifying hipsters pricing longtime residents out of their neighborhood, the old stores and kiosks have been replaced by upscale boutiques, fancy restaurants, and brand-name shops, and real estate prices are through the roof. Even the discount stores aren’t the kinds of stores that existed decades ago.
While in no way do I believe it’s great to be poor and live in a squalid tenement, there needs to be a happy medium. Cities need people of all classes to be a richly diverse ballet of life, as the great urbanist Jane Jacobs famously said.
These hipsters were also sitting pretty in their cushy bourgeois suburbs while poor and proletarian residents held down the fort in so many cities for several decades, when most people didn’t dare to go anywhere near there. Now that the crime rates are way down and it’s cool to live there again, hipsters and millionaires have taken over.
How about making the cost of living better for lower-income people, raising their wages, and renovating existing housing instead of pricing them out of their own neighborhood, knocking down historic housing to build ugly high-rise luxury condos and upscale stores, and turning multi-family rowhouses and townhouses into single-family homes?
If you’re going to move to a new city, you need to show respect for longtime residents instead of remaking their home according to your standards!
Copyright Jazz Guy
Though none of my characters live on Orchard St., they sometimes mention it as a street full of run-down old tenements they’re glad they don’t live on. It’s also referenced in Little Ragdoll as the location of a florist’s where Adicia and Justine get a 75% off get-well bouquet for their sister-in-law Lenore.
Perhaps it’s the same florist’s referenced as Mrs. Troy’s latest job du jour in Green Sunrise, the long-hiatused sequel. Predictably, she’s fired when she’s caught putting bruised flowers in a full-price bouquet, and gets into a fight with the boss in front of customers, rips apart bouquets, and throws them into everyone’s faces.