Strangers in a Strange Land

The Lazer Speaks

I could not imagine leaving home and starting over in a new country. The United States is a country of immigrants and their traces are everywhere, especially here in New York. To make the transition easier, when the migrations were large, the communities assembled together in neighborhoods and made it look like home. I recently took a stroll that reminded me of this fact. And as I strolled through some of the neighborhoods, it occurred to me that actually I may be the stranger.

I left my office on Broad Street, which was where some of the earliest Dutch settlers made camp. At the entrance of 85 Broad Street is a medallion that outlines what the Dutch outpost looked like at that site. I made a left at Pearl Street and headed toward the Brooklyn Bridge. Pearl eventually connects with Water Street and the combined streets become Pearl. As I passed the South Street Seaport, I noticed that Pier 17 is now complete. This rebuilt structure now houses a concert venue on the roof. Something to check out this fall.

When I got on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge, I made a right onto Madison Street and headed toward the Manhattan Bridge. This part of New York is gritty and there is little evidence of gentrification here. The projects and tenements are from a century ago and they look it. As you get closer to the bridge, you get closer to the heart of the real Chinatown, not the Canal Street version that has all the shops and restaurants, but the place where real people live. The more interesting part of Chinatown is the area east of the Bowery and Canal Streets. That’s where you feel like you are in different land. But the area wasn’t always Chinese. Before the Chinese, this area was a Jewish quarter. And when I got past the bridge I found my way to Eldridge Street to the synagogue that reminded me of this fact. The Eldridge Street Synagogue was built by Eastern European Jews who settled in this area in the mid-to-late 1800s. They built a beautiful Moorish-influenced structure, and it has been lovingly restored. In fact, the stained-glass window is a sight to behold.

When I exited the synagogue, I made my way to Canal Street and walked up to the Manhattan Bridge, and on the northeast corner of Canal and the Bowery is what once was a movie theater and is now a Buddhist temple. This was the second one I encountered, the first being on East Broadway just a few blocks away. I was able to enter both and found great statues of Buddha and walls lined with how Buddha gave up his worldly possessions after sitting under the Bodhi Tree and lived a life dedicated to teaching. The Buddha at the Canal Street theater must be 30 feet high. It’s impressive.

When I emerged from the temple, I continued west on Canal to Mulberry Street where I found the San Gennaro Festival in full swing. I was amazed to see that the Festival stretched from Canal Street to Houston Street, and showcased the many Italian restaurants and shops along the way. I thought about those that came to live here, crammed in the six-story walkups and trying to make it in their new adopted country. And I thought about my daughter looking for an apartment in New York and some of these same six-story walkups asking for exorbitant rents. Some things never change.

When I got as far north as Prince Street, I went west again and headed into Soho toward my eventual destination, the Mercer Kitchen. Across the street from Fanelli’s Cafe, the Mercer Kitchen is situated in the basement of the Mercer Hotel and has a ceiling that is actually the sidewalk made of beveled glass above. Back in the day, this was Soho’s way of letting light into the basements, and only in Soho can you find these type of sidewalks.

Old New York is still there in many places. I can only imagine what it was like to walk these streets during the last centuries. But if you look around you can see traces left by those who made this city great, it’s people. Take a look around, you won’t be disappointed.

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