Topic: Lower East SideNew York's Lower East Side is both a quintessential locus of immigrant experience in America generally and a major site of Jewish tourism in America. While the neighborhood has a long history of being visited by curious travelers from abroad (including Charles Dickens) and by American reformers (e.g., Jacob Riis), the Lower East Side is more recently an object of Jewish (and other ethnic) nostalgia and heritage.
Tourism of the Lower East Side today includes official institutions created for visitors who come from outside the neighborhood (in particular, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and the Eldridge Street Project, which is dedicated to restoring the landmark Eldridge Street Synagogue as the focal point of a Jewish heritage center for the 21st century). It is regularly visited by organized walking tours, which configure the neighborhood's history and its cultural present along diverse narrative routes (e.g., Jewish heritage, multicultural, radical history). For some, visiting the neighborhood's Jewish sites can be configured as a form of pilgrimage. At the same time, there are a number of active Jewish religious and cultural institutions in the neighborhood: The Bialystoker Home for the Aged, the offices of Der Algemeyner Zhurnal (a Yiddish weekly newspaper published by Chabad Hasidim), and various yeshivas and synagogues which, typically, are not tourist destinations, with the exception of the Eldridge Street Synagogue.
The dynamics and variety of Lower East Side tourist practices raise questions about how visits to a neighborhood with an abject past (most immigrants a century ago left the area as soon as they could, fleeing poverty and crowded, unsanitary living conditions) can reify a time and place that is sanctified in ethnic and religious terms as foundational of American Jewish life.
Among tourist media, the walking tour is of special interest here. How do such tours mediate history, heritage, spirituality? How do they situate the neighborhood's past against its very different architectural and demographic present? How do they negotiate between urban space and a narrative chronology? How do aspects of other mediations (museum, theater, novel) inform the walking tour medium? How are experimental tourist mediations, for example, Soundwalk, refiguring such vintage genres of tourism as the self-guided walking tour in the context of a rapidly changing neighborhood.
In addition to actual tourism, virtual travel to the Jewish Lower East Side is facilitated through works of fiction, photo albums, films, and websites. How do they establish a Lower East Side iconography, and how is this dealt with in Lower East Side tourist productions?
How does New York's Lower East Side as a site of immigrant history and memory compare with historic Jewish neighborhoods in Boston's West End, Toronto's Kensington Market, Chicago's Maxwell Street, London's East End, the Marais or Pletsl in Paris, Vlooienburg in Amsterdam, and their equivalents in Milwaukee, Detroit, Montreal, and Berlin. Or, with neighborhoods like District Six in Cape Town?
Wenger, Beth S. "Memory as Identity: The Invention of the Lower East Side," American Jewish History 85, 1 (1997): 3-27. Online access through Project Muse, by institutional subscription. Please consult your library.
Suzanne Wasserman, "The Good Old Days of Poverty: Merchants and the Battle over Pushcart Peddling on the Lower East Side," Business and Economic History 27, 2 (1998).