Coffee: The Ambassador of the Lower East Side
Two centuries are at war within New York City’s Lower East Side. The descendants of immigrant peddlers proudly disdain the trend-setting artists. At first glance, one sees a neighbourhood without any cohesive vibe. Tension and Paradox brush shoulders on Orchard Street. But these artsy design shops and hundred-year-old candy stores, although of a different era, are all small businesses. Their small business mentality unites the two opposing centuries, and is epitomized by a local coffee shop, 88 Orchard.
Geographically, the Lower East Side is a relatively small neighbourhood with very specific borders. It stretches, north to south, from Houston Street to Canal Street. The Bowery and the East River serve as its western and eastern borders. Over time, the borders have changed, partitioning the 19th century historic Lower East Side to now also include the East Village, Chinatown, Alphabet City, Bowery, Little Italy and NoLita.
However, the Lower East Side is defined not so much by its fluctuating geographical borders, but by the history of the neighbourhood itself. It has been home to many of the working class immigrant populations as they first come to America. It is almost like Ellis Island, in that with each boatload, one ethnic group quickly replaced another. However, each group passed through without staying or planting real roots. Yet one group did plant their roots. Despite the neighbourhood’s diversity, it is best remembered for having been a hub of Ashkenazi Jewish Culture.
Many of the immigrant Jews of the late 19th and early 20th centuries established themselves on the Lower East Side as pushcart peddlers and grew to become successful merchants of small shops. Today, the neighbourhood retains many Jewish roots in the multi-generational businesses and the nostalgia of Jewish Grandparent ‘Life As It Was’ stories. Places like the Eldrich Street Synagogue are memorials to the vibrant Jewish Community that was the Lower East Side.
But this Jewish Lower East Side, immortalized and iconic, has past. Like all great civilizations, the ruins and the remnants still stand. Katz’s Deli and Gus’ Pickles are the Lower East Side’s Parthenon and Machu Picchu. “People used to spend a day coming down to the Lower East Side once a month to get high quality wares for fair prices,” said Dan Bettinger, the third generation of Bettingers who owns Altman Luggage, established 1920. “This neighbourhood is no longer the small business-shopping destination it once was.”
Miriam, third generation owner of A. W. Kaufman Lingerie established 1924, echoes his lamentations. “The little family-owned Jewish businesses have mostly left the neighbourhood. People who have been here for sixty, eighty, one hundred years have children who don’t want to take over the business to sell leather or hardware all their life. My store is the epitome of what it was, a place with high quality, fair prices and regular customers. Now, there are hipsters and yuppies opening trendy little galleries and boutiques.”
The small business owners of these third generation stores cannot connect with, or understand the fashion designers or gallery owners moving into the area. The Jewish uproar concerning the “Pornocopia” Art Exhibit on East Broadway epitomizes the fissions currently existing within the Lower East Side community. This exhibit featured provocative nudes whose images offended the Orthodox Jewish Community of wigs, tallit, and kosher dinners. A request was placed with the owner of the Gallery, Allegra LaViola, to move the graphic images to the back, away from the view of the Jewish children. She denied their request. The artistic and edgy crowd that has begun to move in and gentrify the Lower East Side is grating on the long-standing Jewish community. The values of each side of the community diverge and contradict, and this conflict surfaces in such skirmishes.
However, aside from the paradox of Steve Madden next to Economy Candy, these ‘hipsters and yuppies’ now occupy the storefronts from which the friends and family of the Jewish merchants once made their living. Resentment toward these ambitious young entrepreneurs unites the remaining Jewish small businesses. “This is no neighbourhood anymore,” said Rolfe, the Tashkent-born 32-year manager of family-owned Belraf Fabrics. “People used to say ‘hello’ to each other. Now it’s these trendy designers clawing at my fabrics.” This generational chasm separates the manners, colloquialisms and interests of the two facets of the neighbourhood. Miriam remembered “leaving half an hour early each Shabbat to greet all my neighbours. And the holidays? Forget it! I used to know everyone in a five-block radius. Now, I don’t know anyone. I say ‘hello’ to this restaurant-owner everyday, and he never says it back. It takes a lot of chutzpah to not say ‘good morning.’”
Although the neighbourhood is locked in a secret feud, certain peaceful mediators are scattered around the Lower East Side. One such neutral zone can be found on the corner of Broome and Orchard in the form of the local coffee shop called 88 Orchard. The Lower East Side is not a neighbourhood of Altman Luggage or A.W Kaufman Lingerie or Belraf Fabrics or Economy Candy. No, it is a neighbourhood of random, tense small businesses, all of which are united by 88 Orchard.
Just as people do not read Playboy for just the articles, people do not sit in a coffee shop everyday for just the coffee. It is the vibe and the values of this corner coffee shop that attract the entire spectrum of Lower East Side residents. “It’s open, airy, and you feel like you can breathe in here,” said George Bayuga, a regular and an M.A. of Food Studies at NYU Steinhardt. “It is in a densely packed, dirty neighbourhood, but inside 88 Orchard, it is always tidy, light and smells warm and inviting.” He is touching upon the beautiful, calming interior of the establishment. The walls are painted with a peaceful green and the huge plate-glass windows overlook the sentimental intersection of Orchard and Broome.
This coffee shop is an ambassador, the first step in the peace-talks of the Lower East Side community. It understands the values of each side and combines the best to create a wonderful establishment. “I come here instead of Starbucks,” continued George. Starbucks, which once meant the coffee-loving first mate in Moby Dick, is now synonymous with ‘coffee’, just as ‘Kleenex’ can replace ‘tissue.’ A Starbucks order is a part of ones identity. “Tall-chai-tea-latte-with-skim-milk,” or “grande-half-skim-half-1%-hot-decaf-coffee-with-whip,” has become an individual’s beverage mantra. We are the Starbucks generation. To choose a local, independent coffee shop over Starbucks is a testament to quality of the establishment; the coffee, the staff, and the ambiance. To understand the allure of 88 Orchard’s confections, try the almond brioche. If one had a nut allergy, one should consider death by 88 Orchard’s almond brioche.
James, an employee at 88 Orchard echoes George’s pleasant observations. “It really plays into the vibe of the neighbourhood,” he said. “We try to support local artists by displaying their work. But we also buy many of our chocolates from Economy Candy.” 88 Orchard has acknowledged both sides of the neighbourhood with their white dishtowel of truce. The tin-plated ceiling of the old business remains, but they also serve Vegan gingersnaps. “It’s an eclectic group of regulars,” continued James. “We have NYU students, designers, docents at the Tenement Museum, artists, and owners of small businesses. Everyone comes here. It’s a place to relax in the day and converse at night.”
88 Orchard is able to serve as a neutral zone because it combines the standards of the old businesses with the elements of modern life. “You come to my store to be helped,” said Miriam of A.W. Kaufman. “You couldn’t browse my wares because you didn’t know what you wanted.” She straightened with pride. “I can look at any woman, any woman, and fit her for a bra. We don’t nip and tuck and cinch a perfectly wonderful bra. Don’t kvetch that you’re a ‘difficult size’ because Bra Smythe told you so to charge more. I know my stock. I know what will fit you. We don’t sell it if it isn’t right.” Miriam’s brassiere connoisseurship is a trademark of old Jewish businesses like hers.
But 88 Orchard can boast of the same level of excellence. Each employee must work at their coffee supplier for almost two months, before he or she can work with customers. They demand a knowledge and understanding of the coffee process; a standard held by the businesses of old. Just as Miriam knows lingerie and the manager of Economy Candy can tell you everything you could want to know and more about chocolate, the employees of 88 Orchard can give the story of the coffee they are pouring to anyone who askes.
The remaining old businesses boast of their fair prices. Dan Bettinger of Altman Luggage speaks with pride about his goods. “You can buy a $300 suitcase, but you know you’re getting a $300 suitcase. It is not a $100 case that we decided to mark up. We cater to what people want. If you’re going to spend a lot of money doing business with us, we want you to feel like the money you spent was worth every penny. And I have never had a complaint.” Echoing that same quality-driven small business mentality, 88 Orchard’s prices mirror the value for quality traditionally found throughout the neighbourhood. The hot cocoa at 88 Orchard is $3.50, which is 0.40cents more than Starbucks. But Starbucks delivers scalding and generic hot chocolate, while 88 Orchard’s rich and creamy mahogany drink comes with homemade whipped cream and a velvety texture. The two beverages simply do not compare. And although you pay a little more at 88 Orchard, you’re in a whole different ballpark. Pam, the overweight, over-make-up-ed mother from Georgia said, “This café au lait ain’t like anything we have down south. I’ll remember this one.”
The high standards and pride of this modern-day independent coffee shop embodies the synergy of old, immigrant values and new artistic thought that is occurring in today’s Lower East Side. “It’s great,” said Miriam, referring to 88 Orchard. “I never go to Starbucks anymore. It’s a new business, but so what? It’s an old business at heart. And that guy behind the counter, James? I like him. He’s a real mensch.”
Amelia Nierenberg, Age 17, Grade 11, The Fieldston School High School, Silver Key