NEW YORK - It is a cold, overcast afternoon on the Lower East Side. The streets are almost empty. The buildings seem dusty. A man's dark overcoat swings eerily in the breeze on a hanger at the entrance of a used-clothing store.
But walk just a few blocks from the Delancey Street subway station, around a corner, and you come upon a startling, tall structure of glass and steel, a sharp contrast to the shabby dry-cleaning shop next door. The interior is light and modern. A massive chandelier hangs in a sitting room off the lobby.
It has been the talk of the neighborhood for months. It is the Hotel on Rivington, a striking symbol of the recent transformation in this historic area.
The rooms offer floor-to-ceiling views of the city from the bed and shower. You can see the Empire State Building from an oversized Japanese tub. At night, the hotel bursts with energy as uptown people trek downtown to crowd into the bar and Thor restaurant, now high on the hot list of New York nightlife. Room rates are equally high, from about $325 to $5,000 for a penthouse suite.
The Lower East Side is a 14-minute subway ride from midtown Manhattan, just east of the fashionable, pricey SoHo district, near Chinatown. Sometimes called LoHo, for "lower than Houston Street," it is probably best known for its past. It was the first stop for tens of thousands of immigrants to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
A major attraction is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a few blocks from the Hotel on Rivington. Installed in a renovated tenement building, the museum keeps alive memories of those early residents who occupied the tenements from the 1850s until 1935.
Once a remarkably diverse lower- and middle-class neighborhood, this area has been in the midst of urbanized upheaval.
As recently as 10 years ago, the neighborhood was still a haven for struggling artists and tradesmen. But as the fashionable, gallery-filled SoHo district to the west became more expensive and less an artistic and marketing frontier, the winds of development shifted to the Lower East Side.
Now, LoHo is a major destination for New York nightlife. Restaurants are multiplying and diversifying. Bars and clubs are drawing uptowners on party rounds.
"It's a nightlife capital," says Dara Lehon, an area native who works with the Lower East Side Business Improvement District. It has also been a center of creative talent, she says, home to seamstresses and upstart designers.
And where the neighborhood shopping scene was once best known for discounted goods and cheap artists' studios, specialty retailers now carry the upscale sneakers that celebrities love. Vintage stores have a glossy following from across the United States and Europe. A burst of condos, pricey rentals, and even a Starbucks is a sign of gentrification.
It is perhaps the coexistence of the past and future that enhances the area's character.
As you walk from the hotel, map in hand, the street names are familiar: Delancey, Orchard, Broome, the Bowery. You've heard them in songs and legends. Eddie Cantor roamed these streets. George Burns lived here as a child. Walter Matthau attended high school here. It was the home of the Beat poets.
You soon come to Orchard Street, once a bustling weekend open-air market. Lehon, 31, says she remembers when her family went shopping on Orchard on Saturdays to buy socks and nightgowns.
Find No. 97, and you'll be at the Tenement Museum, rising high and narrow above the cobblestone street. The immigrants came here from places as diverse as Ireland, Italy and other parts of Western Europe, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and Lithuania.
The neighborhood "has become in people's imagination the ancestral home of the American Jewish community," says Laurie Tobias Cohen of the Jewish Conservancy, which seeks to preserve the Jewish culture and historic buildings of the Lower East Side. At least 500,000 Jewish immigrants are thought to have once lived here, she says. The American garment industry began here.
The Tenement Museum interior re-creates the spare apartments of the residents who lived in harsh, Dickensian circumstances. The original buildings had no heat, light or running water, and few windows until the late 1860s, when the state enacted laws that forced landlords to improve living conditions. The residents eked out livings in the clothing business, found odd jobs, became cobblers, and pushed vegetable carts.
In hourlong museum tours, you hear how Julius Gumpertz, a German Jew, went to work one day in 1874 and was never seen again. Desperate for money and with few resources, Gumpertz's wife set up her sewing machine and supported her three children by making dresses for German women in the neighborhood. In another apartment, where the Confino family once lived, visitors can touch furnishings, try on period clothing, and dance to music from a wind-up Victrola.
From the Tenement Museum, walk across the street to another unique symbol of the neighborhood's split personality. The Blue Moon hotel, which opened a year ago, offers modern luxury lodging - spacious rooms and top-floor suites with a view of the city.
The rooms and suites are not identified by numbers, but by celebrity names from the '30s and '40s. Sleep in the Jimmy Durante room; send your bags up to Al Jolson or Eddie Cantor.
When owner Randy Settenbrino, a Brooklyn-born real-estate agent of Jewish-Italian descent, started thinking about how he would develop this renovated building, he envisioned a kind of "tenement Disney World," according to news accounts. He incorporated parts of the old building into the new structure and decor. It took about five years.
He retrieved and reinstalled the 19th-century pine window molding. The fire escapes, once sleeping spaces for tenants on hot nights, were removed and redesigned into balcony fronts. Sink cabinets in some rooms include parts of the wooden banister from the original building.
Settenbrino pushed forward because he believed in the idea.
"We have tourists coming into the neighborhood," says Shaina Settenbrino, Randy's wife. "It was always known as a big shopping area. It was a shopping area before there was a subway."
Throughout the transition, Mary Adams has watched the changes from her storefront. Adams moved to the Lower East Side 25 years ago from Portland, Ore. A dress designer who makes fanciful party frocks and wedding gowns, she settled into her studio and opened a shop, The Dress.
What stunned her most was the drug traffic in the streets.
"Hundreds were coming in to buy drugs. I would just stay glued to the window," she says. "But I never felt fearful. I would just hear a boom box going by."
Almost overnight, things began to change, Adams says.
"Everyone got eviction notices. Rents went up," she recalls. "A lot of people had to move. Some went to Brooklyn."
Adams was forced to move, too, but managed to keep her shop on the same block.
Today, the old neighborhood is glazed with a new sophistication and a wide range of choices in food and fashion. Katz's delicatessen, the oldest and largest deli in the country, is where Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal filmed the famous scene in When Harry Met Sally. . . . Cube 63 is a sushi restaurant where celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow have been spotted.
You can still buy pickles from barrels at Guss' on Orchard Street. At 158 Rivington near the hotel, Alife Rivington Club offers sneakers from $50 to $15,000. One manager, Kunle Martins, says a big seller is the $2,000 limited-edition white Adidas that comes with paints for do-it-yourself coloring.
Martins applauds the neighborhood's changes. "It has given us a better quality of life," he says.
In the fashion arena, Foley & Corinna at 114 Stanton St. has added a stylish tweak. The shop stocks half vintage and half original designs, says co-owner Anna Corinna. The store has customers from Europe and across the United States.
"We help people put it all together, mixing vintage and modern," Corinna says. "That's how people want to dress." The original designs are also sold through other boutiques and Web sites.
Art galleries also have a strong presence. On the last Sunday of each month, galleries open their doors, and guided tours are available through what may be alleyways, lofts, basements and tenement apartments.
Meanwhile, shop owner Adams is not celebrating the changing times. She has more foot traffic in her dress shop, she says. Her business is good, but she laments the arrival of Starbucks.
"The neighborhood has always been hip and cool," she says. "We didn't need the tons of condos and high-rises to be hip and cool."
Taking in the Lower East Side
Getting there from
Driving. Take FDR Drive to Houston Street exit.
By subway. F to Delancey Street or Second Avenue;
J, M or Z to Essex Street;
B or D to Grand Street.
Things to do
Lower East Side
97 Orchard St.
A guided one-hour tour is the only way to see inside the museum, but a variety of tours are available. Apartments have been re-created in the museum to reflect the hard conditions in which early immigrants lived. The tours start at the visitors' center, 108 Orchard. Prices: $15 for adults, $11 for students. The museum is not wheelchair-friendly.
Free two-hour tour.
Every Sunday, April to December, down Orchard Street and through the shopping district. Begins at 11 a.m. in front of Katz's Deli, at East Houston and Ludlow. No reservation required. For information,
call the Visitors Center, 212-226-9010 or 866-224-0206, or e-mail email@example.com.
Every Last Sunday
on the Lower East Side
On the last Sunday of each month, artists open their doors in galleries, studios, basement apartments, lofts or back rooms in tenement apartments for guided or unguided tours.
Jewish Walking Tours
The tours, sponsored by the Jewish Conservancy, include stops in at least three landmark synagogues. You'll see the recently restored Bialystoker synagogue, built in 1826 and once a stop on the Underground Railroad, the conservancy says. Prices: $16 for adults, $14 for seniors, $12 for students. Private tours are available.
Places to shop
Foley & Corinna
114 Essex St.
Anna Corinna and Dana Foley offer a vast selection of vintage treasures along with their own new designs. Foley & Corinna Men is around the corner.
Alife Rivington Club
Find everything you ever thought you wanted in a sneaker. Prices from $50 to $15,000 for limited editions. You may spot a celebrity.
138 Ludlow St.
Open from 1 to 6 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. For an appointment, call 212-473-0237.
Places to stay
100 Orchard St.
The boutique hotel, across from the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, is in a tenement, and details from the historic building have been integrated into the hotel design and furnishings. It has 16 rooms and six suites. Rooms are named after celebrities such as Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson.
Hotel on Rivington
This 21-story hotel offers floor-to-ceiling views of New York from the shower or bed.
Howard Johnson Express
135 E. Houston St.
This hotel, with 46 rooms, is one block from the Lower East Side district and within walking distance of the Tenement Museum, SoHo and Chinatown.
Places to eat
107 Rivington St.
Upscale restaurant in the Hotel on Rivington buzzes at night as uptowners rush downtown to make the scene. The food is described as American nouveau and German/Austrian. Expensive to very expensive.
Schillers Liquor Bar
131Rivington at Norfolk
The cuisine is described as Southern soul, French and Irish/English. The chefs are praised for their steak frites ($21) and braised duck with prunes. Moderate prices.
63 Clinton St.
Can be expensive because small dishes add up. A sushi and Asian seafood restaurant; it has no liquor license. The decor is modern. Gwyneth Paltrow has been spotted here.
367 Grand St.
This family has been making bialys (a flat, round roll topped with onion flakes) for 65 years. Bagels were recently added.
Full City Coffee
409 Grand St. at Delancey
This coffee shop, open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and until 9 p.m. on weekends, serves premium roasts from Tanzania, Vietnamese coffee, Thai ice tea, gourmet sandwiches, soups, freshly baked pastries, cakes, and ice cream. Inexpensive.
205 E. Houston St.
Billed as the oldest deli in the country. Food critics say the decor has changed little since it opened at this location in 1990. You can have a double piled-high pastrami sandwich and maybe sit at the same table as Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in the movie When Harry Met Sally . . . .
98 Rivington at Ludlow
Food critics praise the menu of small plates, including air-light meatballs, salads, polenta with walnuts, and selections of cheese. The little plates add up. Moderate to expensive.
85 Orchard St.
Guss', which opened in 1920, is one of the last remaining sources of freshly cured New York pickles. Prices start at $3.
Lower East Side Business Improvement District
261 Broome St.
- Jackie White