Complaints of rapid gentrification are nothing new to New York City. Beginning with a sharp decrease in crime stemming from Mayor Giuliani’s aggressive broken window policing of New York in the 1990s, wealth has poured, settled, rearranged, and redeployed across both the city’s traditional attractive residential neighborhoods and its grittier zip codes. But ask a New Yorker what they think of the soul of the city today, and you’ll hear a more forceful outcry against commercialization, commoditization, internationalization, and every other capital-influenced movement that has swept through the five boroughs since the Dutch colonization of the early 17th century. Despite new construction, new waves of residents, and a consistently escalating cost of living, there are some neighborhoods of New York that retain an old world, or at least pre-war, essence. The Lower East Side, despite continued waves of gentrification, retains – if not only in aesthetic quality – exemplary New York City grit.
Bound by Canal Street, the FDR Drive, East Houston, and the Bowery, the East Village’s history as an immigrant district is maintained and evidenced as much by the architecture of its apartment complexes as by its long running and now world famous delicatessens, like Katz’s and Russ and Daughters. German immigrants constituted the first major group of immigrants of 19th century LES, followed by Italians, Greeks, and a wide variety of Eastern European transplants who carved out mostly homogenous mini-neighborhoods within the area. By the early 20th century, the Lower East Side’s Jewish enclave became the largest ethnic grouping, consisting of 400,000 residents.
Living conditions for the Lower East Side’s immigrant populations were extremely taxing, but throughout the early and mid 20th century, various political efforts were made to regulate and improve tenement construction and management. After the Second World War, the LES witnessed demographic changes that saw Black and Puerto Rican populations enter the neighborhood’s diaspora. Politically, the neighborhood was associated with radicalism and Marxist ideologies, and, culturally, it became tied to the poets, writers, and musicians of the Beat generation. Eventually, the area now known as the East Village would split off from the Lower East Side as real estate developers and agents branded it as the city’s new artistic center, and the LES would see a period of decline, followed by stabilization in the 80s and 90s, and a massive wave of gentrification in the early 2000s which transformed the area into the trendy neighborhood it is today.
Although an influx of boutiques and luxury apartment buildings might have changed the neighborhood’s constituency, down its small streets and alleyways the casual visitor or electric scooter rider will immediately register the Lower East Side’s working class history. The unpolished, unkempt nature of much of the area continues to be a draw for creatives like recent South African native and Unagi rider, Sivan Miller.
Originally from Cape Town, Sivan was discovered by Oprah Winfrey at the early age of 16 for his landscape photography. His work was featured in her international magazine, O, and quickly Sivan’s hobby became a much more focused pursuit. Eventually transitioning to fashion photography, Sivan got signed by an agency in New York, made the move, and hasn’t looked back, “I pretty much just followed my dreams after school; it hasn’t always been easy, but my Visa application was accepted – which isn’t simple – and here I am now.”
Sivan first lived in the Upper East Side, but found the area a bit pretentious for his taste. He quickly relocated to LES, and fell in love with the casual, eclectic style of its residents, the melting-pot characteristics of the demographic, and its proximity to China Town, which still amazes him as a unique destination. He also loves being able to easily maneuver on his Unagi, “In South Africa there’s lots of open space, everyone skateboards on the sidewalk but there are no people – skating in New York is dangerous, electric scooters are more suited to the city . . . the handlebars, horn, brake lights . . . honestly since I got my scooter I haven’t been skateboarding at all.” Unagi in hand, and in front of the camera for a change, Sivan met up with us to ride around the Lower East Side and showcase his four favorite, under the radar hangouts perfectly accessible by scooter.
Irving Farm was our first stop of the day. The Lower East Side location of this popular eatery is Sivan’s daily breakfast spot. Order up some avocado toast or classic bacon, egg, and cheese and park yourself at one of the cafe’s massive windows where Sivan likes to do his people watching, “I get inspiration from the different styles you see here. Streetwear is definitely king in this area, but sometimes you’ll see someone dressed like they might have just stepped off the moon.”
From there, we headed up the block to Adventure Cafe, which sits right next to the neighborhood’s famous Tenement Museum. In a city where you’re often paying four bucks for a cup of coffee, Adventure Cafe may have the best deal in town. For fifty dollars a month, the shop’s customers can refuel themselves as many times as they’d like. In addition to an unlimited coffee program, Adventure Cafe organizes outings for the local community. A bus will stop by the shop on the designated day, and patrons will go off hiking, surfing, or snowboarding.
For lunch, take a quick spin over to Vietnamese favorite An Choi. The establishment’s vibrant decor and world class Bahn Mi sandwiches and Pho make it a perfect spot for these chillier Fall days. Don’t skip on the wings either, they’re becoming a neighborhood classic.
After a day of alleyway exploration, round out your LES adventure with a visit to the Australian inflected Dudley’s. With one of the prettiest bars in town, Dudley’s has made waves among local foodies. Between its crab linguine, branzino, and lamb pappardelle, there exists few palettes that won’t be satisfied by this gem.
To keep up with Sivan, his work, and his Unagi exploration about town follow him @sivanmiller, and, if you’d like your neighborhood story told to the Unagi community, contact firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch with our creative team. Happy riding everyone!