By Christian L. Wright
EARLY one Saturday morning in June, a Heineken truck was picking up empties at the corner of Ludlow and Stanton Streets. Dominican workers were hauling pickles up from the basement of Katz’s Deli. The bourgeoisie were out walking their dogs. The dry cleaner was opening up for the day — after the big whirring street cleaner had been through, but before the guy in the Lower East Side Business Improvement District jumpsuit had started sweeping up the zillions of cigarette butts left over from another night on Ludlow Street.
Ludlow Street — a seven-block flank to the east of Little Italy that runs south from East Houston down to Canal Street — leads a kind of double life, day versus night, and north versus south. The street is cut into neat northern and southern halves by Delancey Street. Katz’s anchors the northern end at Houston and Ludlow, and the Boe Fook funeral home marks the southern end near Canal Street, where the border with Chinatown gets a little blurry.
Early in the morning south of Delancey, the street bustles with merchants, tradespeople, students and residents. Meanwhile, north of Delancey, where there is a greater concentration of clothing shops, music clubs and bars, the denizens are still sleeping off the night before.
The street is narrow, for the most part, and the sidewalk is pocked by open cellar doors, some leading to private storage, others to subterranean boutiques run by impossibly chic Japanese women. Rent-regulated apartments in tenement buildings are juxtaposed with high-design conversions.
“It’s a nice mix,” said Emanuela Magnusson, the owner and principal of EFM Design and Architecture, who lives on Ludlow Street. “It’s a neighborhood transforming instead of a planned gentrification.”
By midday, the entire street has come to life: a wonderful small-town kind of life. Derek, the Scottish hairstylist with the crop of gray hair, is having a smoke on the bench in front of Tommy Guns Salon. A blond woman in her 20s sits on the sidewalk outside the Yumi Kim dress shop, using the pay phone to call her mother. A chic girl in a sailor shirt, a short skirt and Marni boots rides by on an old bicycle. She bears a striking resemblance to Charlotte Gainsbourg.
The mustard and ketchup are arranged in pairs on the counter at Mikey’s, a new burger joint the size of a mailbox at No. 134, next to a cheap-suit vendor who’s been there, no doubt, since the Carter administration. Shopkeepers stick back-in-five-minutes signs in their windows — if, that is, they make any pretense of adhering to their posted hours of business.
Shung Kee at 85 Ludlow sells fish paste and fish balls next door to Inborn Tattoo, proclaimed by a winged skull on a flag flying above its three-stair stoop.
There’s a school in the middle of everything, adding to the domestic balance. Seward Park High School, built on the site of the old Ludlow Street jail, is the actor Walter Matthau’s alma mater. These days, waving a banner of progress, it has been transformed into five small schools, including the New Design High School and the Urban Assembly Academy of Government and Law.
On the southwestern corner of Ludlow and Grand, two blocks below Delancey (don’t call it BelDel, as an aspiring hipster did the other night at Schiller’s Liquor Bar over on Norfolk Street ), there’s an artifact worthy of the Smithsonian: Ideal ladies and men’s hosiery, a family-owned business that has been in residence since the ’50s.
In a reflection of Ludlow Street’s split personality, Ideal Hosiery is countered on the northwestern corner of Stanton, two blocks north of Delancey (please, not NoDel), by the new September Wines and Spirits, where along the handsome dark racks you can find something good from Washington State, or maybe the Alentejo.
As Joel Stanger, an associate broker of Halstead Property, pointed out, many of the income-restricted buildings along Grand Street have been converted to condominiums in the last 10 years, altering the Lower East Side’s residential dynamic.
“It’s a very good entry-level buy for a lot of people,” he said.
For those further up the ladder, there’s the penthouse above a plumbing supply store at 75 Ludlow Street, a 3,379-square-foot industrial palazzo that has 44 windows and additional outdoor space with 360-degree views (from the clotheslines on neighboring rooftops all the way to the Chrysler Building), on the market for $5,068,500.
At the northern end there’s the Ludlow, a gleaming new rental building just south of Houston Street, where a two-bedroom apartment goes for $5,700 per month. The building has double-paned windows — a good thing, because come nightfall, the buzz of the neighborhood, as the marketers like to call it, turns into a cacophony.
At night, Ludlow Street is taken over by a completely different cast of characters. The northern end seems to catch some hard-drinking spillover from the East Village, or maybe groovy souls looking for the ghost of the Velvet Underground. Lou Reed and company did live and record on Ludlow Street, circa 1964. Groups of teetering girls in cocktail dresses, who may have gotten lost on their way to the meatpacking district, are also swarming.
Iggy’s Keltic Lounge, a working-class hole-in-the-wall, shares bar business with the vast Spitzer’s Corner, where an unsmiling bouncer checks IDs with an electronic scanner and stamps wrists.
The southern end, meanwhile, seems to have been plucked from a bohemian corner of Antwerp, with incredibly lean people leaning into conversations over small-topped cafe tables at Les Enfants Terribles and Sebastián, well past the witching hour, and a municipal garage that’s been taken over for a free production of “Love’s Labor Lost” by Shakespeare in the Parking Lot.
The bars up and down the stretch, some of which stay open until 4 a.m. (officially), start serving in the afternoon and get busy around the time Ellen, the vintage clothing shop at No. 123, is selling the last Pucci dress of the day and the period furniture store Las Venus is getting ready to turn off the Lucite chandeliers and close up for the night.
On a recent Saturday around 10:30 p.m., the din from the crowd at Spitzer’s — four deep at the front bar — drowned out all the other noise on the street. A bouncer with a shaven head leaned against a parked car, confronting anyone who tried to enter or exit the bar through one of its open garage-door windows. Postgraduate cliques hovered on street corners, trying to master the art of cigarette smoking. The area began to look like a playground for 22-year-olds, making it difficult for an Asian factory worker in sweaty shirt and dirty jeans to wend his way through.
A fortuneteller had set up her card table and candles outside of Pianos, a music club at No. 158, where a small crowd lined up, waiting to get in. By 11:30, an unmarked police car idled near Rivington, as two plainclothes officers watched the street intently, and a tiny red light marking the door to the Dark Room nightclub had come on.
Like plenty of off-the-beaten track urban streets, Ludlow has seen its share of street crime, drug deals and under-age drinking. Thus, the strict no-stamp-no-drink policy at Spitzer’s. The street never closes. The Hat, as El Sombrero restaurant has been known to the after-hours crowd since it opened in the 1980s, sits at the northeastern corner of Stanton and Ludlow like the last remaining peep show in the rehabilitated Times Square.
The parallels with 42nd Street don’t end there. Ludlow at night also fills up with wide-eyed tourists seeking the frisson of a storied patch of New York City, once a dangerous crossroads and now an entertainment hub. You won’t find a Red Lobster on Ludlow Street. It’s still grittier than that and maintains a raw creative energy. But there is a Subway: even starving artists need a cheap sandwich now and then.
Thursday, July 15, 2010