Fabulous Chinatown

Most people who love places like the East Village, the West Village, or the

Lower East Side love them for basically the same reason. They’re real neighborhoods:

each one has a unique culture, a feeling you get when you walk its

streets. The reason that people hate it when the Gap or Starbucks arrives in

such a place is not because they hate the Gap or Starbucks, but because they’re

chains: they’re not unique.

Other New York neighborhoods can be described in terms of the type of brands

that one finds there: when tourists come to New York, they can find brands they’ve

heard of on the Upper West Side or on Madison Avenue or in Soho. Increasingly,

they can even get the same frisson of familiarity in the West Village too, especially

on Bleecker Street.

So far, however, the East Village and the Lower East Side have proved relatively

immune to this phenomenon: the only big national brands making incursions are

really the banks, and even they seem very hesitant to venture south of Houston.

(The long-standing exception to this rule, of course, is Delancey Street, which

has everything from Sleepy’s to Starbucks, Chase Manhattan to The Children’s

Store. Even Delancey, however, has its fair share of unique, only-in-New-York

establishments, like Solid Gold Jewelry on Norfolk.)

That said, gentrification will always breed changes. Consider Sol

Moscot, the optitician’s which has anchored the north-east corner of Orchard

and Delancey since 1951 and which has been on the Lower East Side since 1915.

I was flicking through my records there on Saturday – they’re still kept

on 3×5 index cards – and it turns out that I’ve bought all my glasses

(or at least all my lenses) there since June 1998.

When I first started going to Sol Moscot, they were an incredibly friendly,

family-run Lower East Side institution. They’re still all of those things, but

there’s no doubt that Moscot’s has changed along with the neighborhood. As the

number of hipsters increased, so did the space that Moscot devoted to expensive

designer frames; the store has even recently started its own retro-cool hipster-targeted

brand. Meanwhile,

the minimum cost of going to Moscot’s was inexorably increasing. The price of

lenses is now merely at the cheap end of the spectrum, where they used to be

significantly cheaper than anybody else. No longer will they throw in a basic

frame if you’re buying decent lenses. And they now charge $125 for an eye test.

This weekend I wanted to get prescription polarized sunglasses for my trip

to Patagonia at the end of the month.(!) Sol Moscot was happy to oblige, but

only at what seemed like excessive cost. The staff there seemed to have less

sympathy for my plight than they would have done in the past, and were more

likely to try to justify the vast expense than they were to try and come up

with a way of bringing it down.

Reluctantly moving away from Sol Moscot, I found myself at Manhattan

Grand Optical, a Little Chitaly opticians which is absolutely wonderful.

There’s not a hint of a hard sell there, they have a wide selection of cheap

frames, they’re extremely friendly, professional and knowledgeable – and

they don’t focus on hipsters at the expense of real people. They came up with

a smart solution to my problem (clip-on magnetically attachable polarized

lenses, don’t laugh, they can look pretty cool these days), and they even gave

me a full-scale eye exam for only $15. I can’t recommend them highly enough

– tell them Felix sent you!

Coming home from Manhattan Grand Optical on the way back home, I stopped off

at the best supermarket in the Lower East Side, the Clinton Street Supermarket,

on Clinton between Delancey and Rivington. I bought a pork loin for a dinner

party, but their meat department has a very wide selection, and their fish department

is even better; most of the stuff there is alive until the minute you buy it.

The produce is fresh, the prices are rock-bottom, and the whole store is super-clean.

The tanks of live fish reminded me of the excellent meal I’d had the night

before, at Ping’s

on Mott Street. Coming from London, I’m normally pretty snobbish about Chinese

food in this city: I reckon New York is great at pretty much everything, but

comes up short in the Chinese and Indian departments. Ping’s is definitely of

London standards, however, almost as good as the great Mandarin Kitchen on Queensway.

Maybe the comparison is invidious, but I reckon its noodles are better (yes,

better) than the Japanese noodles at Omen on Thompson, and the prices are definitely


Manhattan Grand Optical, Clinton Street Supermarket, Ping’s Seafood –

what these places have in common, of course, is that they’re all Chinese. While

everybody else in downtown Manhattan seems to be chasing the latest trendiest

thing, the Chinese have carved out a hugely valuable niche providing excellent

products and services at bargain prices. Whether it’s glasses or apples or noodles

or even electrical equipment from Lendy’s, Chinatown is the last remaining neighborhood

south of 110th Street that seems to care how much things cost. Think of it as

Manhattan’s answer to Wal-Mart. How I would have loved to have bought an apartment

in Chinatown, had there only been any available! But I think there are precious

few co-op or condo buildings there. Maybe that’s why it has stubbornly resisted

the gentrification that’s happened elsewhere.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Fabulous Chinatown

  1. My index card at Moscot’s predates 1998. I haven’t had an eye exam in probably ten years, but I remember the last being free (and I learned the oddly interesting fact that the minor eye defect I have would be best treated by Dr. Renee Richards, the Moscot optican identifying the problem and treatment without my explaining it, the only time that has ever happened). So maybe some things have changed, but I was browsing for Mikli’s in 1997.

    And, to be fair, the originals are properly termed reproductions. Moscot used to manufacture their own low cost frames, and the initial frames were reissued (don’t know if that is true of all of those on the page you link to). I bought a pair, because at $90 (when I got mine) they were a steal compared to all the high priced plastic in there.

  2. mike d says:

    Where ya goin’ in Patagonia? The crazy little Welsh villages in Chubut are kind of funky, although I’m sure they pale compared to the real thing.

    Speaking of your knowledge of London cuisine, I’m headed there at the end of the month- any recommendations? Remember that I’m a pooor journalist…

  3. Benjamin Hemric says:

    It seems to me that criticisms of chain stores are, generally speaking, superficial and overdone. In the past, the shopping streets of great NYC neighborhoods were well-stocked with chain establishments: e.g., Woolworth’s (and various competitors), Nedick’s, Chock Full ‘o Nuts, Florsheims, Rexall Drugs, Robert Hall’s, Loew’s movie theaters, Automats, and so on.

    The problem, so it seems to me, is not chain stores per se, but non-New York City chain stores. These days, chain establishments are more apt to be imports from suburbia or other parts of the U.S, particularly the West. (What’s particularly galling to me are chain pizza places and coffee shops in Greenwich Village! — NYU used to have, and may still have[?], a “Pizza Hut” in its student center!)

    What’s happened to NYC as a incubator of economic innovation?

    I found your comments about the various Chinese business owners on the Lower East Side who are offering successful alternatives to chains to be very interesting. Across Thompson St. from a large CVS on Bleecker St. is a very good independently-owned drug store (“Price Wise”?) which seems to me to be Chinese-owned. I’ve found their prices to be as good or better than CVS or Duane Reade, and I’ve been able to find favorite products at Price Wise that I haven’t been able to find after extensive searches elsewhere.

    Given your observations about stores on the Lower East Side, and my experience with this drug store, my tentative guess is that Chinese businessmen / businesswomen are more willing to put in the effort and hours necessary to be competitive with the chains — and that perhaps ambitious people from more “established” ethnic groups have been more likely to gravitate to more glamorous enterprises or to opt for the corporate or professional worlds instead.

    Also “Price Wise” occupies a kind of run down, and decidedly off-beat space that is probably RELATIVELY inexpensive to rent. (It occupies two or three basement-level storefronts that are accessible only by going down a few steps through an open light well.)

    In contrast, CVS, occupies a large, more “chain-friendly,” space that used to be the “Top of the Gate” bar/cabaret. It also has a costly (?) but rarely used(?) handicapped lift to get patrons up to the main floor, which is half a flight up from the smaller cash register area of the store. And it seems to have many employees who are only minimally productive. (Jane Jacobs talks about the “DIS-economies of scale,” and these may be illustrations of some of them.)

    How could we increase the “supply” of city storefronts in order to lower their cost (rent) — and thereby faciliate a wide variety of small businesses to flourish? Some thoughts: encourage second-story and basement commercial activity; discourage — i.e., not indirectly encourage through zoning incentives — economically sterile “open space” (like those “plazas” and set-backs around new apartment houses and office buildings). Cutting through some new streets (by cutting through overly long city blocks), as suggested by Jane Jacobs (as opposed to encouraging dead-end plazas), would also make storefronts that were previously “mid-block” more enconomically useful. Although I suspect that the time when this was most politically and economically feasible is now gone.

  4. nicole says:

    Just a word of thanks for the good info. on Manhattan Grand. You saved me $45 plus the ability to keep the same contacts I have and like rather than be “fitted” for ones I neither want nor need! Thanks again!

  5. Woah! I’m really enjoying the template/theme of this site. It’s simple, yet effective. A lot of times it’s very difficult to get that “perfect balance” between superb usability and visual appearance. I must say you’ve done a awesome job with this. Additionally, the blog loads extremely fast for me on Safari. Excellent Blog!Grapevine Roofing & Construction, 3155 Stone Creek Lane, Grapevine, TX 76051 – (817) 442-3229

  6. This blog is very educational.

  7. Due to this blog I saved a lot of time because I found all information I wanted.

  8. acai says:

    Excellent blog, honestly.

Comments are closed.