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
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.