Urban Explorer: The Lower East Side is Worth the Train Ride

The Urban Explorer Takes on the Traditionally Counter-Culture Lower East Side


Malaya Saldana/The Observer
Walking up from the graffiti-splattered staircase of the downtown station on Delancey Street, your ears are greeted with a strangely harmonic amalgamation of sounds: the Spanish of a Puerto Rican grandmother scolding her granddaughter; a young accordion player busking up the block; a heated argument between a local gallery owner and its formerly represented artist. Behind all these sounds, I can almost hear the faint lyrics of  Rent’s “La Vie Boheme” being sung by the street itself: “Starving for attention, hating convention, hating pretension.” It seems that every small gallery, eccentric shop and uniquely delicious eatery is competitively asserting its unconventionality, and quasi-socialist, people-power attitude.

Just above Chinatown and below the East Village, there lies a distinct neighborhood of young artists and unorthodox entrepreneurs who fan the fire of avant-garde thought. A place relatively free from the annoyances of overly-excited, nascent New Yorkers, the Lower East Side (LES) is a neighborhood that welcomes the creative, politically-frustrated college student. 

A rich history of rebellion and renaissance has coursed through the LES since its sepia-colored days filled with European immigrants who saw it as place of rebirth, and since activists discovered a haven from where to rebel against the rest of mainstream Manhattan’s “more money, more power” motto. This history has found a way to work itself into the evolution of the LES While there are fewer political protest rallies, there is a bookstore there dedicated to help you start your own, and the air of arts and unconventionality permeates everything from hairsalons to booze-y bars.

Paraphrasing my LES hairdresser, romping around in either of the Villages is for that first, youthful New York-summer, when the smoke-shops are still exotic and you’re still interested in surrounding yourself with the mere idea of New York; the LES is for when the excitement of New York youth has transitioned from honeymoon period into a developing commitment. This is a place that breeds conversations about the significance, or lack thereof, of your most recent philosophy reading in an activist coffee shop, and the option to scream about it from atop a rickety table at one of its many bars. Don’t worry, you won’t get arrested for screaming. You’ll be commended for your adamant application of the First Amendment. 

Escape the sounds of construction and head to the LES You may find yourself on the downtown train heading towards Delancey more often. I know I do.


Your Urban Explorer

 For All Well Read Rebels

172 Allen St.

You know that socialist-slanting Revolutions course you’re taking? Or maybe you need some rare and insightful print sources for your role of feminism in modern America? Bluestockings is the place for all those looking to play Devil’s Advocate against the mainstream, capitalistic society. Run almost entirely by volunteers, this bookstore does more than store volumes on the Cuban Revolution, the ’60s and Greenpeace; it hosts performances, workshops and films where the radical feel is pretty palpable. Why expect less when its website advertises its active support for “movements that challenge hierarchy and all systems of oppression.” While you’re fighting the man, you can also fight your hunger by feeding yourself on some vegan fare in their café. Who knew it was this easy to be a rebel? 

From Vegan Fare to Carnivore Comestibles

Atlas Café
73 Second Ave.

Atlas Café is the epitomic LES café—quaint, crowded and filled with youth. This casual café is crammed with art, blackboards and bird cages. Ordering their Mediterranean couscous salad was probably the 11th best decision I have made in my life. A vegan-friendly café with everything from any-way-you-like bagels (you can order a bagel with just shredded American cheese—I’ve seen it done) to rich and surprisingly healthy desserts. The intimate setting requires larger groups to use the outside area in order to abide by the laws of physics, if not proximity politeness.

The Meatball Shop
84 Stanton St.

It’s past midnight. You look in the fridge and there are four ingredients to work with. Is a meal possible? Many college students make it possible, while creating a sacrilege of humanity’s culinary intelligence. Ramen-tuna stir-fry? The Meatball Shop uses the same limited ingredients philosophy with surprisingly expansive results. They craft different flavor combinations without risking Frankensteinien results. My order of a beef-meatball sandwich with provolone and tomato sauce on a baguette seemed too simple to be incredible, but it was. Lacking fancy unpronounceable ingredients, it makes up for it through each meatball’s layers of flavor and premium selection of meat-and-spice mixtures. Simple culinary genius.

Beauty Boutiques & Special Shops
Le Salon d’Art
90 Stanton St.

As New York college students, we know all the craziest ways to save and make money when needed. This is what led me to Le Salon d’Art, where I requested to hair model for them. I was late to my appointment because I couldn’t recognize it as a hair salon at first. With wall-to-wall contemporary paintings, it looked more like an art gallery. The friendly hairstylist Akiko is very knowledgeable and got me to take more than three inches off, and I didn’t look like a bowl-head or a 10-year-old school girl. Accomplishment? I think so. This hybrid galleryhair salon even holds parties at the beginning of every month. Cool? Definitely. 

Dress Shoppe
83 Second Ave.

This vibrant shop reeked of color and stung the street with a heady patchouli and sandalwood. Try as I might, it was hard to resist this unique collection of exotic trinkets, garments and beautiful cryptic objects from India and the subcontinent. I felt like I had stumbled into the Bombay edition of “The Little Mermaid’s” treasure trove. The kindly shop owner came up and offered some of the shop’s hand-crafted and self-designed incenses, and humbly described how his shop started with a few imports and became a self-manufacturer of specialty items. This place is still a little secret—scantily populated, but a cool find.