Photographing New York: East Village and Lower East Side

East Village Photography, New York Photography

(This guide is part of The New York Photographer’s Travel Book, which is available as a free digital download.)

The East Village and Lower East Side were once the centers of immigrant life in New York. As the city went into a depression in the ‘70s and immigrants and other ethnic groups moved to different areas of the city, such as Little Italy, both neighborhoods declined.

They became the center for the drug trade in New York. Many of the tenement buildings were left abandoned, and the drug dealers moved in. Buildings were frequently burned down by their owners for the insurance money, and much of the neighborhood went up in flames. However, while there were not many police officers patrolling the streets, the drug dealers kept an eye out for the people who lived in the area. They kept the area as safe as they could because they did not want reasons for the police to come in. Thus, many old-timers talk about the drug dealers looking out for them and keeping their block safe.

Due to all of these factors, the neighborhood was cheap, and so artists, creatives, people moving to New York from all over the world, and anyone without much money moved here. The Punk Rock movement, a musical and artistic form based on a distrust of authority, little money, and a lot of free time, sprouted out of a small country, bluegrass, and blues bar on the Bowery named CBGB. Despite the living conditions, this was a time in New York where creatives could live cheaply and still have a lot of free time to produce their art. From the rubble of burned down buildings bloomed dozens of lot-sized community gardens, built by hand from the residents that lived in the neighborhood. The community gardens of note are La Plaza Cultural, 6BC Botanical Garden, and the 9th Street Community Garden Park.

Since the ‘80s, both neighborhoods have progressively become more gentrified, and it now has a mix of old punk rockers, new yuppies, eclectic people, NYU students, and people from all over the world. The neighborhoods have some of the best restaurants as well as the most bars and clubs in the city. It is the center of nightlife in New York, whether or not the residents that live there like it. Street art now covers both the East Village and especially the Lower East Side.

East Village Photography, New York Photography

East Village Photography, New York Photography

In the East Village, St. Marks Place is one of the most vibrant streets in the New York, and it is fantastic for street photography and people watching. 2nd Avenue, 1st Avenue, Avenue A, and Avenue B will have the most interesting street life to capture. In May, the Loisaida festival on Avenue C is one of the best festivals in New York to photograph and people watch. On 3rd Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues is the Hells Angels headquarters. Walk by and take a glance, but be very respectful and keep your distance. Visit the community gardens, and also make sure to visit Tompkins Square Park, the site of the famous Tompkins Square Park riots.

Walk to the Bowery and head into the John Varvatos clothing store between 1st and 2nd Streets. This store, which now sadly sells $3,000 punk rock inspired blazers, was once the site of CBGB, the famous club that punk rock sprouted out of, and hosted bands such as the Ramones, Blondie, Television, The Patti Smith Group, Talking Heads, and the Dead Boys. Many of the old walls have been preserved, and framed photographs from the era dot the walls. If you have an affinity for punk rock, this is a must see. Finally, if you are a basketball fan, head to Houston Street, and walk two blocks east to Sara D. Roosevelt Park, where you can photograph and watch some very competitive pickup games.

East Village Photography, New York Photography

On the Lower East Side, pop into Russ & Daughters and Katz’ Deli on Houston Street to people watch and eat. Russ & Daughters’ famous meal is a bialy with lox and cream cheese, while Katz’ is famous for pastrami on rye and the movie When Harry Met Sally. Wander down Orchard, Ludlow, and Essex Streets. Both the East Village and Lower East Side will have gorgeous old tenement buildings, with carved stone facades and beautiful fire escapes. The best fire escapes in the neighborhood can be seen on the corner of Broome and Orchard. Half a block away on Orchard is the Tenement Museum, with its great New York-centric bookstore. Galleries now litter the Lower East Side, and their frequency is only increasing as they are priced out of Chelsea. It is a lot of fun to explore the ever changing exhibits.

Lower East Side Photography, New York Photography

The nightlife in both neighborhoods is vibrant, to say the least, and special to photograph. Please be safe, go photographing with a friend, and stay in the busy areas. There is no need to wander to areas with no people. I suggest staying on 2nd Avenue, 1st Avenue, and Avenue A in the East Village, and photographing on the corner of Stanton and Ludlow, nicknamed Hell Square by neighbors, on the Lower East Side.

Lower East Side Photography, New York Photography

(This guide is part of The New York Photographer’s Travel Book, which is available as a free digital download.)