Volume 16 • Issue 47 | April 16-22, 2004


Signs of a suburban Lower East Side?

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Pedestrians cross Houston St. under a new and larger First Ave. sign.

By Dara Lehon

Jaywalking across Broadway and Houston Sts. on a spring day, I am blinded into a standstill by a blinking red hand. A BMW Minicooper (then a taxi) whizzes by, followed by shopping-bag-laden, meandering pedestrians gabbing on cell phones and sipping overpriced coffee. Half-expecting a backdrop of mountains and smog, a very-large, very-legible, very-kelly-green BROADWAY sign looms above. I’m with a Long Island-native, who’s un-phased (by things other than our crazy jaywalking).

I, on the other hand, am flipping out.

Just when I thought everything possible had been super-sized and mall-ified, it seems Houston St. has gone XXL, morphing into a strange fusion of the L.I.E., Rodeo Drive, and Queens Boulevard. But given the country’s obsession with size and convenience, I’m not entirely shocked that the city Department of Transportation should follow suit.

East-to-West, from grunge to A-list, the Houston St. “drag” has grabbed attention recently, as a D.O.T. has begun investing what will be $22 million in renovations. According to the D.O.T. spokesperson, Tom Cocola, the addition of oversized street name signs mounted on signal mast arms is part of the plan, which, over the course of the next few years will include wider streets, outdoor cafes on certain blocks, and trees along the median – yes trees – along Houston St.

The D.O.T. calls the signs — generally measuring 16” high and between 72” to 96” in length (that’s pretty big) — traffic safety improvements, meant to enable motorists to easily identify cross streets on major roadways. Cocola said the signage has already been implemented and worked well in other boroughs and is in the process of being added to other major crossings including the Bronx’s Grand Concourse, Brooklyn’s Kings Highway, Queens’ Northern Boulevard, Staten Island’s Richmond Terrace, and Manhattan’s 23rd, West, and 125th Sts. After a long winter, it is somewhat refreshing to see something so nifty and clear. Statistics do show a decrease in collisions. This is all good. It just doesn’t feel like New York.

As a long-time resident, I’ve often felt the need to decide between a suburban or urban life – between a beach or a mucky river, overpriced private or a decent public school, a backyard or an alley, walking or driving. Now, as suburbanization seems to have hit its stride through neighborhood gentrification, I might not have to choose.

Take the Lower East Side’s “rediscovery,” for example: at first, E. Houston’s red brick art-deco clocktower “quad” full of young people astounded. The impending Blockbuster Video, Kinko’s, and then Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin Robbins stripmall? less surprising. Then my bargain nail salon changed clientele. Hipsters and wannabes began blabbing about Katz’s and Yonah Schimmel’s – blogging away about new hangouts and old standbys. Now there’s a Pomme Pomme and Turkish Deli to supplement knishes, boutiques in old wholesale underwear shops, not to mention tons of bars, clubs, and restaurants.

At night, or at peak “brunch” time (which simply never existed on the L.E.S. unless it was at your grandma’s), side-street restaurant spillovers compete with smokers vying for precious tiny sidewalk space. Passing non-smokers fan away second-hand fumes, weaving through the cliquey crowds clearly funded by trusts or living beyond their means in renovated tenements. It’s small-town U.S.A.

And then you step out onto the Houston Street Expressway.

A typical Sunday on a street historically known for exhaust, traffic, and car-dodging now hosts hoards of tourists, hipsters, natives, Uptowners and locals scampering (on foot) in search of something - or nothing in particular. Like Chelsea’s Sixth Ave., the Canal-Houston outdoor “mall” meets every city-mall-walker’s needs – all under no roof (and with a five-star restaurant food court). Book-ended by a perfume/electronic sector, and the NoHo, SoHo (and I’m waiting for SeHo – S.E. of Houston) divider, the landmark Canal Jean-soon-to-be-Bloomies (yes, Bloomies!) anchors the overcrowded Broadway mall, sprinkled with low-to-high-end shoe, clothing, outdoor gear, and houseware stores; West Broadway’s “miracle mile” is secured by seen-and-be-seen Felix, and sauntered by the ultra beautiful and credit card limitless folk who needn’t rationalize $400 pumps.

It’s more or less the ’burbs – with subways and cracked sidewalks. And much less space for the hoofer.

Sure, bigger streets seem less congested, but it also means more vehicle traffic, not foot. Bigger signs are more visible, but mainly for the motorist. Trees in the median? Well, it’s nice, but I have enough problems keeping a fern alive with the soot creeping on my windowsill. Street cafes are great, but with more cars, doesn’t that mean more exhaust?

Thanks to a prolonged honk, my inertia reverses and I yank my still-oblivious Long Island-native friend, who’s excited to see the Bloomies sign, across Houston St. We have survived our jaywalk exercise and enter the roofless, soot-infused mall.

If I can read the signs, though, seems we needn’t practice our leaping; eventually we’ll be sitting in more Houston St. traffic headed to the East River Beach Club or West Side Highway “Shoreline.”

Now the only thing missing is a Costco.

Dara Lehon is a freelance writer who grew up on the Lower East Side and moved back there two years ago.

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