How the Lower East Side's History Shaped All of New York City

Hear more about the Lower East Side's fascinating history in season 1, episode 1 of "Lost Cultures: Living Legacies," a new podcast from Travel + Leisure.

High angle view of Lower Manhattan cityscape

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New York City has long been known as a melting pot of cultures. Home to the world's largest Chinatown, and arguably the best Little Italy this side of the Atlantic, it’s a city that celebrates diversity unlike any other. But there’s one neighborhood, in particular, that’s gone through so many cultural evolutions, it’s hard to keep track of where one ends and another begins: the Lower East Side. 

"The...simple overview is that it's [going to] go from German to Eastern European, Mediterranean, and now, we have Chinatown, and a lot of Spanish-speaking communities," says Dolan Cochran, the education coordinator for public programs and content at the Tenement Museum, located on the Lower East Side. "But in reality, these communities are much more intermixed than we might imagine. It's not like turning on and off a light, where the community goes from speaking German to speaking Yiddish. It's a long period of the older population moving out, while a new population moves in."

Dolan adds that even when "one population...supplants the other, you'll see elements of the older community that remains." That’s often seen in its businesses, churches, and meeting places. And it’s a way of life that actor Luis Guzmán says, just simply works. 

"Puerto Rican, Black, Jamaican, Dominican, Mexican, Polish, Ukrainian, Jewish, Hasidic, Chinese, Korean — it was just an incredible mix of all these different cultures and food. And to a certain degree, it still is," he says. "We all went to school together. We played sports together. We used to get into trouble together...You're growing up as teenagers, and then you start dating and stuff like that, and that takes on a whole different perspective. But it was just life every day."

Guzmán pauses, adding, "Man, I was so fortunate; we were so fortunate to have that with each other."

Ready to hear more about the Lower East Side’s history? Listen to Cochran, Guzmán, and host Alisha Prakash, T+L's associate editorial director, dive deep into the neighborhood in episode one of Lost Cultures: Living Legacies, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, and everywhere podcasts are available.

Every Wednesday on the Lost Cultures: Living Legacies podcast, Prakash explores a unique culture around the world, and shares how you can learn more about the community on your travels, too.

Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript does not go through our standard editorial process and may contain inaccuracies and grammatical errors.

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