The north side of Hester Street
When waves of immigrants washed across the Lower East Side a century ago, Hester Street between Essex and Ludlow streets was a kinetic — and occasionally run-down — jumble of storefronts. Shoppers flocked there to buy low-cost groceries, apparel and household goods from the pushcart vendors filling the streets. But Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia relocated the pushcarts to three new brick warehouses on Essex, one of which survives as a market today. And Eastern European Jews, who sold pickles and prayer shawls, gradually gave way to Asians, who migrated east, starting in the 1960s, from Chinatown. Now there are more changes afoot. In recent years, young white “hipsters” have crept in from the East Village, drawn by (comparatively) cheap rents. They frequent establishments like nearby Frank’s Chop Shop, a five-year-old barbershop offering $60 haircuts, and Café Grumpy, a Greenpoint-based coffee shop, which opened its second outpost on Essex Street in June.
Still, brokers say Chinese landlords continue to rent to Chinese tenants, so gentrification is often measured in inches.
“We’re not going to happen like the Meatpacking District or Soho,” said resident and developer Ron Castellano, who cofounded the two-year-old Hester Street Fair.
At the nexus of the old and the new, Hester Street serves as a true microcosm of the Lower East Side’s ongoing evolution, as The Real Deal discovered through a building-by-building analysis.
This redbrick, five-story apartment building has two storefronts. The larger of the two contains S & J Grocery, a deli, while next to it is Sammy’s Photo Lab, which will develop film in an hour. The building is owned by a limited liability corporation called Yang Zi Jiang, which bought it in 2006 for $1.49 million in cash, city records show. But in 2007, they got a new mortgage from HSBC Bank for $1.35 million, records show.
51 Hester Street
Another tenement with ground-floor retail space, this elevator building, which has five floor-through one-bedrooms, was marketed in 2010 by Massey Knakal for $2.8 million. Yet city records indicate it never sold. That suggests the owner is still Haim Kadouri, a member of the Syrian family that for decades sold dried fruit and nuts from No. 51, but which a few years ago rebranded itself as Kadouri International Foods and relocated to Bushwick. Al Kadouri, who handles real estate matters for the company, hung up on a reporter. Where apricots and cashews were once scooped is a clothing store called aNYthing, which stands for “A New York Thing” and opened in 2005. Owner Kiernen Costello said there’s symmetry to the location because his Jewish grandparents settled nearby after immigrating to America in the 1920s.
53 Hester Street
Gertel’s Bakery occupied this address for 99 years, before moving to Williamsburg several years ago. A Flushing, Queens-based company called J.P. Hester paid $4.8 million for the site in 2007, city records show, and promptly tore down Gertel’s building, though nothing ever went up in its place. Today, the lot is in foreclosure, brokers said, and city records suggest that different banks have controlled the note for the last few years.
55 Hester Street
By far the most tangible evidence of the block’s new direction is this 11-story, 27-unit condo, which was completed in 2009 on the site of a former tile store. Indeed, the building, which has a paneled façade and greenish-glass terraces, is far larger and more gleaming than most nearby properties. Yet it has struggled to find buyers, selling just 60 percent, or 16, of its one- and two-bedrooms at about $1,000 a square foot, said Leon Tsoi of Kinyu Realty, which marketed it, though StreetEasy shows just 11 units sold. Its developers, 88 Hester Construction LLC, which would not speak to a reporter, have since offered the balance of the units as rentals — all of which are occupied save for one, a two-bedroom listed at $3,500 a month, Tsoi said. Linda Kyan, of real estate brokerage Bond New York, said No. 55 struggled because the layouts are ungainly and amenities are lacking. Downstairs sits Lu Magnus art gallery, a deep, double-height space that opened in late 2010. The gallery, which signed a three-year lease, joins dozens of galleries that have debuted in the area in recent years. They benefit from being open on Sundays, which is when their rival West Chelsea galleries are closed, said Amelia Abdullahsani, a gallery co-owner.
61-63 Hester Street
This five-story, beige-brick apartment house has been owned by Morris Goldman Real Estate since 1994. Goldman didn’t return a call for comment. Two retail berths in this space facing Hester are owned by Brown Café, a local favorite that opened in 2001. After scaling back dinner offerings a few years ago, the main restaurant, which features lacquered logs as benches and $11.25 grilled cheeses, is now offering a Friday-night small-plates menu, perhaps in response to increased weekend revelers on the streets. Adjacent to it is the Sweet Life, a store that’s sold candy at least since the 1960s. Super-size superhero Pez dispensers line the window, and jars of jelly beans pack the shelves inside.
The south side of Hester Street
25 Essex Street
The retail space in this four-story building is occupied by Spring Sign, a dusty shop where restaurant signs are made. One day last month, an employee was on the sidewalk out front fitting red covers on black metal letters that spelled “Golden China.” A noticeable trend in the area is Chinese businesses knocking out Chinese businesses with similar products, brokers said. That was the case here, as the former occupant, Shunda Sign, was forced to move to nearby 15 Essex Street in 2008 after 10 years because of a rent hike, locals said. Attempts to reach the owner, No. 1 Golden Mountain, which purchased the building in 2004 for $900,000, city records show, were unsuccessful. Also tucked inside No. 25 is XCubicle, a video-game-system repair shop.
40 Hester Street
In 1941, the Association of Metals and Minerals Corporation, which was based in this 300-square-foot storefront, was awarded a contract to rip down a portion of the elevated Second Avenue subway. Decades later, it came full circle, with many construction businesses taking root here. In fact, until last month, a small building company was based at No. 40, which is actually part of 25 Essex and is also owned by No.1 Golden Mountain. Currently, local brokerage Worldwide Real Estate is marketing the empty space, which can be leased for five years for $2,000 a month.
42 Hester Street
The oranges in a red bowl visible in a window belong to Fei Liem Tao, the Buddhist temple that occupies this two-story, redbrick structure; it was bought for $900,000 in 2004 by No. 1 Golden Mountain, which also owns 25 Essex. The famed Guss’ Pickles had a store here from 1920 to the 1970s, before moving to Essex Street and then to Orchard Street, though the business no longer exists under that name.
46 Hester Street
With a rusticated stone façade and balconies, this 1980s apartment building replaced one that housed the H&M Skull Cap Manufacturing Company. Today, its 1,100-square-foot ground floor contains the Manhattan office of the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, or CAAAV, an advocacy group working to protect area residents from unscrupulous landlords. Rents across the Lower East Side and Chinatown can still be found for $200 a month, for rent-controlled one-bedrooms, though increasingly the norm is about $2,500, for new market-rate one-bedrooms, said Esther Wang, one of CAAAV’s directors. Another statistic that may make residents gulp: 20 percent of those who live in the 10002 zip code, which covers the area, either face eviction or have been threatened with it, according to a survey that CAAAV conducted last summer.
48 Hester Street
The nine-story, 40-unit Kwok Wah House, a market-rate condo completed in 1990, sits on a lot that used to contain a hardware store and lumberyard. Many of the condo’s mostly Asian residents use their units here as pieds-à-terre, said Peter Stratigakis, president of Urban Construction, which developed the building and keeps an office at its base. When apartments do become available, which is rare, they sell for about $1,000 a square foot, up from $200 a foot in the 1990s, Stratigakis said. The residential demographics are shifting in the area because the retail mix is changing, not the other way around, he added. “The commercial is leading it, and it’s full-blown,” he said. Next door to Urban Construction is an empty 400-square-foot retail berth that until last year contained catering offices for Brown Café, a restaurant across the street. The space is now for rent for $2,500 a month, said Tsoi, the agent with Kinyu Realty who’s marketing it. A third business, the longtime Kwok Wan Laundromat, occupies the space that wraps the corner onto Ludlow.