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Orchard Street 'Backyard BBQ' Aims to Revive LES Bargain District

By Julie Shapiro | March 30, 2012 8:04am
Orchard Street is lined with bargain shops.
Orchard Street is lined with bargain shops.
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DNAinfo/Julie Shapiro

LOWER EAST SIDE — Orchard Street was once a thriving bargain district, with vendors hawking leather jackets and men's hats to throngs of shoppers who spilled out into the street every Sunday.

Today it's a shadow of its former self — but the Lower East Side Business Improvement District wants to change that.

In the face of rising rents and shuttered storefronts, the BID hopes to bring New Yorkers back to Orchard Street in the coming months by hosting a series of unique street fairs on Sundays, when the thoroughfare is already closed to traffic under a longtime city permit.

Unlike the city's typical greasy food fests, the Sunday fairs would create a relaxed, backyard-barbecue ambiance on Orchard Street between Delancey and Houston streets, as well as highlighting local merchants' wares, said Bob Zuckerman, executive director of the BID.

"We want to reactivate these blocks on Sundays," Zuckerman said, declining to outline specifics of what the fair will offer ahead of a presentation on the project next week. "It's not like it used to be, where the streets are packed with people."

The Lower East Side BID worked with architects at DUB Studios to design the street fair and will unveil the plans at a Community Board 3 meeting on April 4.

The first Sunday fair is expected take place June 3, and if successful, the BID will hold another one in the fall and then additional fairs more regularly during warmer months, Zuckerman said.

Several longtime storeowners on Orchard Street said Thursday they hope the BID's plan will work.

"If it brings a lot of people, it will definitely be good," said Eugen Gluck, 57, whose father started Lea's women's clothing shop at 125 Orchard St. 42 years ago. "Maybe it will bring down some people who don't know about the street and they will see the bargains."

Kaiser Akram, 46, owner of All Leather $99.99 at 130 Orchard St., said the fair might help his business — but it would be even better if the city just reopened Orchard Street to traffic on Sundays.

"Our customers are not from the neighborhood," Akram said. "They come from Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, even from Pennsylvania. If they don't see parking, they go somewhere else."

Other merchants, though, said they like that the street is closed on Sundays, a measure that dates back several decades to a time when Orchard Street was so packed with haggling shoppers and vendors that it would have been impossible for a car to get through the crowd.

"I remember days when you couldn't cross the street on Orchard, there were so many people," said Avi Saks, whose father-in-law started Ben Freedman Gent's Furnishings in 1927. "Now it's gone…It's a very tough time, no question about it."

Saks, who has been working at Ben Freedman since 1962, still puts racks of merchandise out on the street on Sundays, just like his father-in-law did. As for the new street fair, Saks said he'll withhold judgment until he sees how it goes.  

"It might create some kind of activity, which is good," he said, "but I don't know if that's the [whole] solution."

The Lower East Side BID will present more detailed plans for the Orchard Street fair to Community Board 3's Economic Development Committee April 4 at 6:30 p.m. at the Village View Community Room, 175 E. Fourth St.