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Best Lower East Side-Themed Books and Where to Read Them

By Serena Solomon | August 8, 2013 9:13am
 From comics to culinary books, then stories of the Lower East Side and East Village are well documented
Lower East Side Book Guide: What to Read and Where to Read It
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LOWER EAST SIDE — From comics to culinary histories, dozens of popular books have one unforgettable character in common: the Lower East Side.

The neighborhood's history as an immigrant magnet and later as the site of drug turf wars has sparked an array of literary works, ranging from children's chapter books to detective memoirs.

And there is no better place to read these volumes than the Lower East Side itself, where the cafes and parks of today can deepen a reader's connection to stories that are decades or centuries old, said Sean Ferguson, a librarian at Seward Park Library on East Broadway.

"It certainly makes the setting of what you are reading more immediate," said Ferguson, 43. "It allows you perhaps some freedom for your imagination and it could get you deeper into the characters."

Here's a guide to some of the best Lower East Side and East Village-themed books — and where to read them this summer:

"Lower East Side Story"  — a comic book by Roland "Pete" Friedrich (30 pages per issue).

Where to read it: The Green Oasis Community Garden and Gilbert's Sculpture Garden on East Eighth Street between Avenues C and D is location of the squat where Dwight, the protagonist of the comic, lives.

"Lower East Side Story," now in its fourth installment after launching in 2012, follows Dwight thought 25 years of the East Village, as the area evolves from a drug dealer's paradise to a developer's gold mine.

"It is fascinating that a neighborhood can return to such vibrancy after being nearly destroyed by crime and drugs in just 25 or so years," said author and illustrator Roland "Pete" Friedrich, 51, who lived in the neighborhood during the 1970s and '80s.

In the comic, characters including immigrants, native New Yorkers and young students help rebuild the neighborhood from what Friedrich described as a war zone.

"Bread Givers" — a novel by Anzia Yezierska (336 pages).

Where to read it: The Classic Coffee Shop, 56 Hester St., is the perfect spot to read 1925's "Bread Givers" because it sits on a strip that the book's main character, Sara Smolinsky, describes as a busy marketplace of pushcart peddlers who clog the street.

"Bread Givers" is a neighborhood-must read, according to Ferguson, and is featured in Seward Park Library's recently completed section of Lower East Side-centric books.

The story follows Smolinsky, the daughter of a Jewish immigrant family that is struggling to survive, and it traces her attempts to find a place for herself in America.

"She was a real pioneer in women's rights without really intending to be," said Ferguson, of author Anzia Yezierska, who based the novel on her own life.

The twice-divorced Yezierska grew up on the Lower East Side after emigrating from Poland and lived most of her life unmarried and independent.

"Hannah's Journal" — a children's book by Marissa Moss (56 pages).

Where to read it: The kid-friendly Seward Park at the corner of East Broadway and Canal Street is one of the oldest playgrounds in the country and could have been a play space for a young girl like the book's fictional child writer Hannah.

"It is a great book to put kids in the mindset of what it was like for someone their age," said Jamie Townsend, 32, from the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, where "Hannah's Journal" is a No. 1 seller.

"Hannah's Journal" presents the story of a young girl from Russian whose family settled on the Lower East Side as if it were a real journal written at the turn of the 20th century.

The pages are ruled and the words are printed as if handwritten in pencil, with illustrations like the sketches of a young girl.

"97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement" a cultural and culinary history book by Jane Ziegelman (272 pages).

Where to read it: The Essex Street Market near Delancey Street is the perfect setting to read "97 Orchard Street," which uses food to trace the history of one Lower East Side tenement. 

Jane Ziegelmand's book follows the real-life stories of immigrant residents of a tenement, focusing on the food they brought to the neighborhood over more than 100 years.

"She uses them as lenses to look at what different waves of immigrants brought with them — their culture and their food," Townsend said.

Not only does the book draw readers in with descriptive writing — it also offers 40 recipes including challah bread, stuffed cabbage and veal stew that the families from Russia, Italy, Germany and Ireland may have cooked, according to Townsend.

The Essex Street Market, formed in 1940 when street vendors and pushcarts were herded under one roof to ease the congestion of neighborhood streets, has a few nooks where a reader can perch surrounded by stalls selling meat, cheese, baked goods and more.

"Christ in Concrete" a novel by Pietro De Donato (236 pages).

Where to read it: Old-time diner Cup and Saucer, at Eldridge and Canal streets, not only offers readers some nostalgia — it also provides a stunning view of the Chrysler Building, which was constructed during the time when "Christ in Concrete" was set.

The 1939 novel by Pietro De Donato centers on the Italian immigrants working in New York City's construction industry.

Both De Donato and the story's protagonist, Paul, were forced into construction to provide for their struggling Lower East Side families.

"The story mirrors some of [De Donato's] own experience when his father died in a construction accident and he had to begin working when he was 12," Townsend said.

"Alphaville" — a memoir by Michael Codella and Bruce Bennett (320 pages).

Where to read it: Tompkins Square Park, at the heart of Alphabet City, was the scene of a turf war between heroin dealers, gangs and police in the 1980s and '90s — but today it's a good spot to sit beneath a tree and read "Alphaville."

This 2010 book presents an almost otherworldly glimpse of the East Village during this time through the eyes of Michael Codella, a now-retired NYPD narcotics detective who wrote his memoir with Bruce Bennett.