“The past is not dead. It is not even past.” -William Falkner
Some cities, like Las Vegas, have no sense of roots or history. Anything old is torn down to be replaced with something garishly new. Other cities (like Savannah, Georgia) are so deeply entrenched in their roots and heritage that one can think that Savannah stopped moving forward sometime in the 19th century and decided to comfortably stay there.
New York is one of them grand old towns where the tension between the old and new is juxtaposed so closely that the border between them can be almost non-existent. For example, a 21st century condominium on Bowery and E4th street shares an anchoring wall with a 19th century tenement walk-up. A former freight-rail through a once industrial shipping district is now a manicured, high-concept promenade through a neighborhood filled with luxury loft apartments. Little Italy and the Jewish Lower East Side cling to the last remnants of cultural resonance in the face of the ever growing Chinatown.
In the face of this struggle between the old and new, organizations like the Municipal Arts Society and the Landmarks Preservation Commission provide comfort in knowing that some institutions are protected by law. Then again, there are other institutions that are protected simply by… TRADITION!
On a recent evening out with my girlfriend Danielle, we went to an institution in the East Village that had been there since before the term “East Village” even existed. A hot, sweaty, steamy institution. An institution where the teeming Polish, Russian, Ukranian and Jewish immigrants went to escape from the sweatshops and packed tenements. An institution known as The Russian & Turkish Baths!
Dating back to 1892, you could go to 268 E10th street and enjoy a nice, long sauna or steam-bath in the Russian & Turkish Baths. Russian Baths have since popped up all over New York, but the one on E10th, along with being the oldest, has the cramped, LES immigrant feel of a New York gone by. Adding to its history-rich ambiance, right across the street from the Bath House is the former home of one of NY’s most notorious gangsters: Charles “Lucky” Luciano. According to legend, “Lucky” had more than a few important meetings inside the bath house. Why would Gangsters talk business in a Russian steam-room (or a “shvitz” in the Yiddish parlance?) Cause no one could wear a wire inside!
After we were done sweating our worries away, Danielle and I walked less than two blocks over to Lanza’s restaurant on 1st avenue between E10th and E11th streets for some good old-fashioned red-sauce Italian. Lanza’s was founded in 1904 by respectable, proud and law-abiding Sicilian immigrant Michael Lanza. His cousin, Joey “Socks” Lanza was not exactly a paradigm of Sicilian American success like Michael: He was a captain in the Genovese crime family and exhibited control over the Fulton Fish Market for much of the 1940′s and 50′s. He allegedly got the nickname “Socks” for his penchant for punching people.
Regardless of the tarnishing of the Lanza name, Lanza’s Restaurant is a perfect example of Southern Italian and Sicilian cuisine, complete with a painting of Mount Vesuvius on the wall. Some of the hallmarks of Southern Italian cooking are squid, raisins and pine-nuts, much of which can be found deep in the Mediterranean sea and on the shores of North Africa.
Along with some Frutti Di Mare, Arugula salad and Gnocchi Bologense (potato dumplings and meat sauce) Danielle and I sat in the front window and watched the ever-unfolding New York street in front of us. We tried the hardest we could to imagine what the street looked like back in 1904, but the skinny jeans, cell-phones, and hybrid-engine buses that passed by our frame of view, kept pulling us back to 2011.
They say you can never go back, though if you spend enough time some of the neighborhood establishments of yore, you can sure as hell try.
By Gideon Levy