Take a Walk with Us: New Walking Tour Opens Windows on East Side History

By Henry Street Settlement

Above: Included in the new walking tour: Henry Street Settlement, the Church of Grace to Fujianese (a former bathhouse), and Eldridge Street Synagogue.

Visitors to the Henry Street Settlement neighborhood often remark that they feel as though they’re “breathing history.” Even so, many more stories lie beneath the surface. So strap on your sneakers and get ready to experience the history that lies waiting to be discovered!

A new, 10-square-block walking tour, accessible at TheHouseonHenryStreet.org, includes a range of stops, from Henry Street founder Lillian Wald’s first home at 27 Jefferson Street to religious sites like the spectacular Eldridge Street Synagogue and St. Augustine’s Church, the Basquiat Mural, Seward Park (the first municipal playground in the United States), a former bathhouse, and a theater.

Above: Lillian Wald’s first Lower East Side home at 27 Jefferson Street is now Gouverneur Hospital; Seward Park.

The opinionated tour, accessible on computer or mobile device, dwells on a community known for its grassroots activism, creativity, and change over generations, and many stops relate to movements for social change. “My goal was to capture the spirit of the neighborhood across several eras,” says Katie Vogel, Henry Street public historian, who developed the tour.

The National Endowment for the Humanities–funded tour— accessible at The House on Henry Street.org—of course zeroes in on Henry Street Settlement’s impact on the neighborhood over the past 125 years. It was created in conjunction with The House on Henry Street permanent exhibition and website in honor of the agency’s anniversary.

In preparation for building the walking tour, Vogel consulted neighborhood experts, including long-time Lower East Side residents and others working in history museums and tour companies. One focus group member, Constanza Portalatin, grew up in the Vladeck Houses in the 1960s and ’70s and remembers taking a sewing class taught by Ruth Taube, Henry Street’s 95-year-old staff member, who herself contributed memories to the tour.

“It was my priority to include stories of neighborhood residents—from the past and present—who have shaped the Lower East Side over time,” Vogel says. “Some of those people are internationally famous—like activist, Emma Goldman—others locally famous—like Ms. Taube, named a Lower East Side community hero in 2014.”

Vogel also spent time at Saint Augustine’s Church, interviewing Father Nathanael Saint-Pierre and Penny King, leader of the Saint Augustine’s Project. On a cold December afternoon, she walked the Williamsburg Bridge with Jeff Caltabiano, founder of the Sonny Rollins Bridge Project to learn about the jazz legend who played on the bridge every day for two years. She also learned from Jessica Blowers, creator of the Jean-Michel Basquiat mural on Orchard Street, that as Blowers rode her bike through the streets of the neighborhood, she imagined Basquiat doing the same 30 years earlier.

Stopping at the Forward Building on East Broadway, visitors will learn that, at the turn of the 20th century, 20,000 workers—the majority of them immigrant teenage women—went on strike for safer factory conditions. At St. Augustine’s Church, they’ll learn about the 1990s effort to research and preserve the early history of Lower East Side African Americans, as gentrification threatened to erase that history. On Hester Street, the tour focuses on Street Vendors Project rally to increase the number of permits and to protect their rights as small business owners.

Above: Hester Street and St. Augustine’s Church.

“Settlement founder Lillian Wald loved this neighborhood and devoted her life to providing affordable health care, social services, and the arts to the area’s residents. She formed deep friendships and collaborated with her neighbors to help uplift their voices. Walking through the neighborhood allows visitors to learn about the energy of activism and creativity that has always been part of this neighborhood’s history.” Vogel says.

To take the tour, visit TheHouseonHenryStreet.org. On weekdays, the history exhibit is open at 265 Henry Street—a great place to start.


Photo credits: Henry Street Settlement by H. Spencer Young; church/bathhouse by Sasha Arutyunova; Eldridge Street Synagogue courtesy of Museum at Eldridge Street; 27 Jefferson by Sasha Arutyunova; Seward Park by Sasha Arutyunova;  Hester Street courtesy of Hester Street Fair;  St. Augustine’s by Sasha Arutyunova

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