Grand thoroughfare Walk this old Manhattan street and it's impossible not to gather a taste and a feel for New York's immigrant past, present and future.

March 15, 1998|By Mimi Sheraton | Mimi Sheraton,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

It seems that I always need something on Grand Street. The lure on New York's Lower East Side might be yeasty bialys, a concert or bargains in panty hose, linens or toys.

In Little Italy, I shop for scamorza, the dried mozzarella properly used in lasagna, or a pasta cutter or a CD of Neapolitan folk songs.

Where Chinatown edges into Little Italy, I buy a bamboo steamer, a fresh-killed guinea hen from a live-poultry market or a palate-tingling Malaysian chili crab. Or I find a glass shade for an antique brass lamp.

In Soho, I am drawn to art galleries, boutiques and the intriguing cuisines of India and Ethiopia.

After so many ad hoc forays, I began to wonder about Grand Street itself. What have I missed? And was the street ever truly grand?

There are other famed downtown bargain streets Orchard, Delancey, Mulberry, Canal but none rivals Grand for a diverse ethnic mix nor for the assortment of merchandise, food stores and restaurants at all price levels. Noshing along this route, you can get fat in at least 15 languages.

Most of all, Grand Street signifies the continuing immigrant saga of hope, struggle and achievement.

Others share that feeling. Explaining why he chose the name Grand Street for the avant-garde literary quarterly he founded in 1981 (and edited until 1990), Ben Sonnenberg says, "It was partly to honor the memory of my four immigrant grandparents, who settled on Grand Street, where my parents met. But it was also the spirit of this long east-west street that had so many different ethnic communities on it. I wanted the contents of the magazine to be just as international and heterogeneous."

Similarly, David H. Goldsmith, chairman of the 76-year-old Grand Street Boys' Association and its foundation, concedes that the organization's headquarters were never on that street. It was not even the home of all 12 original members, immigrants and first-generation Americans who lived in the neighborhood, made good and helped others do the same.

"Because it was the Broadway of the Lower East Side," he explains, "a big, wide, important street, it symbolized the best of the Lower East Side."

On and off for seven months this year, I walked the two miles of Grand Street. I never turned a corner to go even one building north or south, no matter how great the temptation. The user-friendly Streetwise map I followed clearly delineates Grand Street's neighborhoods: the Lower East Side from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive to the east side of the Bowery; Little Italy from the Bowery to the east side of Broadway, with Chinatown making inroads on the south side of Grand Street from Mulberry to Chrystie Streets; and Soho from Broadway west to Varick Street, where Grand Street ends.

Grand Street is believed to have been laid out from the river to the Bowery and received its current name after the Revolution. It was extended through the years until it reached Varick Street.

From 1830 to 1870, the foot of Grand Street was a shipbuilding area where Irish immigrants built clipper ships for the China trade. In the mid- to late-19th century, the wide avenue was the site of Ridley's (at Allen Street), the largest department store in the United States until it closed in 1901, and the second Lord & Taylor store (at Broadway), which closed in 1903. That year also marked the beginning of Grand Street's decline, as it was overshadowed by the newly widened Delancey Street, the access road to the just completed Williamsburg Bridge.

Lower East Side

Other than the sparkle of light bouncing off the river and the greenery of garden parks, there is little to engage the eye. The quiet, low-key atmosphere is peaceful.

The buildings are still occupied by many older Jewish residents, more recently joined by younger families discovering the convenience of city life with a few synagogues and even a kosher butcher in easy walking distance. Many Chinese families have bought co-ops, too, and signs for medical and social services in the area are in English, Yiddish and Chinese.

Among the few remnants of the past is the elegant red-and-white Classic Revival building, at East Broadway, completed in 1904. It is now a mikvah, a ritual bath for Orthodox Jewish women.

Another piece of history is St. Mary's Church, the oldest Roman Catholic structure in New York City. That distinction refers to the back portion, built in 1832. St. Mary's strangely proportioned red-brick facade with twin spires was added in 1871.

Once a primarily Irish congregation that intermittently included Germans and Poles, St. Mary's now caters to a mostly Hispanic community, rapidly expanding with Mexican arrivals.

In the ecumenical spirit, two street-side vitrines honor the festivals and holidays of other groups in the area, with displays for Passover and Chinese New Year as well as Christmas and Easter. It's a far cry from 1828, when the original church on this site was burned to the ground by bigots who feared the "dangerous interests" of the Catholic Church.

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