Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Then and Now: Chinatown, NYC

Taking It Down to Chinatown

Pell Street, NYC, in the 1970s
Looking west on Pell Street, NYC, in the 1970s.
There are a lot of neighborhoods in New York City in each of the five Boroughs. Each can be a world unto itself. Even savvy New Yorkers may be completely unfamiliar with some of these neighborhoods even when they go by them all the time. To learn about them, especially in lower Manhattan, you need some reason to follow narrow, winding lanes that don't provide any kind of shortcut to anywhere. Here, we're looking at exactly one of those areas.

Some of the quainter streets in Manhattan are in the Lower East Side, and specifically in Chinatown. This area has never really been gentrified to the extent of points further north and south. Even Little Italy has become glitzier over time. However, you can walk down some streets in Chinatown and easily imagine yourself back in the 1970s.
Pell Street, NYC, in the 1970s
Temple Garden had its own matchbooks.
Above we have a typical tourist snapshot of Pell Street, a two-block sidestreet off of the Bowery. Prominently shown is Temple Garden Restaurant. This was described at the time as:
a tourist-savvy spot, all red on red with “carved” Chinese intaglio, a long list of bartender tricks – from apricot sour to zombie – and a menu of current favorites from the Mandarin, Szechuan, Hunan, Shanghai, and Cantonese repertoires.
Never having tasted General Tso's Chicken at Temple Garden, it's impossible to comment on the cuisine. However, we can all appreciate a tourist trap catering to visitors wishing an "authentic" Chinese dining experience.
Pell Street, NYC, in June 2019
Pell Street, NYC, June 2019 (Google Street View).
Well, the street looks fairly similar. We know we're in the same spot from the red building on the far corner of that intersecting street up ahead on the left (Doyers Street). You'll notice all the fire escapes - another hint that this area hasn't changed much in the last fifty years. In fact, except for the signage, it appears very little has changed over the years since the original photo was taken. They have taken out the garish street lamps, but that's about it.
Pell Street, NYC, in June 2019
16 Pell Street, NYC, June 2019 (Google Street View).
But let's get back to the subject of the original photograph, Temple Garden. As you've no doubt noticed already, it is long gone. Pell Street is no longer a tourist destination, apparently. Its space now is occupied by a back rub place. And there we have today's lesson, the two truly enduring types of businesses in New York City are restaurants and... back rub joints. You can always do with a nice massage, right?
Pell Street, NYC, in June 2019
Pell Street, NYC, looking back toward the east (Google Street View).
I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. Ordinary street scenes from the past tell a lot about the people of the time and how those residents have changed over time. Please visit some of the other pages in this series!


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