New York is a city that cannot be built outward. Like any savvy problem solver, it resolves this issue by building above. The Lower East Side is a bevy of old signage and memories, context clues that can tell you what year a building was constructed and who built them. At the Tenement Museums, visitors come to the Lower East Side looking for evidence that the lives we lived are still imprinted in a city often accused of being one without a patience for its own history. In a city that doesn’t stop moving, and always seems to be under construction, where do we find evidence of ourselves?
A sign can obviously change your direction. In a city that doesn’t stop moving, a sign can have you halt. The fates that await old signage are as unpredictable as life can be. The building that once housed S. Beckenstein’s Fabric Company, which used to shill wools, silks and draperies, and the former Forward newspaper building, now are luxury rentals and condos. But thin traces of their former lives still cling to the newer faces of New York City, if you know to look for them.
Regular construction and repairs can excavate another era, but sometimes signs are only visible for a day or so until removed or again, covered. Their futures are still unknown. Then there are those, sly and barely visible — peeking out of the dark of newer awnings, in the shadow of other advertisements. For every business with a history easily found, what of the ones who are only a faded name on brick? These hints provide more questions than answers.