When you think about family-friendly neighborhoods, the last one to come to mind is probably the Lower East Side. But Inhabitat.com‘s Jill Fehrenbacher is here to tell you that this downtown stretch is more than just a breeding ground for bros and getting bombed. A LES resident for more than a decade, Jill moved into the area looking for cheap rents as a student but has stuck around to see it transform into both a cultural destination and a diverse community-driven neighborhood fueled by much more than just a bar scene. Ahead, Jill shares her thoughts on what makes this neighborhood such a special one for raising kids (she’s got two boys of her own) and her NYC success story of hitting it big as the founder of one of the world’s most visited design websites.
Inhabitat has grown tremendously over the last few years and today it is one of the world’s biggest design websites with millions of readers. How do you feel about its success?
I feel like I have built Inhabitat brick by brick over many years, and have had to claw and fight for every inch of Inhabitat’s growth and “success” bit by bit, so it’s hard to take a step back and think “this is success.” The site has grown gradually and organically over ten years, and instead of thinking about its past and how we got here—I’m just always thinking about the future: what we need to improve and what is next.
I will say though that when I dropped out of architecture school to pursue Inhabitat full time it was a real financial and career gamble for me, and I am happy that that gamble paid off. I feel like I made the right decision.
You’ve lived in the LES for as long as I’ve known you. Why did you choose this neighborhood? How has it changed since you first moved in years ago?
I originally moved to the Lower East Side when I was in my 20s because it was one of the few affordable neighborhoods in Manhattan, it was one of the few places where I could find a decent monthly rent. I came to NY and moved in with my friend. And then I’ve just stayed here for the past decade, moving further and further south over the years.
The LES definitely isn’t considered a family neighborhood — at least not in the same way Cobble Hill and Park Slope are. How has it been raising two boys in a neighborhood better known for its arts and nightlife than its quiet, tree-lined streets?
I guess the LES is probably best known for its nightlife, but that is certainly not one of its draws for me. In fact certain parts of the Lower East Side have many families and family-friendly activities, but those parts of the Lower East Side are just not as well-known to tourists and New Yorkers from other neighborhoods as bars and restaurants on Orchard Street. In fact, we have a lot of great parks and public amenities. Families have always lived here. The reason I moved to the Seward Park area was specifically to be close to the park. I was pregnant and I knew I wanted to be across the street from a park with a children’s playground and a public library.
To me the bars in the LES and the raucous crowd that that sometimes brings is just a nuisance. I mean, I understand that lifestyle, I used to be somewhat into that once upon a time, but now I am part of a group of parents in our general Seward Park area, and we’re specific trying to limit the liquor licenses in this lower Lower East Side area so that it stays family-friendly and quiet at night and doesn’t become like the north-of-Rivington area, i.e. with drunk people stumbling around and making noise at all hours.
You’re an advocate of the Waldorf approach to education and you’re one of the champions behind the New Amsterdam Waldorf School, Downtown Manhattan’s first Waldorf-inspired school. Can you tell us a bit more about this new cause of yours?
I came into this new cause the same way I started Inhabitat—it just grew very organically out of a specific part of my life. My son started taking classes at New Amsterdam and I just fell in love with the school. Of course, at the beginning, the school was just a place where I dropped him off and I didn’t necessarily feel personal responsibility for the school’s success or failure. But then at some point I had this realization that this school was “our school”—that it was the parents’ responsibility. Without hard work on our part, it would never grow and achieve success. So I’ve really taken it on as a cause to try to bring more attention to this specific school and the wonderful things about Waldorf Education in general.
What are your favorite restaurants, shops, and spots in the LES?
One thing that I love about the Lower East Side is that it is always changing. So a lot of restaurants, shops and spots that I loved once upon a time are long gone. But there is always something new. Mostly, I can’t even keep up since I don’t go out much and new businesses come and go before I even get a chance to experience them. In terms of some of the more old-school businesses that have been around for a while I love:
Babycakes: A delicious gluten-free vegan bakery on Broome Street
Moo Shoes: A vegan shoe store that has been in the neighborhood forever
Soy: A tiny Japanese-owned restaurant devoted just to soy based food—they have amazing Soy smoothies and a cute little preschooler kid who is always in the restaurant entertaining customers
Teany: A vegan-friendly cafe dedicated to tea—the tea menu is like 20 pages long!
North Dumpling: Cheap and delicious dumplings!
Dimes: They make amazing acai / chia breakfast bowls.
Shan Fu Bodega: My local bodega is the best bodega ever, and an under-the-radar juicery! They make fresh blended and squeezed juices of any fruit you can imagine. They do fresh coconut smoothies and green kale mixed juices for under $3.50. When I see juiceries offering $8 juices I just smile and think to myself of Shan Fu.
What would you like to see more of in the LES?
More high quality grocers or a farmer’s market. We have a Whole Foods on Houston Street, but it isn’t very close so I do a lot of my shopping at the corner bodega. I wish there were more options and more competition. Also, more activities for kids and more vegan restaurants.
What’s your favorite building in the LES?
My favorite buildings in the LES are the ones with some history or a quirky backstory. For example, I love the Forward Building. I can see it out of my living room window. It’s a large Beaux Arts building that used to be home to the Jewish Daily Forward newspaper, and it has the word “Forward” plastered boldly on the side of the building in red brick. Just looking at it makes me feel optimistic and inspired.
Also I love the “Red Square” building on Houston Street with the giant statue of Lenin on top. The building itself is not particularly interesting (condos) but the quirky clock with nonsense numbers and the statue on top of the building are pretty fantastic. When I take my son to school in the morning, we always walk up Norfolk Street and we and we can see Lenin waving at us. The waving Lenin is our local landmark to help my son navigate his way to school. I love that! Only in the Lower East Side!
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Neighborhoods : Lower East Side