East 4th Street Cultural District History

Compiled by Lower East Side History Project & Fourth Arts Block

Before Broadway was “Broadway,” the Theater District was on the Lower East Side. Straddling the Vaudeville and Yiddish theaters of 2nd Avenue and the dance halls and saloons of the Bowery, E. 4th has literally been at the center of New York City arts & culture since the early 19th century. Today East 4th Street between 2nd Ave and Bowery is home to more than a dozen arts groups, 12 theaters, 8 dance & rehearsal studios, 3 film editing suites and 1 screening room. Due to FAB’s activism, in October 2005, the City sold the block’s arts tenants 8 properties for $8 and designated it a Cultural District – one of only three official arts districts in the City.

But there is much more than meets the eye: East 4th Street is a microcosm of a neighborhood zeitgeist which is constantly evolving and innovating. From German benevolent societies, Jewish performance venues and Ukrainian labor unions to prohibition-era speakeasies, drag cabaret and legendary experimental theaters. East 4th Street has been the epicenter of social and political life on the Lower East Side for over 150 years.

This street was laid out early in the 19th century over what was once the very SW border of Peter Stuyvesant’s farm. Most of the buildings we see now were built between the 1850s and 90s specifically to house meeting halls on the lower floors with residential space on the upper floors. Many of these buildings’ upper floors served as boarding houses during that time period. Residents during this era were primarily of German descent and many of the buildings were erected to accommodate growing political, labor, social and musical clubs. It was a very lively block. In the late 18th and early 19th century, this block hosted no less than six union and social club meeting halls at a time.

In the 1930s and 40s, businesses and factories moved in to take advantage of the buildings’ large open spaces. Electronics, paper, meat factories, and more. Many of these buildings interiors have been renovated several times over the years.

In the late 1950s, Robert Moses’ plans to raze the area were halted by neighborhood protest led by Cooper Square Committee. Buildings cleared through eminent domain sat unused until La MaMa secured a 30-day lease from the City, and the new Off Off Broadway movement took off. Gradually other small groups moved in, and the block developed into a nationally recognized incubator for new work and diverse artistic voices. By the 1980s, theatrical and cultural organizations had taken over many of the abandoned buildings, rejuvenating the artistic and social spirit of the block.

Fourth Arts Block (FABnyc) was founded in 2001 by long-time cultural and community groups who were concerned that they might lose their properties as the City sold off publicly owned community gardens and cultural facilities. FAB established a unified plan for the East 4th Street Cultural District and worked with its members, neighborhood residents, and elected officials to realize the plan. On January 11, 2006, Mayor Bloomberg presented symbolic keys to the buildings to FAB’s cultural groups and designated the block a cultural district. According to the deal, the buildings must always be owned by nonprofit cultural groups.

That just scratches the surface. E.4th Street holds a treasure trove of history within its ever changing spaces, and the information below is just the tip of the iceberg.

For a more detailed, building by building history, visit the timeline compiled by  Lower East Side History Project.

FABnyc is proud to be an active leader helping to cultivate the dynamic, creative community of the Lower East Side. Every day we have the opportunity to serve and collaborate with many incredible members, partners, and individuals. From local initiatives to large scale efforts, we work at a grassroots level to help support the community we hold so dear.