"Welcome to the East Village, a modern-day real estate anomaly, virtually untouched by the astronomical rents and multiplying mass merchandisers that have afflicted neighborhoods from Harlem to SoHo in recent years."
In addition to the nabe's small spaces, the article attributes the lack of major retail chains in the area to two other factors: low density and a more economically diverse population (which distinguishes it from the West Village, although this point isn't made).
"The population of Community District 3, which encompasses the entire Lower East Side, is 164,000, according to the 2000 Census. By comparison, Community District 8, which comprises the entire Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island, has 217,000 residents. Though the East Village is no longer the blighted slum it was as recently as the 1980s, average income levels lag those of many other Manhattan neighborhoods."
I took the above photo of the artist DeLaVega in front of his gallery/shop on St. Marks Pl. Below: Another quirky small shop on St. Marks, Dumpling Man, which is owned by Lucas Lin.