Once upon a time, what is known as New York City’s East Village today was theworld’s third-largest German-speaking city — behind only Vienna and Berlin.
While New York is home to an abundance of unique ethnic enclaves, Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany, was literally a German town in the middle of New York, which retained its language and customs.
At its peak, around the mid-1800s, Little Germany was home to 60,000 Germans and encompassed 400 blocks,
from Division Street to 14th Street, and from Avenue D to Bowery. It was one of New York’s most heavily populated neighbourhoods, and some estimate that 30% of New York City was made of German immigrants and their American-born children.
Tompkins Square Park was at the heart of the neighbourhood, and Avenue B its main commercial strip, known as “German Broadway.” The area, especially around Bowery, was full of massive beer halls, as well as lager beer shops, theatres and grocery stores aplenty. Most were advertised in German signage, and the neighbourhood even had its own German newspaper, the New-Yorker Staats-Zeitung.
On June 15th, 1904, all of that changed when Little Germany — and nearly all of its inhabitants — were wiped out in the General Slocum Disaster.
What was supposed to be a day trip along the East River to Long Island, organised by the East Village branch of the St. Mark’s Lutheran Church for their 17th annual picnic, turned into a disaster. The chartered boat (the General Slocum) that was supposed to take guests to Long Island caught fire, killing 1,000 Germans.
Being a Wednesday, most of those on the ship were women and children — and mostly from wealthy families. These families were Little Germany’s social foundation, causing major repercussions for the parish. Almost every family lost a member and the suicide count rose dramatically after the disaster.
Little Germany never recovered. The once tight-knit enclave slowly dissolved, and when WWI created anti-German sentiments, people distanced themselves from their language, customs, and from each other even more.
Today, all that reminds us of the tragedy is the Slocum Memorial Fountain in the middle of Tompkins Square Park. Donated by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies in 1906, it features a lion’s head as well as two children looking out at the ocean.
However, remnants of the area once rife with Germans are still abundant in the East Village, if you know where to look.
There’s the Ottendorfer Library on 135 Second Avenue, which bears the words “Freie Bibliothek und Lesehalle (free library and reading room) on its bright red brick facade. It opened in 1884 as New York’s first public library, and was a gift from German immigrant Oswald Ottendorfer, editor of the German newspaper. Half of its books were in German, the other half in English.
The building next to it, on 137 Second Avenue, was the German dispensary — the words “Deutsches Dispensary” still gleam on the facade. It was a community hospital offering medical care to the poor.
Another remnant of the once-thriving neighbourhoods is at 12 St. Marks Place, where the words “Einigkeit macht stark” (unity makes strength) and “Deutsch-Amerikanische Schützen Gesellschaft” (German-American Shooting Society) are engraved over a door that now leads to a yoga studio and gym.
The famous Germania Bank Buildingat 190 Bowery also has German roots. Built by a German architect, it was the third location of the German-American Bank, a chain founded by German businessmen.
Little Germany also spawned the Germania Life Insurance Company of America, which is now the Guardian Life Insurance Company.
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