Little Germany, NYC: The rise and fall of a New York German community
The Lower East side of New York City was once home to one of the largest German populations in the world, but by the middle of the 20th century, that community had largely scattered. We explore the history of the German community of New York.
Was New York first settled by Germans?
Deutsch and Dutch are two words that at one time were used virtually interchangeably, and perhaps this is what has given rise to the erroneous belief that New York was first settled by Germans. In fact, the first European settlers in what is now New York City (an area initially inhabited by the Native American Lenape people) were Dutch.
Dutch settlers founded New Amsterdam (Nieuw-Amsterdam) as the capital of New Netherlands (Nieuw Nederland) in 1625, as a trading post for the Dutch West India Company. By the 1650s the colony had grown to cover parts of modern-day New York, Delaware, Connecticut and New Jersey, and in doing so drew the attention of the English, who recognised the strategic importance of the location.
In 1664, the fort was conquered by the English, who renamed Nieuw-Amsterdam New York, after the Duke of York. The population of Nieuw-Amsterdam at the time was about 1.500, 40 percent of whom were slaves from Africa. Immigration from Europe rose in the following centuries, but it was in the early 19th century that the fledgling city’s growth really went up a notch.
Germantown: The first German settlers in America
The first Germans to settle in America were a group of Quakers and Mennonites who were fleeing religious persecution in Europe. In 1683, their leader Francis Daniel Pastorius, a lawyer, negotiated the purchase of land from William Penn, in Pennsylvania. Later that year, 13 families boarded the Concord and sailed from Germany to Philadelphia to settle in their new home, “Germantown”.
By the early 18th century and increasingly into the 19th century, huge waves of German immigrants began making their way across the Atlantic. They were no longer only seeking political and religious freedom but also higher standards of living, fleeing war, shortages of jobs and land, higher taxes, and famine after bad weather desolated harvest after harvest.
German immigrants had been present in New Amsterdam since the earliest years of the settlement, but it was in the 18th century that their numbers began to really swell. In the census of 1790, around 2.500 Germans were recorded as living in New York. By 1840 this number had increased to 24.000.
As Europeans arrived in droves on America’s West Coast, 70 percent of all immigrants entered through New York City, which came to be known as the “Golden Door”. An estimated 1 million Germans passed through the city during this period - 800.000 of them in the 1850s alone - and many of them settled down to make their lives on the Lower East Side.
The beginnings of the German community in New York
By the mid-1800s, this neighbourhood was home to more than 60.000 Germans, who had established themselves in an area that covered 400 blocks from Division Street to 14th Street, and from Avenue D to Bowery. Known variously as “Little Germany”, Kleindeutschland or Deutschländle (and “Dutchtown” to non-German speakers), the area was one the most populous neighbourhoods in the whole city.
By 1860, New York City was considered the third largest “German” city in the world, after Berlin and Vienna. It had more than 200.000 German inhabitants, making up a quarter of the city’s total population.
Little Germany, NYC
It’s difficult to picture it nowadays, but Avenue B was once the main commercial strip of Little Germany, known as “German Broadway” and lined with beer halls, shops selling German beer, theatres and grocery stores all decked out with German signage. The 1886 edition of Appleton's Dictionary of New York described an area in which "lager-beer shops are numerous, and nearly all the signs are of German names."
Alongside this, the area had all of the usual financial and business-related institutions an urban community needed, geared specifically to a German-speaking population. That included libraries, banks, insurance companies, schools, hospitals and churches. The area even had its own German-language newspaper, called the New-Yorker Staatszeitung.
Clubs and associations were also present, with men forming fraternal organisations like the Freemasons and Sons of Hermann, as well as a Schützenverein ("shooting club") to transpose the rural German passion for firearms into an urban environment. German choirs were popular pastimes and each year the associations would stage a five-day event of concerts and picnics.
The General Slocum disaster
Although the district was certainly on the decline at the end of the 19th century, as the initial population of German immigrants aged and a new German neighbourhood, Yorkville, began to draw the population north, it was a tragic disaster in the early 1900s that struck the fatal blow for Little Germany, carving the heart out of the community and leaving it to fall apart.
On June 15, 1904, the East Village branch of the St Mark’s Lutheran Church had organised a day trip, chartering the steamboat General Slocum to take 1.300 guests - most of them women and children - to an annual picnic on Long Island.
As the boat made its way across the East River, it caught fire, and panic broke out as people struggled to detach lifeboats and discovered that the life jackets on board were unusable. An estimated 1.021 passengers died in the disaster. It was the largest death toll of any single event in New York City up until the horrific events of September 11, 2001.
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Little Germany never recovered. Most of the victims of the tragedy were from the wealthy families who had been the backbone of Little Germany’s social support network. Almost every family in Little Germany lost a relative in the catastrophe. The community was hollowed out.
Whether to escape memories or seek better work opportunities and living conditions elsewhere, residents moved out in droves, and by 1910 only a few German families still resided in the district.
It was the start of WWI and the accompanying rise of anti-German sentiments that sounded the final death knell for the community, as people sought to distance themselves from their German heritage, language and customs.
Germans in New York
Although Little Germany is no more, there are still traces of this once thriving German community in the East Village nowadays, if you know where to look.
Ottendorfer Library on 135 2nd Avenue bears the words “Freie Bibliothek und Lesehalle” on its brick-red facade. The building opened in 1884 as New York’s first public library, as a gift from the philanthropist Oswald Ottendorfer. Half of the library’s books are in German, the other half in English. Next door, at 137 2nd Avenue, is the German Dispensary, which like its neighbour was a gift to the city from Ottendorfer.
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Just around the corner at 12 St Mark’s Place, you can find a building that bears the words "Einigkeit macht stark" ("unity is strength") and "Deutsch-Amerikanische Schützen Gesellschaft" (German-American Shooting Society) over its door. Nowadays the building houses a yoga studio and gym.
Over on East 2nd Street, there are some leftovers from St Nicholas Kirche, which was built in 1835. The church itself was destroyed in 1960 to create room for a car park, but the rectory next to the church is still standing. On 161-165 East 3rd Street you can find the Most Holy Redeemer Church, a fabulous example of Baroque architecture that was built by a missionary in 1844.
More famously, on 190 Bowery you’ll see the Germania Bank Building, the third location of the German-American Bank, a towering reminder of what was once one of the most prominent populations in New York City.
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