The Italians, Irish, and Jews are three of the most prominent immigrant groups in the history of late 19th-century New York City. Images of synagogues and churches, pushcarts and crowded tenements come to mind as walkers today stroll along the historic streets of the Lower East Side.
These days it is much rarer to find traces of Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany, a neighborhood that predated the mass migration of Eastern European immigrants during the late 1800s and once encompassed much of the Lower East Side and stretched northwards towards today’s East Village. If you look carefully, you will still find delightful hints of an era that has disappeared but left an indelible mark on New York City history.
The German immigrant community began to settle in Manhattan in the 1840s. By 1855, New York City had the third-largest population of Germans in the world after Berlin and Vienna. Most were educated and skilled in crafts; many bakers and cabinet makers at the time were of German descent. John Jacob Astor was born near Heidelberg before he built his multimillion dollar fur trade and real estate empire in America. John Roebling, the engineer behind the Brooklyn Bridge, had his roots in Muhlhausen.
The Puck Building on the corner of Houston and Lafayette was home to the J. Ottman Lithographing Company, who supplied printed illustrations for Puck Magazine, also in the same building. Puck was the first American political humor magazine published between 1876 and 1918 in both German and English. It was also the first magazine to employ full-color advertising and lithography but declined in readership as anti-German sentiment grew during World War I.
Oswald Ottendorfer was the owner-editor of the Staats-Zeitung, once New York City’s largest German-American newspaper. As a young man he was a German revolutionary during the mid-1800s and was educated at the Universities of Vienna and Prague. He was fluent in Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and several Slavic languages when he arrived in New York, but did not know English and, like many recently-arrived immigrants, was very poor when he started life in America.
The Germania Bank building on Bowery and Spring looks abandoned, but the ENTIRE BUILDING of 72 rooms and 32,000 square feet was purchased by Jay Maisel in 1966 for $102,000 and his family still lives here today.
The Germania Bank was opened by a group of local business owners in 1869 when many of the businesses along the Bowery were owned by Germans. Christian Schwarzwaelder, the bank’s president, owned a furniture store on 9 East Broadway. Joseph Kunz, the vice-president, owned a brewery at 225 East Houston Street and lived at 167 Bowery. Other founding board members included a butcher, an iron safe and furniture manufacturer, and a cigar maker. In late 1917, the bank’s Board of Directors filed a petition to change its name to Commonwealth Bank in response to anti-German sentiment.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Little Germany was home to 50,000 people. It was called Dutchtown by the Irish and Avenue B was the German Broadway. Avenue A had plenty of beer halls, oyster saloons, and groceries. Sports clubs, libraries, shooting clubs and theaters proliferated. Small factories and workshops operated in the neighborhood and access was through alleyways.
As more Eastern European immigrants moved into the neighborhood, Little Germany’s residents began to move north to Yorkville and across the river to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The German population severely declined with the General Slocum disaster of 1904. Over 1,300 women and children from St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church rented a steam-paddle boat to bring them to a Long Island picnic site to commemorate the ending of the school year.
A fire started in the storage compartment, and although there were life jackets and rowboats on board, they were in disrepair. An estimated 1,021 people died by fire or drowning, many of them members of Little Germany’s most distinguished families. The General Slocum disaster caused grieving family members to commit suicide and survivors to squabble over the distribution of a Relief Fund. Many fingers were pointed at people who were thought to have been responsible for the tragedy. The city would not see a greater tragedy until September 11th, 2001.
The German community was never able to fully recover from the tragedy and dispersed as they tried to forge new beginnings for themselves.
As German immigrants assimilated into the mainstream folds of “American” life, it became harder to hold onto the past traditions of everyday life, especially under the shadow of Nazism during World War II. Germans in New York City continue to be a people proud of their history and contributions to American society. Although it is more difficult to find tangible reminders of their distinguished past, their story is a familiar one of hard work and striving to fulfill their dreams in a different land.