Category Archives: NYC past
I took this photo some time ago along with others documenting the crumbling World’s Fair Grounds of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.
It was featured on Friday’s Gothamist. $43 million is needed to restore the facilities and save them from destruction.
More of my pictures of the place are here: https://ventilateblog.wordpress.com/tag/worlds-fair-grounds/
A century ago, guardian of the Atlantic approach to NY Harbor. Artillery with a range of 25-miles pointed seaward waiting for the German ships that never came – save perhaps for a handful of shadowy U-boats, seen and unseen.
A patch of sandy desolation on the fragile narrow spit of the Rockaway Peninsula, which barely rises between ocean and the Jamaica Bay. In the distance, a proud Manhattan skyline – a mirage of a completely different world – hazy and not quite existent.
Wars of the sea gave way to wars of the air. The big guns were traded in for the Nikes, missiles designed to knock high-altitude Soviet bombers out of the Metropolitan sky.
And then, a few decades ago – total obsolescence, abandonment, and decay. Gutted shells, overgrown and sinking into the sand, which in turn, minute by minute, sinks into the waves. It’s lately been a playground of the fringes – artists, photographers, graffiti, and seekers of ramshackle ephemera.
The hurricane pummelled the city, and the peninsula took a huge punch, a slap in the face of human futility. For that night, the peninsula did not exist, but became ocean and bay – Neighborhoods near the isolated base washed away and burned. Sand piled high like snow drifts that never melt, overturned cars, buried homes and memories.
Pieces of Tilden dissolved into the waves. But what is already ruined is hard to ruin again. At this former fort, a few solid walls are down, the sand mounts high, and a faint, musty, low-tide smell still faintly emits from the ground below. But the gun battery embedded in the bluffs still stares blankly into the sea, awaiting 100-year-old dreadnoughts and battleships that will never appear. Since the Storm, it’s become barricaded, forbidden, heavily patrolled by the authorities – a no man’s land – A silent sentinel upon the wild dunes of a wild beach on the barren coastal fringes of the City.
There’s no gentility here in the Salt Meadows. A backwater on Stuyvesant’s farm, disturbed only in those days by the creatures of the tidal wetlands. The summers here lay down a blanket of fiery, hanging, swampish air. Dazed dog-day weeks spawn the seediness that has always been essential here. Die Weisse Garten, 1850’s Sunday picnics of beer and comraderie, Sabbath carousal that disgusted the Nativists. Nativists, whose days were numbered by the coming tsunami of immigration that made this Kleindeutschland. The third largest German-speaking city on the globe. An exotic enclave in an overwhelmingly Anglo country.
“… There were still places in the city, such as Tompkins Square Park… where a passerby might overhear nothing but German…” (1895)
Their steps still plod along underneath, in silence. There is a lonely fountain, surrounded by the hyper voices of children in the playgrounds. There was that day more than 100 years ago that shattered this neighborhood. Fire on the River, 1000 gone. Just when they were beginning their summer.
In the 1980’s and early 90’s, the ever-encroaching grime gurgled up the swamp underneath, and generations of discontentment spewed forth police riots, encampments of men living in cardboard, junkies, squatters, crack heads, punks… When the tide turned, the city regained control of the park and reversed its decay- but never totally washed out the funk.
Fringes. They still sit huddled on the benches, their faces bent and darkened, in the corners where the old men play chess. Nearby there is a monument, erected in 1891, dedicated to Temperance, a deity that long ago became maligned in this wild square. 1840’s, 1870’s, 20th century – the radical center of a politically radical neighborhood. No number of old shady trees, grassy cosps, arranged flower beds, or dappled sun, has ever managed to moderate the mood here.
It’s not all disgust, fists in the air, overdoses on benches. The winter has long forgotten the old Germans it froze to death on Avenue B. Now the ice brings a serene crystallization, And the Spring, in turn, brings forth an orgy of excitement. It’s the sort of park where you try to immerse yourself in a book, and are unable. There is too much music and delight, too many beautiful passers-by. Central Park’s design tries to lead people into nature, Washington Square’s tries to lead people into lofty ideas and civic graces. Tompkins Square’s design, with its playgrounds and its dog run, and melange of people, tends to bring park-goers into vivid proximity to each other.
It was here, in the 1960’s, that the international hare krishna movement began under an ancient elm, perhaps planted in the days of the Germans. The age of Ginsberg’s livid “Howl”, when poets, musicians, and artists, like the punks of the ’80’s, exorcized their disgust of the world with exuberant wailing.
And so the mysterious forces of this buried salt marsh persist, the past dancing with the present, the seen mingling with the unseen. Never ending. All awaiting the death of time.
During the Gilded Age boom following the Civil War, the industrial revolution and the early days of mass production made it more affordable for women to maintain their households without having to spend as much time toiling at home. And so, some of the first modern department stores in the world began to open in the area between Union and Madison Squares. While their husbands were at work and their children at school, wives and mothers could enjoy the brief freedom of being out on the town independently. The area became known as “Ladies’ Mile”. A few stores from that era, like Lord and Taylor and Bergdorf Goodman, still operate in the city and beyond.
The subway was planned and constructed during this era, and as a modern, hurried commuter knows all too well, there are an unusual number of stops on the lines traveling through the former Ladies Mile.
The department store buildings that remain are beautifully designed, a few clad in cast-iron. The interiors of many, like the Home Depot on 23rd Street, have been modernized to accommodate modern commerce, and the area is still a major shopping destination.
Ultimately, the mass transit that had made Ladies’ Mile possible also allowed for development further uptown, and by World War I the neighborhood was in decline. But not before producing one of the world’s most iconic early skyscrapers –
There was a darker side to the glory days of Ladies Mile. While middle- and upper- class women enjoyed a new public life, the poorer women of the city suffered in the sweatshops that supplied the products for sale
I have a great love for urban exploring – digging up obscure places and events in the annals of New York. Places like the Staten Island Ship Graveyard, Dead Horse Bay, the Mansion of King Zog, the 1964 World’s Fair Grounds, et al…
In many ways, the following topic is the most obscured. Barely anything physical remains of the Dutch colonial era- it exists now only in resonant names, culture, and perhaps, in ghosts that ply the dense streets of this city.
Even though the Dutch Republic controlled New York for barely more than a generation, it left an indelible mark on the psyche of the city.
For centuries European nations sought control of the much coveted Northwest Passage, which was thought to allow a more direct sea route to Asia, allowing trade to bypass the arduous journey around Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope. When expeditions finally transited the route in the early 20th century, it had proven to be a pipe-dream – Arctic ice completely barred reasonable navigation until 2009, when the ice pack melted sufficiently to allow year-round passage.
The Dutch West India Company was founded as a conglomeration of merchants, explorers, and men of money to regulate and centralize colonial trade networks. As such, it became the de facto government of outposts throughout the world. It’s been said that the Company was akin to a modern global corporation – but with guns. Finding and controlling the Northwest Passage was at the top of the DWIC’s agenda. In 1609, they sent an English explorer, Henry Hudson, to scope out the North American continent and pursue any promising leads. After a long Atlantic voyage, Hudson came upon a very wide, protected bay, fed by a large river that penetrated deep into the interior – an obvious candidate for a Northwest Passage. Passing Manhattan island, Hudson made his way up his namesake river, as far as he could go. Disappointingly, it proved to be a dead-end. At least, however, he had found a source of a very valuable commodity at the time – beaver fur; a luxury item that could fetch high prices in Europe.
And so, over the following decades, Dutch settlers began arriving and trading. They covered a swath of remote outposts from what was known as the “South River” (The Delaware River) all the way past the “North River” (or the Hudson River, as it gradually became known). In the great harbor that Hudson had come upon, there were a handful of Europeans living on the very tip of Manhattan Island, and on “Noten Eylant” (now Governor’s Island). In 1624, the settlement, Nieuw-Amsterdam, was officially chartered as a colony of the Dutch Republic, and capital of the New Netherlands colonies. The Dutch, of course, were not alone in European designs of control of New World resources, and so very quickly, a fort was erected at what is now the Battery. Though plantations were scattered throughout the future five boroughs, and far beyond, the town was little more than Fort Amsterdam. One could walk from end to end in under 10 minutes, the distance between today’s Battery Park and Wall Street:
It was a reckless sort of person who would endure the dangers of the sea and then live on the very margins of civilization facing a highly uncertain future. It was a desperate sort of person that would go to such lengths to make a living or ensure a fortune in doing so. New Amsterdam became notoriously unruly. What’s more, it attracted settlers from all over the European world, including French Huguenots, Sephardic Jews, and of course, African slaves.
In addition, as was happening all along the Atlantic seaboard, the colonists made a poor first impression on the Indians. When one of the first directors of New Netherlands, Willem Kieft, demanded tribute from the local tribes, skirmishes broke out which led to a short, ugly war that still bears his name.
In response to Kieft’s lack of control, in 1647 the Dutch West India Company replaced him with Petrus (Peter) Stuyvesant, a veteran of conflicts in the Caribbean. With ambitious zeal, he razed houses at Fort Orange (Albany, NY) and drove out the Swedes from the banks of the Delaware River and founded the city of New Castle. It was Stuyvesant who dug the Heere Gracht, the canal that was later filled in and called Broad Street. And on the edge of town, he built the defenses that gave Wall Street its name.
He imposed a string of austere policies meant to whip the colony into shape. Crimes were more harshly punished, taverns were ordered closed on Sundays, and church attendance became mandatory. He certainly kept order, but was wholly unpopular. Some of his more extreme enforcements were met with strong retorts. When a ship of Sephardic Jews arrived from Brazil, he tried to turn them away until pressured by the Dutch West India Company to desist. When he tried to brutally suppress Quakerism in the village of Vlissingen (Flushing, Queens), he was met with the “Flushing Remonstrance”, a resistance that inspired the freedom of religion clause in the Bill of Rights.
With the English to the north and to the south, New Netherland was caught in the pincers, and England was eager to take over the entirety of the Atlantic coast. In late summer of 1664, their navy appeared in the harbor of New Amsterdam and demanded surrender. Stuyvesant made a call to arms, which fell on cold shoulders. The English offered free passage back to Europe for those who would not submit to their rule; but hardly anyone took them up on it. It has been said that the colonists didn’t care what nation ruled them, as long as they could make money.
And so, the colony went back to its business, now under the name of New York. Dutch custom, culture, and language persisted for generations before dwindling away. In fact, there were still native Dutch speakers at the time of the American Revolution more than a century later.
A few Dutch-era names rose to lasting prominence, and were counted among old patrician families that author Washington Irving called the “Knickerbockers”. Some of them are still very current – the Roosevelts and the Vanderbilts, for instance.
Stuyvesant lived out the final eight years of his life at his Bouwerij (plantation) in the fields outside the city. He is interred at St. Marks Church-in-the-Bowery, built in 1799 on the site of his family chapel. In 1867, one of his pear trees, now surrounded by the city at 13th Street and 3rd Avenue, succumbed to a horse cart accident. It was the final living remnant of New York’s Dutch origins.
And so today, apart from some tavern and town hall foundations recently excavated around Hanover Square (you can view them from a window in the sidewalk), the vestiges of the city’s Dutch era exist only in names and spirit. New York lived up to New Amsterdam’s mercantile ambitions, and then some. For better or worse, it is still a place where money talks, regardless of your origins or beliefs.
And the names – those who live in the region hear them every day – names like Haarlem, Breukelen, Conyne Eylandt (named for its rabbits), Tappan Zee, Hell Gate, New Utrecht, Flushing, Van Wyck Expressway, and the “Kills” (creeks) that appear in town and river names up and down the Hudson Valley…
Stuyvesant’s Bouwerij became the notoriously scruffy Bowery, and the raucous East Village now covers his plantation. The diagonal country lane passing in front of his church, now named Stuyvesant Street, is a solitary hold-out against the 1811 Manhattan grid plan. His name is still everywhere – high schools, housing developments, libraries, etc.
250 years after New Amsterdam, the coarsely planned colonial streets gave birth to the skyscraper and to the world’s financial capital. The narrow lanes, meant for small houses, now host some of the tallest buildings in the world, which have obscured the ground perpetually in shadow. On quiet blocks, or at night, squeezed between the concrete canyons, you can almost hear the clogged feet on packed earth, the cantor of a passing horse, or the whispers in Dutch. All historical facts aside, this is where one can feel closest to the distant outpost on the edge of the world that once was.
Appropriately, in the end, one of my most striking New York moments was not here, but in old Amsterdam, in the train station, when I heard a departure announcement for Breukelen. Full circle around the elusive story of Dutch New York.
Some years ago, if I was told that I could travel 15-20 minutes out of Manhattan and find myself in a bucolic Tudor-revival village, I’d have dismissed the idea as a greatly distorted exaggeration. But there I indeed found myself on a grey, blustery mid-November evening. I was on the hunt for my first NYC apartment and, so stunned by the neighborhood, took a place in the “Forest Hills Inn” with barely a second thought.
The bricked facade of the Inn’s tower rises to a round knob, somewhat reminiscent of the dome of the Florence Cathedral, and the building is connected to its neighbors via breezeways perched atop arches. It’s across from a Long Island Railroad station, which is designed in the same Tudor style as the apartments that circle it. As the name suggests, my new home was once a hotel – the lobby is all dark-stained wood and conjures a rustic formality. Add a few animal-head trophies and Theodore Roosevelt might seem quite at home here. (In fact, in 1917 TR gave a speech across the square on the steps of the rail station, and may have indeed set foot in this lobby). There is a sealed door marked “Bar Room” in faint gilded letters, and the check-in counter has been converted into a real estate office. A modest wooden staircase curves up to the “guest floors”, or one can take the ancient two-doored elevator, in front of which, in a glass case, is displayed luggage supposedly belonging to Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe. As a young musician and artist very much allured to the bohemian resonance of old New York hotels, I was immediately sold. That it was, by far, the best deal I’d found on the infamous NY rental market was all the more thrilling.
And so I checked in, semi-permanently, into the Forest Hills Inn. My modest studio was most certainly a converted hotel room – some household utility sheds are larger, and the kitchen was essentially installed inside a closet. But, the golden beige walls and deep purple curtains offset any chance of crampedness entering my head – especially when I could quickly escape to Manhattan or shop for basically anything within a five minute walk.
The three blocks that run from the subway station to the Inn cross through two entirely different ways of looking at urbanity. The contrast was always jarring, and often even baffling to my firsttime guests. The streets around the subway are a crossroads of hectic commerce – chain stores, fast food, restaurants, halal carts, delis, bagel shops, traffic… That condensation of suburban-esque commerce that you see sometimes in central Queens. But go past the McDonalds and Boston Market and under the train trestle, and you’re instantly in a different world. The gothic/Tudor tower of the Inn appears suddenly before you, and beyond, spread streets upon streets of what looks to be an English countryside village. “Like entering ‘Hobbitville'” is how one friend of mine aptly put it.
“The Gardens” was one of the first planned urban neighborhoods in America. With expanding population and more efficient transit, people began to move from the confines of Manhattan into the wide rural tracts of the outer boroughs. Around the turn of the 20th century, at the height of the Progressive era, there was a developing concept of urban planning, originating in Britain, called the “Garden city movement”. The idea was to alleviate the incredible overcrowding and filth of a city’s working-class districts by building attractive and uncongested low-cost housing in a sort of greenbelt along the urban fringes. In 1909, the Russell Sage Foundation, a group founded by wealthy Manhattan notables, began construction on the Forest Hills Gardens development; landscaping was handled by Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. – son of the famed designer of Central Park. The foundation’s mission was “the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States”, and the neighborhood, now home to 4,500 residents, was meant to be (and still is) a refuge from the city, a place where people could reconnect with a way of life lost in the grime of the Industrial era. As such, the Gardens was aimed to attract New York’s working and middle classes. While the mission was noble, over time the architectural splendor and impeccable landscaping of the neighborhood meant that property values quickly became cost-prohibitive to the target market.
Most of the neighborhood consists of single family houses, and a handful of apartment buildings, all impossibly attractive. Everything is privately owned, including the streets. Through-traffic is permitted, but by a quirk of NYC law, the streets must be closed at least 8 hours on one day of the year in order to remain privately owned. (Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan must also follow this odd procedure.) The “Forest Hills Gardens Corporation” maintains public areas, and architectural changes may only be carried out with the Corporation’s permission in order to preserve the neighborhood’s character.
As the suitcases of Sinatra and Marilyn displayed at the Inn attest, there was once a time when the area attracted much more outside attention. The now unused stadium at the exclusive West Side Tennis Club was, until 1977, the home of the U.S. Open; and was a major concert venue during the 1960’s, playing host to the likes of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Mathis, the Monkees, and of course, Simon and Garfunkel, who grew up mere blocks away in Forest Hills proper. The stadium appears in the 2001 film “The Royal Tannenbaums” as the place where Richie Tannenbaum’s illustrious tennis career comes to a painful end; and is where Don Draper attends a Rolling Stones concert in the third season of the mini-series”Mad Men” – (http://gothamist.com/2012/04/02/the_rolling_stones_at_forest_hills.php) (link includes photos of the real concert)
These golden years are gone, and the tea garden hidden behind the Inn that once hosted celebrities and weddings is now a crumbling patch of slate. But not much else has changed. Houses here have now been in the same families for generations, and residents (rightfully) possess a gushing pride. The only reason I moved out was because I was getting married and a bigger place was out of my price range. However, I still visit from time to time, and though I’d walked the same streets time and time again, I am always taken with its beauty, and marvel at its closeness to Manhattan, and the hectic commerce of central Queens.
The New York City Landmarks Commission, which has done a lot of good for the preservation of important sites across the city, is woefully negligent of Queens. Despite its architectural uniqueness and innovation in city planning, the neighborhood, including the magnificent Forest Hills Inn, has yet to come under its protection. Even more glaringly, the disused stadium which once drew international sporting and musical attention has also failed to be protected. But this is an issue for another article…..
In the meantime, for more about the Gardens, including some great old photos, visit: http://regoforestpreservation.blogspot.com/
Boston and Philadelphia are undoubtably, and rightfully, the two cities people most associate with the American Revolution. It was there that revolutionary fervor coalesced into the formation of a new republic. New York, however, hardly played a small role in the struggle for independence.
In 1765, near Wall Street, a protest against Britain’s oppressive Stamp Act took place at what would become Federal Hall, and not long after, New York saw the establishment of the first Sons of Liberty group.
During the summer of 1776, with the ink barely dry on the Declaration of Independence, New York became target number one of the British forces. Previously unable to keep control of Boston, Britain sent its forces southward.
In Bowling Green, the town commons at the tip of Lower Manhattan, there stood a statue of King George III. Upon learning of the Declaration of Independence on July 9, jubilant patriots tore down the statue and melted it into gun shot. The fence which surrounded the statue still stands at the same spot today.
During the same week, however, one of the largest fleets the mighty Royal Navy had ever assembled entered the Bay through the Narrows dividing Staten Island and Brooklyn (spanned by bridge only in 1964). Hundreds of masts covered the water from shore to shore, and many panicked New Yorkers, having never witnessed such an intimidating spectacle, packed up and fled the town in droves.
At the time, the city’s population was 25,000, cramped at the bottom of Manhattan, and barely extended above Chambers Street. North of the town were scattered a number of farms and estates- such as Peter Stuyvesant’s Bouwerie in today’s East Village, and the Morris-Jumel Mansion and Dyckman House far uptown (both of which still stand). Rural Brooklyn was scattered with villages like Bushwick, Gravesend, and Flatbush.
To control New York was to control the greatest port and wealthiest commercial hub in America – but just as importantly, control of New York meant easy access to the Hudson River, which could be used to cut off the New England colonies from Philadelphia and Virginia.
On August 27, 1776, the British landed troops near the mouth of the Gowanus Creek (now the horrifically polluted Gowanus Canal).
The ensuing battle took place along rugged and forested ridges in the area of what is now Park Slope, the hills of Prospect Park, Sunset Park, Cobble, and Greenwood Heights. A monument to the engagement stands atop Battle Hill, the highest point in Brooklyn, in today’s Greenwood Cemetery.
The Continental Army, under George Washington, did not fare well and were pushed back to Brooklyn Heights overlooking Manhattan island. On the night of August 29, in complete silence and under the cover of a thick providential fog, Washington demonstrated for the first time his knack for narrow escapes across rivers (The more famous being the immortal Christmas crossing of the Delaware later in 1776) The British force awoke to find that nearly 10,000 men had slipped across to Manhattan. Over the next few weeks, however, Washington was forced uptown to Harlem and Fort Washington, a fortification that gives the modern neighborhood its name. The nearby outpost of Fort Tryon, atop a schist ridge where the Cloisters are located today saw Margaret Corbin become the first American woman ever to fight and suffer wounds for the future United States.
In the end Washington had to quit the city and withdraw over the Palisades, the steep cliffs lining the Hudson River near the upper end of Manhattan. It had been the largest military engagement in North America up until that point, and, despite the loss, proved that the Continental army had the ability and leadership to hold their own on the open battlefield.
New York became an occupied city for the rest of the War. As such, it drew a great deal of refugees still loyal to the Crown. The port city already had a reputation of frivolous wealth and sin; and now filled with soldiers, the undesirable elements, especially prostitution, were drawn out more than ever. Trinity Church, then as now a large landowner, held the area north of the church in what is now Tribeca. The church proved to be a terrible slumlord and the neighborhood went to seed, earning the sarcastic nickname “The Holy Ground”.
There were darker forces at work in revolutionary NY, however, including the Great Fire which ravaged the city not long after Washington’s departure, leveling 1/4 of the buildings in the worst destruction New York has ever seen. Paranoia must have gripped the city as both sides accused the other of sabotage, some even being executed for suspected involvement. Nathan Hale, who uttered “I regret that I have but one life to give to my country”, was one of those caught up in the reactionary anger.
Meanwhile, one of the most repulsive episodes of the war was taking shape in the East River, at Wallabout Bay, where the Brooklyn Navy Yard now stands. Here the British anchored hulls of decommisioned ships in order to hold prisoners of war. The conditions were appallingly cramped – with disease and starvation running rampant. More American soldiers died on these ships than in all of the war’s battles combined, and for years, human remains would wash up on the Brooklyn shore, where relatives would look for signs of their discarded loved ones.
Today, there is a Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument in Ft. Greene Park, which overlooks the Bay.
When the war ended, the last British troops in the fledgling United States departed from Manhattan. As the last ships disappeared from view, an American flag was hoisted in Battery Park, and General Washington processed triumphantly down Broadway, along the route that today’s skyscraper-canyon tickertape parades now take place.
At Fraunces Tavern (still standing), Washington held a farewell banquet for his officers, raising 13 toasts to the army’s valor and to the allies of the Revolution. (NY Morning-Post coverage) The day was November 25, 1783, commemorated yearly until World War I as Evacuation Day. For a while, it was one of the most important public holidays in New York. As they left, British troops greased the flagpole at the Battery in order to make it difficult to replace the Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes. As part of future Evacuation Day festivities, boys would make a game of racing up a greased flag pole in order to be the first to tear down a mock British flag.
As the United States’ first capital from 1788 to 1790, Washington took the presidential oath of office not far from Fraunces, at the same spot where the Stamp Act was protested twenty years previous –
As always, physical history is hard to come by in New York- it’s difficult to walk among skyscrapers and fathom that two centuries ago, at the same spot you are standing, muskets were being fired in the woods. But the past in always there, just underfoot, and in the imagination, and in stories.
Incidentally, the British occupation of New York produced the finest topographical map of the early city. The amazingly accurate chart shows just how rugged Manhattan was before urban expansion:
The story of immigration in New York is impossibly checkered; after all, more than 100 languages are spoken in the city, and learning that there’s a Bukharian community here, or a Sri Lankan community there usually only elicits, at most, brief casual surprise.
People are flooding in from all over the world, in search of what everyone has always sought in this city of dreams. Historically speaking, immigration to New York usually conjures up those old photos and newsreels of Italians and Eastern Europeans hobbling through Ellis Island, carrying barely more than the clothes on their backs. Or also the gigantic influx of Irish that lasted for many many decades, peaking during the mid-19th century. Naturally, almost all ethnicities of immigrants, past and present, are visible in shops, neighborhoods, old signs, restaurants, places of worship, etc.
It is, however, surprisingly rare to find physical evidence of one of the hugest waves of influx the city has ever known – that of people hailing from the provinces that became Germany.
During the mid-19th century, New York was the 3rd largest German speaking city in the WORLD (!), after Berlin and Vienna. At one point, 1 out of 4 New Yorkers claimed German descent.
Tompkins Square Park – now more well-known for its place at the heart of late-20th century East Village bohemia, for its bums, and for its Hare Krishnas – was once called “Weisse Garten”.
In the mid-1800’s, the park was at the heart of Kleindeutschland (“Little Germany”), a huge sprawl of a neighborhood that covered the Lower East Side and the East Village.
Today, walk through any high-density neighborhood immigrant neighborhood, such as Chinatown, and one becomes engulfed by the culture – the markets, the smells, the languages, the signage – One can imagine that Kleindeutschland had similar features.
There would have been the sounds of German (then still an exotic language) on the street. Papers like Der Staats Zeitung would have graced newsstands, and the smell of sausages, sauerkraut and other German fare would have wafted out of homes and beer gardens.
The beer gardens were the centers of the community – meetingplaces where people young and old could gather, talk, carouse, eat, and drink lager. Music pumping at all hours of day and night; pool tables, bowling…
Social clubs (“Vereines”) and singing societies, where German musical traditions were kept alive, were also very much part of the community’s fabric. Countless breweries sprang up to water the saloons and beer gardens; and also, to fulfill a growing demand among non-Germans for German-style lager, a trend that led to the types of commercial beer most popular in America to this day. Though it was the following wave of Jewish immigrants that made them synonymous with NY, Germans were the first to open delicatessens, which like today’s mom-and-pop ethnic markets, sold food that could not be found elsewhere.
Also, much like many of today’s mom-and-pop ethnic restaurants, one could dine on the cheap, and this also attracted non-Germans, many of whom were also in the neighborhood to visit the theaters and clubs of Avenue B (then known as a “German Broadway”).
Some Germans also brought with them new social and political ideas which were becoming very much in fashion in the old country – the homeland of Karl Marx and others of his ilk. German immigrants in New York and Chicago were very much integral to the early American labor movement. Situated on Broadway in the Village, Pfaff’s beer cellar, which one has said “was the Andy Warhol factory, the Studio 54, the Algonquin Round Table all rolled into one”, became a famous meeting ground for radicals, intellectuals and artists, such as Walt Whitman.
Reality is harsh, however – and for every romantic reminiscence, there was certainly a matching tragedy – poverty, overcrowding, hunger, crime… There is one heart-breaking account of a mother and two children who froze to death in an alley near Avenue B and 10th Street – now, as then, in the middle a hotbed of nightlife.
Gradually, Kleindeutschland fell into decline, as many moved to other, more attractive, parts of the city, particularly Yorkville along the river on the Upper East Side. The final nail was driven into the neighborhood’s coffin on June 15, 1904. On that day, as they had done every June for years, members of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church boarded the General Slocum, a steamship chartered to bring them to a picnic on the north shore of Long Island. At the East River’s notorious Hell Gate, the vessel caught fire and sank, killing more than a thousand people, most of whom lived in Kleindeutschland. This horror tore the community apart, and its remaining residents moved out.
Meanwhile, Yorkville was thriving, as another “German Broadway” sprouted along East 86th Street, and breweries opened near the river. The display of prosperity was not destined to last very long however. When World War 1 hit, and sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage”, all things Teutonic dove deeply out of favor with the general public. The German community laid low, some even anglicized their names.
Yorkville, now also home to other Central and Eastern European groups, retained its Germanness into the 1920’s and 1930’s, though the latter decade found it deeply divided between pro- and anti- Nazi sentiment. I believe the pro- side was in the minority, but still had a large enough presence to create some of the strangest New York photos from the past: the swastika being carried alongside the American flag, and Nazi rallies at Madison Square Garden:
German immigration had been reduced to a trickle through the first half of the 20th century. With no new arrivals to counter the assimilation of the preceding generations, and after enduring decades of animosity, German culture was all but wiped off the face of New York. All that remains are people’s last names, beer culture, delis, hot dogs, pretzels, and old signage here and there. The Lower East Side became Jewish and Eastern European, then Hispanic, and then the haunt of rock clubs, art, and nightlife.
A few restaurants survived into the late 20th and early 21st centuries – now there are only a smattering deep in the outer boroughs, with a rapidly aging clientele. Some new places have opened in their stead- Zum Schneider on Ave C, the Radegast Beer Garden in Williamsburg, for instance; however, they bear no connection to New York’s German past, and serve a non-German clientele.
Like its former Dutch-ness, and British-ness, New York’s German-ness has completely sunk beneath the waves of history.
My cello/rock/psychedelic/baroque/electronica musical project, Snazz Mammoth, has been on a bit of a hiatus lately, but finally new songs are getting done.
This is the latest, inspired by the invisible history of Lower Manhattan, where the old town has been built on top of over and over again, but where the spirits of New Amsterdam are still everyone, floating just behind the surface.