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.
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 - and most recently, a playground of the nouveau riche.
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.