PS General Slocum; photo via Wikimedia
On June 15, 1904, a disaster of unprecedented proportions took place in New York City, resulting in the loss of over 1,000 lives, mostly women and children. This largely forgotten event was the greatest peacetime loss of life in New York City history prior to the September 11th attacks, forever changing our city and the ethnic composition of today’s East Village.
It was on that day that the ferry General Slocum headed out from the East 3rd Street pier for an excursion on Long Island, filled with residents of what was then called Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany. This German-American enclave in today’s East Village was then the largest German-speaking community in the world outside of Berlin and Vienna.
If you read 6sqft’s post about Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany,” you know that in 1885 New York had the third largest German-speaking population in the world, outside of Vienna and Berlin, and the majority of those immigrants settled in what is today the heart of the East Village. You also know that the horrific General Slocum disaster in 1904 pushed the last of the Germans out of the area. And as promised, we’re here to tell you where that community went– Yorkville, then commonly known as Germantown.
The Upper East Side neighborhood, bounded by 79th and 96th streets and running from the east side of Third Avenue to the East River, exploded with immigrants from the former Prussian Empire in the early 20th century. Those looking for a fresh start after the tragedy saw opportunity in the many available jobs in Yorkville. Like the East Village, Yorkville still has many reminders of its German past, as well as still-thriving cultural spots.
Take a tour of Yorkville’s German history
Before there were sports bars and college dorms, there were bratwurst and shooting clubs. In 1855, New York had the third largest German-speaking population in the world, outside of Vienna and Berlin, and the majority of these immigrants settled in what is today the heart of the East Village.
Known as “Little Germany” or Kleindeutschland (or Dutchtown by the Irish), the area comprised roughly 400 blocks, with Tompkins Square Park at the center. Avenue B was called German Broadway and was the main commercial artery of the neighborhood. Every building along the avenue followed a similar pattern–workshop in the basement, retail store on the first floor, and markets along the partly roofed sidewalk. Thousands of beer halls, oyster saloons, and grocery stores lined Avenue A, and the Bowery, the western terminus of Little Germany, was filled with theaters.
The bustling neighborhood began to lose its German residents in the late nineteenth century when Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe move in, and a horrific disaster in 1904 sealed the community’s fate.
Read our full history of Kleindeutschland