I want to share with you some of the historical stories I am featuring in my book on Old Yorkville, a once internationally famous landmark from the 30s through the 60s and located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Simultaneously, I work continuously on a Yorkville pictorial exhibit, entered into the Congressional Record in Washington June 12, 1998 by Representative Carolyn Maloney. I start my projects in 17th Century Yorkville, telling of how the hamlet evolved from the Indian villages to, farmlands, and on to country homes for the city’s elite.Soon industries started to be built along the river and workers came north from the Lower East Side, for work and better living conditions.Eventually Yorkville became a key stop on stagecoach, horse drawn and electric trollies, and later trains, and elevated and subway routes.Theaters, restaurants, and dancehalls, entertained the new residents who were now living in better brownstone railroad flats.
By the early 1900s Yorkville was considered a major part of the city.In 1904 the Slocum Disaster claimed the life of 1,021 German men, women, and children who perished in the burning of the excursion ship, the General Slocum, ablaze off the shores of Yorkville on the East River.So many lives of the German community from the Lower East Side, called then Kleindeutschland, brought the grief stricken German families to Yorkville where they started to build a new, Yorkville/Kleindeutschland. The immeasurable despair of the families who lost their loved ones, prodded them to seek a new environment, thus invading the already established population, north from their cramped, unhappy “village” on the Lower East Side.
It soon became the melting pot of populations evolving from the former Prussian Empire, where so many cultures spoke German. It became a haven for Nazi refugees in the 40s, and later a haven for Communist refugees in the 50s. With Yorkville’s famous restaurants, ethnic shops, dance halls, schools, churches, common language, sports teams, it flourished as an independent village with German as their common language
World War One gave the Germans living in America a bad reputation and many of the population anglicized their names.Streets, hospitals, theaters, restaurants, foods and everything else with German sounding names were anglicized, either by the Germans themselves, or by the public.It was during this time between the two Wars when Yorkville/Kleindeutschland became popular.Like New York City’s Chinatown and Little Italy, “German Town” was an attraction to the city’s inhabitants, and visitors from all over the world as well.
In the late 30s, war once again gave the Germans a bad reputation, no matter how innocent they were. World War 2 brought unjustice to those Germans who came to this country to get away from the political desires of Germany, and came to America for a new life free from dictations. But instead of being recognized for their desire to contribute to America, they were taken from their homes, all across the Untied States, without any warnings,, any charges, any legal counsel, or trial, and placed into camps, with their Amrican born children, together with the Japanese and Italians, as were also the Latins. Very little is mentioned about this in our history books, and they were the last to be released (1948), three years after the war ended. Also, as the Japanese, Italians, and Latins were later compensated, the Germans were not and, til this day the issue has been ignored in congress. They were finally exonerated by judge at Ellis Island, to where they had been finally transported in 1948, who declared that these families were never charged with a crime, and never had a trial. After meeting these innocent German/Americans who invited me to their conference at Ellis Island in 2009 I now mention their plight in my work.
Thus, I have added a section in my exhibit, which tells their story, about which they were forbidden to mention, an instruction many honored. Their website deserves a visit: http://www.gaic.info/camp_doj.html. Click on the "Real People" tab, so see the individual stories. The whole site is enough to put you in shock. Such a treatment of people today would not be tolerated. Now as Americans who became citizens, they were still persecuted and, to add more salt to their wounds, their sons and daughters served in the military against their own people.One third of the American military was of German descent.A low level Nazi, Fritz Kuhn tried to incite a pro-Nazi movement in the USA and worked out of Yorkville.But his followers were not as many as his movement boasted, and he was even later snubbed by Adolf Hitler himself, and he died a poor and lonely man.
Yet Yorkville survived World War Two and, after the War more Germans, both Christian and Jewish, came to Yorkville where they found refuge from all aspects of the War and, where they began to build a new life in this new “Little Germany or Kleindeutschland”.They fuelled even more the vibrant cultural life of 86th Street, the hub of the now multi-cultural European population, where the Poles, Czechs, Austrians, Hungarians, Slovaks, Russians, and other Eastern and Middle Europeans created their pockets. Many names were given to 86th Street: Sauerkraut Boulevard, The German Broadway, or the German Boulevard among others. Shopkeepers and customers were neighbors and family, and the compatibility among the customs of the different cultures lead to mutual respect and even sometimes forbidden, "inter-marriage" among the populations.
86th Street had a reputation all of its own.It was where the populations all centered their life, eating, drinking, singing, dancing, and socializing.If they didn’t live in Yorkville they came there to get a taste of home.There were scores of "Vereins" like sports, singing, literary clubs; newspapers, theaters, shops, churches - all catering to the needs of the German speaking foreigner.He need not venture out to the rest of the city.Everything was here.There were also pockets of Jewish residents such as the Marx Brothers; there were Greeks, Italians, and Puerto Ricans too.
But the largest non-German speaking population to reside in Yorkville was the Irish, who mingled happily on 86th Street with the Europeans.The Avenues and the side streets were not only residential but housed ethnic shops and smaller ethnic restaurants, bierstubes, and other drinking establishments.It was one big family, until the mid 50s when they tore down the Third Avenue El, and its population with it.Small businesses and the mom and pop shops comprising the mix of neighbors were also evicted from buildings. It was at this point that Yorkville began to wane, with a very small, very slow painless and unnoticeable demise, until it was too late.With little or no tenant’s rights, such as we have today, the developers saw the potential for up-scaling the neighborhood, and tore down all the small brownstones on the Avenues and the side streets demolishing not only structures, but lives too.Third Avenue would lose its mom and pop shops to mega stores or fast food chains, just as the other avenues, with 86th Street facing the biggest loss. Gone are the German butcher shops, bakeries, homeware, clothing, furniture, record/radio, and card/magzine/book stores - and more. Up went the tall high rises commanding merciless rents to these pioneers of the ERA, who worked hard to build a village quietly in a corner of our city, only to be bulldozed by developers.
Today, there is only a whisper of the ERA with only three reminders left, Schaller and Weber Delicatessen/Butcher and the Heidelberg Restaurant, who recently were clinging together in fear of their demise by the building of the Second Avenue Subway.But they were saved, because the hard "German" bedrock beneath those buildings was not conducive to the subway’s needs. Yes, there is a God!The third reminder of the epoch is The German American Steuben Parade.It still marches annually strong, and will takes place each year on the third Saturday in September stepping up 5th Avenue to 86 St with a G/A Friendship party in Central Park.
Very few will remember the heyday of Yorkville and the following generations look blankly when you mention it, as if it was some faint historical matter.My exhibits and lectures depict this time, rarely recorded in our history and what it was like back then, and my extensive research reveals unknown facts about a time and place never to be experienced again.I am only grateful that I was able to have known it.In my book I tell of Yorkville through my eyes and those of my peers, as well as the story of a lifetime of the German population in America, starting already in 1607, and how those pioneers came to these shores, many with nothing but what they had to offer of themselves, and how they helped build this country almost anonymously to win our wars.People of German descent are still the largest population in the United States according to the two past US Censuses.
Today 86th Street has since lost its once famous identity and has become a sad example of a world renowned historic district.86 Street is now lined with cold commercial looking buildings, glass boxes which belong elsewhere, a metropolis of mega stores with revolving door personnel, strangers pass each other on its streets, and restaurants are filled with private groups keeping only unto themselves.This “gorgeous mosaic”, a phenomenon of a village within a Gotham never to be seen again, was an era which should be commemorated as a historic event in New York City’s history, but there was no opportunity to attempt such a project,becauseprogress is stronger and swifter than history making, and always will be.
I am so sorry that no one will ever see again, that phenomenon called Yorkville, or German Town better known now as the Upper East Side, located in this little corner of the city that I grew up in, where I went to school, and which became an landmark for all the world to experience. It was safe, it was clean, it was family.The casual strolling, the music from within shops, the smells of sauerbraten and beer, the pastry; people greeting one another as they passed by, the beautiful handmade items, and delicacies sold in colorful specialty shops; the old men playing cards, reading their newspapers or gossiping for hours over a cup of coffee in the automats and cafés, clubhouse ballrooms, the music, entertainment, and laughter reeling from within the dancehalls; the smells of food and beer from restaurants and cafes, the German theaters, the meticulous butcher shops and bakeries, the excitement, kids playing in streets under the watchful eye of mothers, the gathering on the stoops on hot summer nights, and CHRISTMAS!….all vanished and gone forever.