New York’s Little Germany

by Mark F. Weber on March 18, 2013

Many of the millions of Germans, who immigrated to the United States during the 19th Century, helped build New York’s Little Germany.    Before the start of the American Civil War, Manhattan hosted the third largest German population of any metropolis in the world.  The citizens of Little Germany were among the entrepreneurs that changed New York and America.

Little Germany German Immigration

Between 1854 and 1894 an estimated five million Germans immigrated to the United States. Their homeland faced political chaos, war, and poverty while America offered opportunity.   Many, like my ancestors, landed in New York and immediately cruised up the Hudson River to Albany.   Their next vessel was a slow barge, pulled by a mule, on the Erie Canal to Buffalo.  Deutsch farmers and merchants settled in Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee and other western points.

A large portion carried their belongings from the docks to New York’s Lower East Side and began building Little Germany.

Little Germany – Kleindeutschland

Germans spread across Manhattan, but the bulk concentrated in four hundred blocks of the Lower East Side.   Kleindeutschland, translated small or little Germany, quickly grew into the third largest German-speaking city behind Berlin and Vienna.  Germans blended with Irish, Italian, Chinese, and other nationalities.   Little Germany residents built their own churches and synagogues.  Deutsche entrepreneurs established beer gardens, libraries, shops, and small manufacturing plants.  Levi Straus, Steinway, and Pfizer are among the current brands that were seeded in Kleindeutschland.  By 1861 the German political clout peaked as Charles Godfrey Gunther, a Little German resident, was elected mayor of New York City.

Little Germany – The Glockner Family

Lucas Glockner, a tailor, arrived in Little Germany in 1846.  Eighteen years later, Glockner and two partners built a five-story brick tenement building.   A tenement is any building with three or more families.  Glockner’s investment at 97 Orchard Street housed twenty immigrant families.  Between 1864 and 1894, when the property was abandoned, over 7,000 families paid rent to the Glockner family.

Jane Ziegelman describes the lives of the Glockners and others, in “97 Orchard Street – An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families.”  Ziegelman portrays the hardships, including twenty families sharing five outhouses.   Water was retrieved from a single well in the back yard and lugged up as many as five flights of steps to crammed tiny apartments.   Glockner’s property represented scores of tenement buildings in Little Germany, crude springboards for immigrants as they grasped a more prosperous future.

 

Little Germany – The Decline

In the 1890’s an anti-immigration movement drastically reduced the number of Germans and other nationalities arriving in New York.   Simultaneously, Progressive reformers demanded improved safety in Manhattan tenement buildings.  New laws required fire-proofing.  Landlords, like the Glockners, could not afford this type of construction with a declining rental population.   The tenement buildings were abandoned.  Little Germany citizens followed their dreams to other destinations.

Little Germany – Tenement Museum

With so many dilapidated and abandoned buildings, Little Germany and other neighboring Lower East Side neighborhoods deteriorated.   Over decades many of the structures, and their histories, disappeared.   In 1988 two historians, Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson, founded the Tenement Museum at Delancey and Orchard Streets, not far from Little Italy and Chinatown. At the core is the Glockner Family’s 97 Orchard tenement building, including the five outhouses and single backyard well.  The museum provides lectures and walking tours of the businesses, sweatshops, living conditions, misery, and hope of the millions of immigrants that are imbedded in our culture.  According to Trip Advisor, the Tenement Museum is Manhattan’s fifth most popular tourist destination.

Personally, there was magic in understanding where it all began for my German and Irish ancestors.   There is also irony, given my dozens of visits to Deutschland; Little Germany was hiding in my backyard.

 

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I am an international business professor in Pittsford, NY who managed a business unit for a German company. My passion is family and friends, plus roaming the countryside on my road bicycle.

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