If you live in New York, you’ve probably passed by these two beautiful buildings on 2nd Ave at 9th Street in the East Village a zillion times. On the left is a branch of the New York Public Library; on the right is a former medical clinic. What comes as complete surprise to me is that these buildings contain rare clues to the fact that this section of the city was once known as Little Germany.
At the turn of the century, there were approximately 50,000 German immigrants living in the area surrounding of Tompkins Square Park, which was then known as Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany (now referred to as Alphabet City). German schools, libraries, beer halls and shooting clubs served the cultural needs of a community permanently displaced from their homeland.
Then, in 1904, a disaster struck that would play a significant role in the demise of the neighborhood: The General Slocum Tragedy. A steamboat, the SS General Slocum, had been chartered by a local church to carry 1,300 residents of the neighborhood to its annual picnic in Long Island. Shortly after departing, the boat caught on fire. Passengers found no hope for salvation on board: life boats were painted to the floor, while ragged fire hoses burst apart on use. Mothers put their children in rotting life preservers and threw them overboard, only to watch in horror as they drowned. Few passengers, if any, knew how to swim.
1,021 people died in the tragedy (most of the passengers were women or children). Many socially prominent people were lost, and in the trauma and arguments over restitution payouts that ensued, most of the immigrants began moving uptown, eventually leading to the demise of Little Germany.
I relate this in order to better convey how amazed I am that clues to the existence of this defunct community are still around for those who know to look for them. If you look above the public library building, you see this written:
“Bibliothek u. Lesehalle,” or Free Library and Reading Room. If you look above the health clinic, you’ll see:
“Deutsches Dispensary.” The two institutions were first established by Anna Ottendorfer, a German language newspaper publisher and philanthropist, with the intention of “uplifting both the body and mind of fellow Germans in the United States” – in other words, to aid German immigrants in the transition to their new home in New York City with both health care and knowledge.
The library was the first to be erected in New York specifically as a free public lending library; it is now owned by the New York Public Library. The Dispensary offered continuous health care to the community for over 120 years until 2005, when it was acquired by developers with the intention of selling it to “a rock star like Lenny Kravitz” looking for an “eco-friendly” living environment and interested in installing an “indoor/outdoor saltwater swimming pool exiting to his gigantic organic garden.” (??? No joke). The idea apparently fizzled, as they are now looking to use the property for a “think tank” type of group. Current architect David Mayerfeld is actively working to restore the interior, stripping paint to reveal original finishes and removing newer drop ceilings.