Finding the Lost City- Little Germany

Till this date, there does not seem to be a German enclave in New York City that comes close to the ethnic intensity that of Little Germany.


Locating the German community in Little Germany poses to be a much harder expedition than expected as the community is nowhere to be seen. Like many ethnic enclaves, Little Germany is one of the many communities that declined and faded out of existence. Around the once centre of Little Germany, Tompkins Square Park, is a general residential population mostly composed of Mexicans and African Americans. The settling of non-German immigrants in the area is nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, the decline began in the late nineteenth Century.

Since the early nineteenth century, Little Germany was the largest German immigrants enclave in New York City. According to Burrows & Wallace (2006), by 1855 New York had the third largest German population of any city in the world, outranked only by Berlin and Vienna (p.175). This highlights the density of German descendants.

The area quickly escalated into an ethnic commercial district, as German pubs, bakeries and cabinet makers started to flourish. In 1855 Germans represented over 60 percent of all cabinetmakers, tobacconists (usually cigar makers), and barbers. In the same year they accounted for more than 50 percent of all bakers, shoemakers, locksmiths, tailors, and, of course, brewers (“Kleindeutschland: Little Germany”, n.d.). The density of the community gave rise to the popularity of the Staats-Zeitung, the largest New York German newspaper.

Some say that a community’s newspaper defines a community; that is definitely true in the case of Little Germany. Oswald Ottendorf, the owner of Staats-Zeitung, is one of the most well-known German-American philanthropists to come out of Little Germany. Ottendorf created the greatest and longest lasting influence on the community. According to the Landmark Preservation Commission of the Ottendorfer Library (1977), the Ottendorfer Library and the German Dispensary were the joint gifts of the Ottendorfers, Oswald and Anna Ottendorfer. Oswald Ottendorf even commented that he decided to erect a library in conjunction with the Dispensary as a means to thereby serve both the physical and mental well-being of the German community. This shows that cultural value of the Ottendorfer Library to Little Germany, which is further amplified by the fact that the two buildings are the only standing remnants of Little Germany.

The Ottendorfer Library and the German Dispensary have since been renamed to The Ottendorfer Public Library and the Stuyvesant Polyclinic Hospital. The adjoining historical buildings still reside at 135 and 137 Second Avenue in the East Village neighbourhood of Manhattan New York. Though Tomkinson Square Park technically should be the social centre of Little Germany, however, locals have since deemed the library the new centre.

On the walls of the two red buildings are now two bronze plaques which clearly depicts its historical context. The library has since been owned by the New York Public Library and served as its public branch. Though the exterior of the library seemed deserted and antiquated, the interior of the library is constantly bustling with local residence.

The library continued to serve as a multicultural hub for local residences, housing collections of English scholarly articles, Chinese historical movies, old German newspapers, just to name a few. It prides the librarians to continue to uphold Mr. Ottendorfer’s wish to serve the community’s mental well-being till this date.

As of most ethnic enclaves, Little Germany faced the inescapable fate of an aging community. Increased numbers of first generations of American-born Germans moved out of the area to settle in middle-class and upper-class neighborhoods. The decline would have been delayed were it not for a particular incident in 1904; the decline of Little Germany was since then catalyzed.

The General Slocum disaster was the largest disaster to have ever impacted New York prior the 9/11 terrorist attack. According to Stephen Evans (2014), The General Slocum was a large passenger steamboat that operated in since 1891. Its main function was to carry passengers across the East River of New York City.

On June 15, 1904, the General Slocum was carrying passengers from the St. Mark Evangelic Lutheran Church, a group of Christian German-Americans, to a designated spot for a church picnic. On the way across the river, the General Slocum malfunctioned, caught on fire, and sank, taking the lives of 1021 passengers on board. After the incident wiped out the social core of Little Germany, the local residences began to move out of the enclave.

If you happen to ask the local residents whether they knew what ‘Little Germany’ was, they might not know what you were referring to. Some say that some of these former residents moved to Yorkville, and some stayed in the Alphabet City area. However, till this date, there does not seem to be a German enclave in New York City that comes close to the ethnic intensity that of Little Germany.

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