Places that Matter

Yorkville

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Orwasher's Bakery. Photo by Aileen Gorsuch, 2011
Orwasher's Bakery. Photo by Aileen Gorsuch, 2011
Schaller & Weber meat store. Photo by Aileen Gorsuch, 2011
Glaser's Bake Shop. Photo by Cequyna Moore, 2010
Glaser's Bake Shop. Photo by Cequyna Moore, 2010
Upper East Side neighborhood that once housed large German and Middle-European populations
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Manhattan’s Yorkville neighborhood on the Upper East Side—located between Lexington Avenue and the East River, bordered on the south by 79th and the north by 96th Streets—was once one of New York City’s primary ethnic enclaves.

German influence was first established here in the early 19th century when well-to-do German immigrants began building their country estates on the rural farmlands of Harlem. Later in the century, the 2nd & 3rd Avenue el trains brought in droves of German, Central European, and Irish immigrants to what was known as German Town. The wealthy country estates gave way to multi-family brownstones and tenements buildings with ground floor shops.

The early growth and development of the Yorkville neighborhood has much to do with the history of New York City’s German population. In the 1840s the first German immigrants settled in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and continued to do so in such large numbers that the area became known as Little Germany. Over the next twenty years the German community grew to be a quarter of the city’s population, becoming the first large foreign language speaking immigrant group in U.S. history.
 
In the early part of the 20th Century, the city’s German population began to move from the Lower East Side to the Yorkville neighborhood. It has been said that this move was the result of the devastating General Slocum disaster. In 1904, St Mark’s German Lutheran Church on the Lower East Side chartered the General Slocum steamboat for its annual picnic to Long Island. Near Randall’s Island in the East River the steamboat broke out into flames. The casualties were extensive, with 1,021 deaths, mostly women and children. This disaster marked the largest loss of lives in a single day in New York City history until the tragedy of September 11, 2001. The Lower East Side’s Kleine Deutschland was devastated by the Slocum disaster, and the German community dispersed.
 
Yorkville drew crowds of Germans and non-Germans alike to the ethnic bakeries, cafes, dance halls and social clubs along and around East 86th Street. New Yorkers flocked to neighborhood beer halls and gardens, which offered a new and exciting experience. Breweries such as Manhattan’s Hell Gate Brewery, which took up an entire block between 92nd and 93rd streets and 2nd and 3rd avenues, and the nearby Jacob Ruppert brewery, supplied local establishments with kegs of lager style beer which quickly became a popular favorite. The beer halls and gardens were often described as worlds onto themselves, where the purchase of a beer included a free lunch and family and friends, including women and children, could spend time socializing together.
 
Before World War II, Yorkville was home to the country’s leading pro-Nazi group, the German American Bund. During this time Yorkville news filled city papers as the Bund paraded down neighborhood streets and fights erupted over controversial speeches and rallies. Bund membership began to wane in 1941 after their leader Fritz Kuhn was convicted of embezzling funds from the organization. When the U.S. entered World War II later that year, the organization was outlawed.
 
Yorkville began to lose its ethnic character after WWII when the 1955 dismantling of the 3rd Avenue el and then future rezonings spurred a surge of redevelopment. Brownstones, tenements, schools, and social clubs were destroyed to make way for large high-rise apartments, and many long-time residents moved to the suburbs. Today, little remains of Yorkville’s German past, however there are a few places that still embrace their ethnic roots, offering a remembrance of what Yorkville once was.
 
—Aileen Gorsuch, January 2011