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The New York City German Migration from Kleindeutschland

What aspects of a neighborhood expose its roots and history? Where do you get information about the communities that shaped your neighborhood? How did New York’s “Germantown” completely relocate in a matter of a few years, and why don’t we hear about it more often?

At the turn of the 20th century, New York City had the largest German population in the world outside of Germany. German immigrants settling in New York City found their way to Kleindeutschland–“Little Germany” or, the Lower East Side–in the decades leading up to 1900. Kleindeutschland bustled with highly-educated German immigrants, new businesses (picture Germany beer saloons on every corner!), art, traditions, and a gradually increasing population. A few years into the 20th century, however, Germans started moving uptown in huge numbers for a fresh start. The story often told: uptown, they’d have access to running water in their tenements, they’d find more work opportunities, and their community could move up socially and economically. This is all true, but a grim moment in NYC’s story led to this rapid migration.

In 1904, group of Germans from Kleindeutschland, members of the St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, paid $350 to charter a passenger ship for a day trip the church community had been making for 17 consecutive years. It was a day of celebration away from the city, welcoming summer on the shore, a scenic boat ride away. 1,348 passengers boarded the steamboat, General Slocum, on June 15. The ship left Manhattan at 9:30am, heading to Eatons Neck, Long Island via the East River.

A 12-year-old reportedly tried to warn the captain of a fire in the Lamp Room, but was ignored until 10 minutes later, which was far too late. By 10am, people were making the impossible choice to either burn alive or jump off the burning boat.

The majority of the passengers were women and children; the heavy women’s clothing of the day weighed them down instantly in the water, and it was rare for any Americans at this point to know how to swim. Desperate mothers pulled life jackets from wire racks on board (survivors later claimed that they were stuck, painted down or attached to the racks) to put on their children. Mothers threw their children overboard, only to watch them die as the old cheap life jackets failed.

The ship ultimately sank at North Brother Island (in the Bronx). 1,021 people died in the tragedy, making it the disaster with the most fatalities in New York’s history until September 11, 2001.

321 people survived the General Slocum tragedy, including 35 of the 40 crew members. 62 are missing, to this day. The German community in Kleindeutschland, losing so many beloved members, was never the same. Friends and family of the victims took comfort in moving uptown, closer to the site of the tragedy. Much of Kleindeutschland’s community followed, and soon, the heart of German New York was in Yorkville.

Yorkville, the section of the Upper East Side between 79th and 96th streets, between the East River and 3rd Avenue, is named after Sergeant Alvin York (no relation to the Duke of York, for whom New York City’s name shifted from New Amsterdam to New York!). Alvin York was a US Army member who led an attack on Germany during World War I and received the Medal of Honor. York avenue, formerly named Avenue A, was renamed in 1928. Walking through the area, look for the names, dedications (check out Carl Schurz Park, named after the German-born American Revolutionary…his wife Margarethe established New York’s Kindergarten system!), art, and business that reflect the neighborhood’s dynamic Germany history.

Today, a memorial fountain stands in Tompkins Square Park, honoring the victims of the General Slocum disaster. It was dedicated 2 years after the tragedy by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies. The inscription reads: they are the earth’s purest children, young and fair. 

Why is empathy important in examining a city’s history? How does reading about the experiences of German New Yorkers impacted by the General Slocum disaster deepen our appreciation of Yorkville? Do you think many non-German Upper East Side residents know the neighborhood’s story?