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What Happened to Germantown?

by Elizabeth Gariti

The story of what happened to Yorkville’s Germantown is a story of assimilation, high rents and changing immigration laws. All that visibly remains of Yorkville’s German community and the teeming throng of restaurants, bakeries, beer gardens and dancing halls are two establishments: the Schaller & Weber grocery (1654 2nd Ave.) and the Heidelberg restaurant (1648 2nd Ave.).

But, under the cover of high rises, Sushi bars and the mall-ing of 86th Street, some of the UES German community still exists. To find it is to search the churches, singing clubs and the remaining businesses. My exploration began with a brief tour of Schaller & Weber and then on to the Heidelberg bar.

Though situated practically next door to each other, the two businesses don’t have a relationship, except that the Heidelberg uses some of Schaller’s products, and the Schaller butchers stop in the bar for a bier during their breaks. With waiters dressed in lederhosen and waitresses and barmaids dressed in dirndl, the Heidelberg is somewhat touristy. However, midday, it’s still a gathering place for the UES German community to have a bier and get the neighborhood news. I asked, Ursula, the barmaid about Germantown and the old Yorkville:

“Ach,” she said waving her hand, “Finished.”

But what happened?

“The rents got too high. People had to move, and the stores had to close down.”

But why are the Heidelberg and Schaller still here?

“Because the owners bought the buildings.”

Ah. Makes you wonder why more didn’t do that.

“Well, they could have. In those days, it was cheap enough. Ask him down the bar. He’s a butcher at Schaller. He’ll tell you more.”

So I went to talk to Ludweig, a butcher at Schaller & Weber for 45 years:

“Ja, rents and prices got too high, and the immigration quotas in the ‘50s & ‘60s stopped the number of Europeans entering the country, so there was a loss of workers.”

“And then people had children and moved to the suburbs, and the young people wanted no part.”

Why did you stay?

“I tried to retire and move to Florida, but I got bored.”

I next spoke to Barbara, Inga and Teresa, three ladies at the bar gossiping and joking in German and English, having their Berliner Weisse, who told me about the shops and bakeries along 86th Street (“the German Broadway”) and how one used to hear German on the streets—but no more.

“. . . and the dancing places, my God!” said Inga. All agreed, when asked why they stayed, that they weren’t ones to jump from place to place. Though they started out in the neighborhood as domestics, they were soon working at the restaurants and the Konditereis, “taking the money and serving the cakes”, eight years at the Heidlberg, sixteen years at the Kleine Konditerei. . .

The development of Yorktown began after the Civil War as the city expanded northward. The empty lots on the Upper East Side were turned into factories and slaughterhouses. Grand villas were built by the well-to-do and generated many jobs since upkeep of the villas required cooks, housecleaners, washing people, serving and grounds people. Many of the workers came from Kleine Deutschland, (Little Germany), the German ghetto on the Lower East Side.

Then, in 1904 the General Slocum steamship accident occurred on the East River, in which over 1000 people were killed, mostly women and children from the LES German community. Hoping to make a new beginning and escape their empty hearths, the men moved uptown to where the jobs were on 1st, 2nd & 3rd avenues in the 70’s and 80’s. 86th Street, or “Sauerkraut Boulevard” was Germantown’s heart.

The heyday of Germantown was from the 1930s-1960s when the streets were filled with the sound of the German language spoken by Eastern European/Prussian immigrants from Hungary, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Russia. An abundance of newspapers, societies, sports clubs, shops, restaurants, movie theatres, bakeries grew to accommodate this diverse gathering of Europeans who, because of wars and their countries’ political situations, came to call New York City’s Germantown home.

“It was the only gorgeous mosaic you’ll ever see,” says Yorkville historian Kathryn Jolowicz and founder of the German Language Learning Club.

“. . .the Jaegerhaus. . . the Brauhaus, Bavarian Inn, Kleine Konditerei, Cafe Geiger, Bremen House, Cafe Hindenburg, The Corso, The Platzl, Karl Ehmers, Little Findland, The Tuxedo Ballroom, The Casino, Kerekes Bookstore, The Mozart Halle, The Rheinland, and more - all gone now,” she says in her memoirs about growing up in Yorkville during the 40s & 50s.

She says that what really signified the beginning of the end of Germantown was the tearing down of the 2nd and 3rd Avenue elevated lines. Slowly, the developers moved in and the factories and brownstones under the tracks were torn down to be replaced by large apartment buildings.

This, combined with anti-German sentiment due to WWII, was one of the many things that caused the Yorkville Germans to Anglicize their names and begin to assimilate into U.S. society. They also moved further out to Long Island, New Jersey, where there are still large German contingencies.

The final stop on my foray into the German community was to attend a “Festive Luncheon” at Zion-St. Marks Lutheran Evangelical Church at 424 E. 84th St. (which was formerly two congregations that combined as an outcome of the General Slocum disaster). Zion-St. Marks is one of the many original UES German churches. There’s one on E. 87th and Park Avenues, now the Church of Advent Hope, and Immanuel Lutheran was also a German church. According to Kathryn Jolowicz, “All the churches are ethnic. Immanuel Lutheran was German, but would rent time to other ethnic groups.”

At Zion-St. Marks, the remnants of the German community gather three times a year to eat, gossip and reminisce. It was there, amidst Beef Goulash, home-made Spaetzle with home-made gravy and vegetables, I spoke with Wolfgang, the chef:

“When the Casino on 86th Street, the movie theatre, closed in 1974, it was the beginning of the end. They had the die vergangene Woche (“Week in Review”) that every week showed what was happening in Germany, Austria and Hungary. People would go to that and then go for a coffee at Bauer’s. Most times they wouldn’t even stay for the movie. They just wanted to keep up with what was happening in their country.”

The Casino was just one of the vaudeville-cum-movie houses battening down the corners of 86th and 3rd. There was also the Lyceum and the Orpheum/Loews, all housed in buildings along with ballrooms, German newspapers and offices.

Wolfgang was brought up as a shoemaker’s son in Germany, but moved here in 1959 to pursue his dream of being a chef. He also told me that many of the people at the luncheon now live in Long Island, Westchester and New Jersey, but come back to hear the German services (every Sunday at 11 am) and to eat his food at the luncheon.

The long-standing German musical culture is kept alive through singing clubs like the Liederkranz Club. The Liederkranz sponsors classical German musical performances and other artistic events and engages in activities dedicated to the support and development of young musical talent. It produces chorales, operas and vocal competitions. Music is still very important to the Germantown community. Much of the conversation with Wolfgang and friends involved recanting the performances of German operatic greats, both living and dead.

No, there’s not much left of the old Yorkville today. But, during its day, there was nothing like it. Take a reminiscent tour by stopping in for a bier midday at the Heidelberg, attending German services at Zion St.-Marks, or catching a Liederkranz performance. “It was my Disneyland,” says Kathryn Jolowicz.