3. Alphabet City had its own Little Germany before a steamboat disaster
Also known as Kleindeutschland, Little Germany was a German immigrant neighborhood in Alphabet City and the East Village, as well as in parts of the Lower East Side. As early as the 1840s, the neighborhood (which was centered around Tompkins Square Park but consisted of about 400 blocks total) quickly became a center of German life. By 1855, New York’s German population surpassed every city but Berlin and Vienna. Many bakeries, groceries, craft stores, and cabinet shops opened on every block of the neighborhood, and many workers formed politically active trade unions. German immigrants lived with others from their state, settling in “wards” such as the Tenth Ward, which was mostly inhabited by Prussians. The area’s population grew to as many as 50,000 residents by the turn of the 20th century, many of whom spent time in Tompkins Square Park, or what they called Weisse Garten. Avenue B in particular was lined with beer gardens, libraries, sports clubs, and German synagogues, giving it the nickname German Broadway.
As younger residents moved to Brooklyn, the German population in the area slowly grew smaller. The number of German immigrants in the area was also impacted by the disastrous sinking of the General Slocum, a passenger steamboat, in 1904. Over 1,300 passengers boarded the boat for a picnic cruise on the East River run by St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. A fire broke out in a storage compartment, and both the lifeboats and preservers were in disrepair, resulting in the deaths of 1,021 passengers.
The neighborhood struggled to handle so many deaths of loved ones and important members of the community, and many committed suicide as a result. This disaster, coupled with the growth of populations from Eastern Europe and growing anti-German sentiment, led the neighborhood to contract even more. Many Germans moved uptown to Yorkville or to other parts of the city. Today, a memorial fountain stands in Tompkins Park.