Kleindeustchland, on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan
by Charlie Leck
My grandfather, Henry William Leck, was a boy when he arrived in America (disembarking in the port of New York City) along with thousands and thousands of other Germans in the year 1887. Because he was only fifteen, he came in the company of his mother and father and, perhaps, a brother or sister. We can’t find ship’s records or Ellis Island records of his arrival. What’s written here is part of the oral history of my family and some comes from information left in notations from my grandmother, Emma Vey Leck, who arrived in America as a little girl of seven with her mother and father, Carl and Catherine Vey, in 1882. They had come from Bavaria, in Germany. She and Henry, who probably lived in the same neighborhood on the lower eastside of Manhattan, would meet in this new land and marry in about 1897.
Here’s what I imagine!
I image young Henry and his parents were welcomed by friends and family, who had preceded him on the journey and who knew of his arrival date. I wish I knew the entire and true story of his arrival – about the home he left behind in Germany, about the ship on which he was a passenger, about those acquaintances or family with whom he traveled, and, of course, about what he felt inside his gut when he saw the Statue of Liberty as his ship glided into the harbor. The big statue arrived in America in June of 1885. It was in 350 individual pieces and was packed in over 200 crates. It was assembled and put up on a pedestal built especially for her in about four month’s time. On the 28 October 1886, the statue was dedicated in a ceremony attended by thousands and thousands of spectators.
I can only imagine that my grandpa, as a 15 year old boy, looked out upon the statue as his ship glided into the port of New York. I know too much about teenagers, after raising six of them, and I’m not going to romanticize what sort of feelings he must have had as he came down the gangway to step foot upon the land of a new nation. For all I know, he may have been angry and pouting about it.
I have dozens and dozens of questions about him that I’ve been unable to answer to this day; however, I keep searching for data and facts about this young boy and what happened to him in this land and under what kind of circumstances he lived while in Germany.
It seems likely that he and his mother and father moved in with some friends who had arrived in America somewhat earlier. They probably settled into a residence near the southern tip of the Island of Manhattan, not very far at all from a spot where they could look out upon the Statue of Liberty. In those days that neighborhood was known as Little Germany. Thousands and thousands of families of German descent lived there.
Tompkins Square was pretty much the center of their community. They called is Weisse Garten. Surrounding it, in the neighborhood that stretched from the East River to the Bowery, there were beer gardens, theatres, shooting clubs, libraries, choral organizations, retail shops, small factories and workshops.
Stanley Nadel, author, in 1990, of Little Germany: Ethnicity, Religion and Class in NYC (1845-80) describes the neighborhood like this…
“At the beginning of the '70s, after a decade of continuously rising immigration, Kleindeutschland (the German city in the ever-growing Cosmopolis) was in fullest bloom. Kleindeutschland, called Dutchtown by the Irish, consisted of 400 blocks formed by some six avenues and nearly forty streets. Tompkins Square formed pretty much the center. Avenue B, occasionally called the German Broadway, was the commercial artery. Each basement was a workshop, every first floor was a store, and the partially roofed sidewalks were markets for goods of all sorts. Avenue A was the street for beer halls, oyster saloons and groceries. The Bowery was the western border (anything further west was totally foreign), but it was also the amusement and loafing district. There all the artistic treats, from classical drama to puppet comedies, were for sale.” [Quotation from Stanley Nadel, author, in 1990, of LITTLE GERMANY: ETHNICITY, RELIGION AND CLASS IN NYC (1845-80); University of Illinois Press, Urbana]
When one reads Nadel’s and others’ accounts of Little Germany it is not difficult to picture young Henry and Emma Vey growing into adulthood there. I can see her going to Weisse Garten to play among the flowers and ponds that were laid out there. When they first dated, there would have been so many dozens of beer halls and restaurants for them to visit and listen to the sounds of the German music they must have loved. They likely married in one of the big Lutheran churches that were established in the neighborhood early in its history – perhaps even in Saint Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Shortly after their marriage, my grandfather set up a grocery store slightly north of Little Germany, near the corner of West 44th Street and 8th Avenue. The 1900 census report shows that they lived at 310 West 44th Street. My father and his parents lived there along with two boarders, Longis Lesoine (age 13) and at school during the census interview and Gustav Busling (age 25), born in Germany and arrived in America in 1897. His occupation is listed as a clerk (perhaps, I can only imagine, in my grandfather’s grocery store). Their home would have been almost directly across the street from where the famous Birdland Jazz Club was established in 1949. As a teenager, I can remember lingering outside Birdland, too young to go in, so that I could hear the remarkable music of Thelonious Monk (watch a video below if you wish). Little did I know then that, my father and grandparents had lived right across the street and that my father was probably born there and, after his father, was named and baptized Henry William Leck, Jr..
I can’t find a record of the family in the 1910 census, but the 1920 accounting shows my father (now 21) no longer at home, but 6 other siblings had joined the family and there were no longer any boarders. My Uncle Charlie, after whom I was named was, at 19, the oldest of those children living with my grandparents.
Where was my father living in 1920? What was he doing? I know, only from his own oral accounts, that he went very frequently to the Polo Grounds to watch his beloved New York Giants play baseball. He went off to work very early each morning and was finished in time to take the trolley up to Coogan’s Bluff where the Polo Grounds ballpark, as he knew it, had opened in 1912. He told us that he always bought the cheap bleacher seats and enjoyed sitting out there in the summer sun.
My mother (age 9), during that 1920 census, was living at 309 West 97th Street, about 7 blocks west of Central Park, with her parents, Frank and Emma Svejda, and her little brother John (age 6). They were not too far away from a neighborhood known as Yorkville, but commonly referred to then as Germantown by the people who lived there – and especially by the Germans who lived there. The famous Heidelberg Restaurant, Manhattan’s most famous German eatery, is still there and serving dinners on Second Avenue between 85th and 86th Streets.
The original Kleindeutschland, down on the lower eastside, had pretty much broken apart and become more multi-ethnic after the horrible tragedy of 1904 – often referred to as the General Slocum Disaster. On 15 June 1904, the big Lutheran Church in Little Germany, Saint Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, had chartered a big side-wheel steam passenger ship to carry people to a church picnic. It remained, in terms of loss of life, the worst disaster in New York City’s history until 11 September 2001. The big ship was bound for the Locust Grove picnic site near Eatons Neck on Long Island. More than 1300 passengers, mostly women and children, were aboard as the ship sailed up the East River so that it could then head east across the Long Island Sound. The voyage came to a disastrous end when a fire broke out in the Lamp Room (forward). At 10 AM the fire was first noticed. When the untrained crew tried to use the fire hoses, this equipment was found to have rotted and it fell apart, literally, in their hands. The crew had never had a lifeboat drill and they were unable to loosen and lower the small boats. Some of them turned out to have been wired in place and were unmovable. The ship’s captain, a fellow named Van Schaick, continued on up river. He was close enough to shore that he could have docked at numerous places to unload his passengers. Instead he moved into strong head winds as he neared the sea and that fanned the dangerous flames. Passengers began jumping. Most of the women were dressed in clothing of that era, very full and blousy, that wouldn’t allow them to swim. Those passengers who used life vests discovered, once in the water, that they were poorly manufactured and had hung in place, open to the elements, for over 13 years and had never been examined or tested in all that time. Well over 1,000 passengers died in the tragedy.
My search for information about my great grandparents goes on. Most times it seems hopeless, but, perhaps, somewhere I will find some clue that will unlock a great deal more information.
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