NYC History: The Stuyvesant Farm to East Village Punk

by NEW YORK DIGITAL NEWS


legendary punk club CBGB music club at 315 BoweryCities are always changing. In architecture everything gives way and nothing is fixed. Impermanence is the only constant. Every new generation tinkers with the aesthetics of urban space (or lack of it) to create its own place. At the same time, the fabric of the city is resilient and able to harness its own transformative power which gives it a unique character. The history of Second Avenue is a vibrant example.

Map showing the location of the Stuyvesant Farm in 1660 New AmsterdamMoral Welfare

When the English took over New Amsterdam in 1664, its last governor Peter Stuyvesant withdrew to a large plot of land he had purchased from the Dutch West India Company in 1651 and devoted his energy to agriculture. His estate became known as the “Stuyvesant Farm.”

A stretch of Second Avenue had been part of the farm. In the early 1830s, imposing late Federal-style merchant family homes were built along the avenue and at nearby St. Mark’s Place.

The surviving property at 138 Second Avenue was built in 1832 by Thomas Edward Davis, an English immigrant and developer of grand properties in the East Village. The impressive red brick townhouses stood virtually alone in the meadows of the old Farm before being absorbed by the expanding locality.

Mass immigration in the mid-nineteenth century changed the character of the Village. German immigrants clustered in the area surrounding Tompkins Square Park, known as Kleindeutschland (Little Germany). Before unification under the Prussian Crown in January 1871, Germany was a patchwork of states with religious and socio-cultural differences.

Initially, New York’s German community was similarly diversified. Living in close proximity forged mutual dependencies. German schools, newspapers, singing societies, trade unions and beer gardens served the economic and cultural needs of this migrant population.

With Second Avenue as its main street, Little Germany functioned as a community and a safety network for many young men who had recently crossed the Atlantic to seek a better future. The local subsidiary of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was organized in 1881.

Known as the “German Branch” (although its doors were open to all nationalities), it was situated in the heart of the community at 140 and 142 Second Avenue. The exact date of construction of the properties is not known, but it can safely be assumed that they too were built in the early 1830s.

The YMCA served as a moral cornerstone of a grouping of young males with a fondness for beer and boozing (by 1877 Manhattan counted seventy-eight breweries). All drinks were banned from gatherings at the German YMCA which led the battle against alcohol abuse.

Oswald Ottendorfer on a cigarette card, late nineteenth centuryLiberal Minds

In 1848, Europe was hit by a wave of uprisings. Citizens demanded democratic diversification, social justice, opportunities for women and respect for human rights.

Reformers promoted mass education as an essential condition for building a “new” society. Their vision about schooling clashed with that of traditionalists and concerned such issues as the social role of a school and the competing interest of Church and State in the educational system.

The Revolution failed, liberal movements were repressed, rebels persecuted and freedoms curtailed. Many disillusioned citizens decided to leave Europe with the feeling that the Continent was finished. They were known as Forty-Eighters.

One of those refugees was Valentin Oswald Ottendorfer. Born into a Jewish family in 1826 in Zwittau, Moravia (then part of the Austrian Empire), he was educated at the Universities of Vienna and Prague and a political insurgent.

Following the 1848 failure, he fled via Switzerland to the United States. Having settled in the city of New York in 1850, he spoke German, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, several Slavic languages, but not a word of English. He started his new life as a laborer.

Anna Behr had left her native Würzburg, Bavaria, in 1837 and settled in Manhattan. Shortly after arrival she married the printer Jacob Uhl. In 1845, the couple purchased the New-Yorker Staats-Zeitung, a small weekly newspaper founded in 1834.

Four years later, they were able to publish the paper daily. After her husband’s death in 1852, Anna continued managing the business.

Oswald had been working for the paper since 1851 and became its editor-in-chief in 1858. A year later he and Anna married. Oswald ran the editorial side of the by then thriving paper; Anna was responsible for its general management until her death in 1884.

The Staats-Zeitung spoke for the nation’s liberal German communities; it supported the United States during the Civil War; opposed Tammany Hall and was a major voice in the New York’s political scene. The Ottendorfers were among New York City’s most socially prominent German-Americans.

Physical Well-Being

Dispensaries in New York were health clinics that provided medical care free of charge or at nominal fees to the poor. The first of its kind was opened in 1791 and by the end of the nineteenth century dispensaries were located throughout the city, many being affiliated with hospitals.

Anna Ottendorfer supported the cause of migrant medical care and she set out to establish a dispensary in the Lower East Side to look after the well-being of Little Germany’s vulnerable people Wiesbaden-born architect William Schickel was trained in Germany.

In 1870, aged twenty, he moved to New York City to work as a draftsman for several architectural firms. Having established his own office in the 1880s, he was commissioned by the Ottendorfers to design the German Dispensary at 137 Second Avenue.

Constructed in 1883/4, he delivered an exuberant red brick building in Italian Renaissance style notable for its sculptural details. Its facade was enriched by terracotta portrait busts of physicians and scientists (an encyclopaedia of medical history: Galen, William Harvey, Carolus Linnaeus, Antoine Lavoisier and others).

Relying on private donations and volunteer doctors, the institution provided free medical treatment as well as clinical observation sessions for medical students. Owing to intense anti-German feelings during World War I, its name was temporarily changed to the “Stuyvesant Polyclinic” and made permanent when the nation became involved in the Second World War.

The German inscription on the Ottendorfer Library (Free Library and Reading Room)Anna died just prior to the opening of the Dispensary in May 1884. The building had been very much her project. Her husband had his own particular interest. He was eager to supply the German community with an excellent library adjacent to the health clinic at 135 Second Avenue. He had brought his enlightened ideas about education with him from his younger days in Europe.

The Ottendorfer Library opened its doors in December 1884, the city’s first free public library. The German inscription between the first and second floors of the building underlined his intention, Freie Bibliothek u. Lesehalle (Free Library and Reading Room) – a library should be open to all. Integrated into the New York Public Library since 1901, the branch remains located in its original building.

Oswald wished to provide members of Little Germany’s community with the kind of literature that would cultivate their mind and assist assimilation into American culture. Half of the 8,000 original books were in German with the other half in English. The Library also offered a range of newspapers, magazines and periodicals. A replica of the first catalogue of the Library’s holdings would make fascinating reading.

Exodus and Crime

By the first decade of the twentieth century, the neighborhood’s composition was changing. A traumatic event played a significant part in the ‘disintegration’ of Little Germany. In 1904, local church leaders had chartered the SS General Slocum to carry 1,300 residents to their annual picnic on Long Island.

Shortly after departing, the steamboat caught fire. Passengers (mostly women and children) were trapped as safety provisions on board were inadequate and few of them could swim.

More than a thousand people died in a tragedy that scarred the community. Many of the second- and third-generation German-Americans left the area and moved to other parts of the city such as Yorkville, Bushwick and elsewhere.

A new wave of immigrants moved into the area, including Italians, Greeks, Hungarians, Poles, Romanians, Russians, Slovaks and Ukrainians, each of whom settling in relatively homogeneous enclaves.

With the influx of people and the need to create housing, most of the original grand manors were divided and sub-divided or replaced. Second Avenue lost the last remnants of its original grandeur and exclusiveness.

Most of the East European newcomers were Yiddish-speaking refugees. The crowded but vibrant Lower East Side became the focus of Jewish life in America. Second Avenue was the heart of Manhattan’s theatre district (the “Yiddish Rialto”), a street bustling with theatres, cafés, nickelodeons, bars and vaudeville houses.

Reflecting these changes, the moral crusaders of the YMCA had left their branch at 140 and 142 Second Avenue in 1909. A year later the place was turned into a nightclub named “Stuyvesant Casino” and operated by Gerson Schmidt (an immigrant from Galicia, Eastern Europe). The two elegant Federal houses were joined together and given an ugly unified facade.

The Casino offered its clients a dazzling décor, sumptuous food and a first-class house band. It attracted a cross-section of the local population looking for a place to congregate, but its reputation was spoiled by the presence of Jewish gangsters.

The Casino received nationwide attention in December 1911 when Big Jack Zelig (also known as “The Big Yid”) killed his would-be assassin Julius Morrello (Julie Morrell) in the club.

Press photo of Jan Peerce in Fiddler on the Roof (1972)Fiddler on the Roof

At one point, Gerson Schmidt was encouraged by his head waiter, an immigrant from Russia, to allow a band consisting of his three sons to perform at the Stuyvesant Casino. The Perelmuth Brothers were a success and the performance of violinist-singer Pinchas was widely praised.

When in 1932 the latter sang Franz Lehár’s “Yours Is My Heart Alone” at the Astor Hotel, he drew the attention of impresario Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel. The latter took the singer under his wing, pushed his career and suggested he changed his name from Jacob Pinchas Perelmuth to Jan Peerce. His first solo recital in New York City took place in 1939 after which he was asked by Arturo Toscanini to audition for him.

A refugee from Mussolini’s Italy, the latter was the founder-conductor of the NBC orchestra since 1937. This happy meeting developed into an association that began on February 6, 1938, at Carnegie Hall with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and did not end until shortly before the Maestro’s death in 1957. The pair produced some of the best recorded opera music of their era.

In 1956 Peerce was the first post-war American singer to perform at Moscow’s Bolshoi Opera. His greatest triumph came at the age of sixty-seven when he made his Broadway debut in 1971 delighting audiences worldwide in the role of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. It was the culmination of decades of
Jewish culture in the Lower East Side of the city.

Bunk Johnson and Leadbelly at New York Town Hall, 1947Godfather of Punk

After World War II, jazz musicians from beyond New York settled in the city turning the Casino into a center of Dixieland. Trumpeter Willie “Bunk” Johnson frequently performed there. He was often joined by Louisiana-born Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter who lived nearby on East 10th Street.

Dallas-born trumpeter “Hot Lips” Page recorded a version of the 1924 classic “When My Sugar Walks Down the Street (All the Little Birdies Go Tweet-Tweet-Tweet)” at the Casino.

Within a few years, however, the neighborhood was changing again. Gloom settled over the East Village as drugs and urban neglect began to plague the area. The Stuyvesant Casino shut down and in 1958 the building was taken over by the Ukrainian National Home, an immigrant community center. Once more, the Village was capable of channeling darkness into creativity with music at its core.

In 1973 Hilly Kristal opened a nearby music hub at 315 Bowery which he named CBGB (Country, Bluegrass and Blues), but the original vision changed dramatically.

A former biker bar, the club became a venue for punk and new wave. A palace of underground rock for over three decades (the club closed in 2006), the scene was set by the likes of the Dina Regine Band, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Blondie and a catalogue of others.

The East Village may have been transformed over a period of time, but the creative mixture of immigrant cultures persisted in the district. Nicknamed the “Godfather of Punk,” Kristal was the New York-born son of Russian Jewish immigrants.

Even the Ukrainian National Home joined in. Along with offering support to the Village’s Ukrainian population in the 1980s, the “Ukie Nat” hosted an array of artists like Elvis Costello, New Order and the Misfits. Music forged and sustained a Village identity.

Illustrations, from above: Legendary punk club CBGB music club at 315 Bowery; a map showing the location of the Stuyvesant Farm in 1660 New Amsterdam; Oswald Ottendorfer on a cigarette card, late nineteenth century; the German inscription on the Ottendorfer Library (Free Library and Reading Room); a press photo of Jan Peerce in Fiddler on the Roof (1972); and Bunk Johnson and Leadbelly at New York Town Hall, 1947.

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