In the late 1850s, the third-largest “German” city in the world was New York, as noted by the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative. Only a few decades on, a quarter million German-speakers lived here, as the city itself recalls, centered in Kleindeutschland, Little Germany. And it is all but forgotten.
(Welcome back to Carspotting! It’s been a while but we’re back with The Worst Walking Tour of New York City, headed by me, a hack who is barely qualified to tell you how to get to the Empire State Building from here. We’re out to find the best cars of the Big Apple.)
It’s amazing just how big of a presence Germans had here in the city through the 19th Century and how absolutely this presence has been washed away. Nobody talks about Little Germany. Its beer halls and steak houses are long closed. Its landmarks seem completely absorbed. The period, even, of when people were nostalgic for Little Germany (I remember reading about it in Up In The Old Hotel, compiling New Yorkerstories from the 1940s through 1960s) is so far gone that it has passed out of memory, too.
When I moved here to the city back in 2007, I lived right around this area, passed through it every day. I shopped here. I took pictures here. I talked to everyone I could. “Little Germany” was never brought up, never mentioned in the slightest. Only a few of the oldest buildings showed German writing beside their built-by dates high up on their ornate facades.
So it was a trip to go wandering past the historic Scheffel Hall, a classic beer hall and northern point for the East Side neighborhood. You almost forget to look for it, crossing 3rd Avenue on 17th street, as we did, hunting for a 1980s Maserati spotted a few days prior.
I think about this loss of memory all the time, that signifiers of past nuances themselves fuzz over and grey out. The Suzuki Sidekick we saw just down the street from Scheffel feels like something out of such a different time already, when rough-and-tumble SUVs were trying to prove how civilized they were, rather than what we have today, car-based crossovers trying to make themselves look tough.
It makes me wonder what we will forget about our cars of today, and what distinctions we will see as so clear and obvious that in 20 or 40 or 100 years will be sandblasted by time.