As charming as they are populated, Manhattan’s many neighborhoods have distinct flavors as reflected by their architecture, people, retail and restaurant scenes. The East Village, like other NYC communities, has evolved tremendously over the years.
From Broadway eastward to the River, south of Gramercy and North of LES, the East Village is known for vibrant nightlife, community diversity, and history of countercultural movements. But its history spans much further back, long before the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple as we know it.
Irrigation to Immigration
The East Village was originally a farm owned by a Dutch Governor-General Wouter van Twiller, the deed of which was granted to Peter Stuyvesant in 1651, whose family held onto the land for seven generations. But in the early 19th century, a descendant began selling off parcels of the property, making room for well-to-do folks in townhouses along the dusty dirt roads.
But in the 1840s and 40s, an influx of Irish and German immigration would drive up demand for land in the neighborhood. Multi-unit dwellings cropped up as speculative landowners rented out rooms to the growing working class. From the 1850s to the early 20th century the area became known as Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany, as it had the highest density of Germans outside of Vienna or Berlin. It was, in fact, New York City’s first foreign language neighborhood, complete with political and social clubs, some of which still exist today.
Tragedy struck the inhabitants of the East Village in 1904, when the boat called General Slocum caught fire and sank in the East River, killing over 1,000 people on board, mostly German-Americans. In terms of fatality, it comes second only to 9/11, and remains the most devastating maritime incident in the city’s history.
As a result, Little Germany almost disappeared entirely, with many residents moving uptown to escape trauma and decline. The East Village was later filled by with second wave of Polish and Ukrainian immigration: it became a Ukrainian enclave, and following WWII, became home to Jewish settlers as well.
Artistry to Affluence
Then, com the 1950s, Beatniks migrated into the neighborhood, followed closely by hippies, musicians and artists in the 1970s. It was around this time the area earned the name East Village to distinguish it from the Lower East Side, which still contained slums.
The name stuck, and so did artistic young people. In fact, it’s considered the birthplace of a number of icons and movements, from the American gangster, to Andy Warhol, folk, punk, and hip-hop music, to organized activism and experimental theater.
Alphabet City, a portion of the East Village, is known as the setting of the renowned musical Rent, which tells the story of young artists trying to make it in the city during the AIDS epidemic in the early 90s.
As happens with most artistic havens, the East Village eventually elevated it to another level of affluence. And as often happens, the arts scene declined as a result — or rather, migrated to fresher areas like Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The neighborhood retains its character and many of its iconic venues are still in use today.
Landmarking for tomorrow
Today, the East Village is just one patch on the colorful quilt that makes up Manhattan and NYC as a whole. Its history and community have been recognized for their value, which is much more than just monetary.
In 2012, the Landmark Preservation Committee designated a large chunk of the East Village a historic district, preserving over 300 buildings between Bowery and Avenue A, East 2nd St and St. Mark’s Place. This simply means that those that wish to demolish or alter historically significant buildings must apply through the LPC to do so.
Such efforts help retain the spirit of the neighborhood, but the people and businesses do as well. Visitors from near and far will find in the East Village independent book and record stores, lively music venues, people from all walks of life, and a pervasive past made apparent through the facades of each property.
Featured image: Felix Castor via Flickr