Walking East 7th Street is a collaboration between GVSHP and the students in NYU’s Fall 2011 Intro to Public History course. Each pair of students was tasked with researching the cultural history of one particular block of East 7th Street and sharing with us something fascinating they discovered along the way. All posts in the series are written by students.
The third of five posts in the series, by Elena Berry and Alyson Cluck, focuses on East 7th Street between 1st Avenue & Avenue A.
In the mid-1800s this block was listed in city directories as Decatur Place. A number of its residents were prominent clerks and merchants (mostly of English and Irish descent), who lived with their families and servants in privately-owned townhouses.
David T. Valentine was perhaps the most distinguished of them all, serving for 31 years as Clerk of the Common Council and authoring dozens of books on New York City history. Valentine lived at 96 Decatur Place, which today is located near the intersection of 7th Street and First Avenue. His publications are still in circulation today, and several of them—such as Valentine’s Manuals of Old New York—can be accessed and downloaded online. The New York Times noted after Valentine’s death that “few names in our great City were better known than his; few men were more respected.”
Valentine’s neighbors on Decatur Place in 1850 included George S. Robbins, considered “one of the town’s oldest and richest merchants”; Robert Stratton, co-owner of the Novelty Iron Works; and Epaphras Cook Ely, a successful leather merchant operating on Ferry Street. Ely’s son, Smith Ely, who would have been in his mid-20s at the time, went on to become Mayor of New York in 1877.
Decatur Place experienced a major architectural and social transformation in the early 1860s. In three years alone, nine new tenement buildings were constructed on the block, paving the way for an influx of first- and second-generation German immigrants. This was the beginning of Kleindeutschland or “Little Germany,” a sprawling ethnic neighborhood centered on Avenues A and B.
To gain a better sense of the period, we turned to the 1880 census, which provided some valuable insight into the area’s growing population. Jobst Hoffmann, a Bavarian-born architect, not only lived on the block but also designed two of its tenements at 100 and 112 East 7th Street. The façade of the latter building features several architectural sculptures of “Green Men,” a traditional Germanic motif. Local historian Joe Zito has noted similar carvings on another Hoffmann-designed building in Hell’s Kitchen.
Farther down the block from Jobst Hoffmann in the early 1880s was the Rev. Hermann Raegener, pastor of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on Sixth Street. His assistant, the 26-year-old George C. F. Haas, boarded with the Raegener family for two years before taking over full pastoral duties in 1882. The young Rev. Haas worked at the church through the turn of the century, lending some stability to the neighborhood at a time when many of its residents were relocating to Yorkville and Brooklyn.
On June 15, 1904, Rev. Haas and his congregation were thrust into the spotlight when more than 1,000 parishioners—mostly women and children—drowned in the General Slocum ferry boat disaster on the East River. As we explored in our presentation, several families on the block suffered devastating losses in this tragedy. The event also played a role in the end of Kleindeutschland, and with it, the beginnings of a new Eastern European Jewish community. Over a period of sixty years, the element of one continuity on 7th Street was unrelenting change.