New York is renowned for its vibrant immigrant history, and the many diverse neighborhoods born out of years of heavy immigration in the 19th and early 20th-centuries. But for all that still exists of famed neighborhoods like Little Italy, the Jewish Lower East Side, or Brooklyn’s Italian Bensonhurst, there are many immigrant enclaves virtually lost to the ages. When immigration slows, residents move on or assimilate deeper into American culture, and the ethnic identity of the neighborhood fades away. The Lower West Side (also called Little Syria), Little Africa, and the German Kleindeustchland are all examples of once-thriving districts in lower Manhattan that have long since disappeared.
Goulash Row on East Houston is another such neighborhood, although based on its footprint, the term “micro-neighborhood” is probably more appropriate. Around the turn of the last century, Goulash Row spanned a small segment of East Houston, and featured numerous shops, cafes, and restaurants offering Hungarian culture and fare. It seems that the row was part of a larger East Side conglomerate of enclaves catering to Eastern European immigrants; around the corner from Goulash Row were separate small neighborhoods for Polish immigrants, German immigrants, and even an area called Klein Wien or Little Vienna.
But Goulash Row didn’t only attract fellow Hungarians. Like in many eclectic downtown neighborhoods, fashionable uptown New Yorkers would “slum it” in the area’s bars and restaurants, enjoying the chance to witness frenetic downtown life and shirk the strict social morays of their genteel lives. At 255-263 East Houston stood the popular Little Hungary. Several city guidebooks of the time refer to the restaurant as a “widely known bohemian resort” and make mention of the famous wine cellar, where dinner is served “in the midst of casks and barrels.” Little Hungary was the place to be on Goulash Row, and its reputation reached far beyond the bounds of the small immigrant neighborhoods of the Lower East Side. It was a favorite of Teddy Roosevelt’s when he was Governor and Police Commissioner, and he went back to enjoy a banquet in his honor after being elected president. After President Roosevelt’s visit, Little Hungary enjoyed even greater fame as New Yorkers flocked to dine within the same walls as their new Commander in Chief.
Little Hungary was such a popular spot that postcards were sold featuring scenes of their renowned dinners (the fantastic Emphemeral New York blog recently posted an image of one, which is where I first learned of the restaurant and Goulash Row). And aside from offering the exciting atmosphere of Budapest nights, Little Hungary also served as an important place in the community. Its meeting halls could accommodate large numbers and often held meetings of community groups and labor organizers.
But Goulash Row, and Little Hungary, were not long for this world. By the turn of the 20th century, downtown German residents had begun moving uptown to the Yorkville area, and soon other Eastern European immigrants followed. Little Hungary actually stayed in its original location after the Hungarian exodus – and according to this 1915 advertisement, it was a point of pride.
Prohibition seems to have delivered the final blow to Little Hungary. A new neighborhood, itself called Little Hungary or Goulash Avenue, did develop near Yorkville after many immigrants relocated uptown. But that, too, has now faded from storefronts and memories.
So what has become of 255-263 East Houston’s celebrated wine cellars? Little Hungary’s buildings are still standing, although the Western-most building that once bore the restaurant’s marquee and awning has been stripped of all it’s ornamentation.
These historic buildings may not be around for much longer. In February, a plan was submitted to replace the entire Little Hungary site with a modern 13-story residential structure. The date of completion is set for 2020.
Little Hungary is almost entirely forgotten now, but these four buildings played a major role in East Side culture. And the entire Goulash Row is a reminder of New York’s incredibly diverse history. A cohesive Hungarian community may not still exist downtown today, but it is sites like 255-263 East Houston that connect us to that past.