Sunday, July 06, 2008

Walking Tour: Czech and Slovak Yorkville

Czechs and Slovaks have a long tradition in New York City - Czech immigrants began arriving to the city after 1848, and Slovaks soon following after 1870. By the late 1870s, enough immigrants had settled on the Lower East Side for Avenue B to referred to as “Czech Boulevard.”

In the late 1890s as Lower East Side Germans migrated north to Yorkville (and particularly following the
General Slocum Disaster in 1904), other Central European groups slowly followed. A new face of Yorkville emerged, with the area around 86th Street home to a strong German population, 79th Street home to the Hungarians, and 72nd Street the center of Czech and Slovak community life.

The golden age of the Czechs and Slovaks in Yorkville faded in the 1930s, as more and more moved to the suburbs. Even as late as the 1990s, a number of Czech bars, restaurants and shops could be found along First Avenue between 73rd and 74th Street, but little has survived. What remains, however, are a number of monumental buildings well worth a look .

Start at the southern edge of Slavic Yorkville, at the Slovak Catholic
Church of St. John Nepomucene (#1., 411 East 66th Street at First Avenue). The parish was founded by Slovak immigrants, and began at St. Bridget on Tompkins Square Park around 1891. By 1895, the parish had raised enough funds to build its own church, St. John Nepomucene on East 4th Street.

As the Slovak community moved northward in Manhattan, the parish moved to East 57th Street briefly, and settled into its current home on East 66th Street in 1925.

Nearby is one of the few remaining Czech or Slovak owned businesses the area,
Krtil Funeral Home (#2, 1270 First Avenue at 70th Street), opened in 1885.

Around the corner is the landmark building,
Sokol New York Hall (#3., 420 East 71st Street between First Avenue and York). Built in 1896 by architect Julius Franke (who also designed the building that was later the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911), the building continues today to serve as an athletic club, with a full schedule of classes as well as cultural events and a library and archive.

Back on First Avenue, a few blocks north and around the corner is
Jan Hus Presbyterian Church (#4., 347 East 74th Street between First and Second Avenues), founded in 1885 by Czech Protestants. The church is home to the Neighborhood House, formerly a social center for local Czechs and today a social center for the entire neighborhood, Czech or otherwise.

Perhaps the most significant building remaining in the area – and a beacon for the future of Czech and Slovak Yorkville – is the
Bohemian National Hall (#5., 321 East 73rd Street between First and Second Avenues), currently being renovated and completely disguised by scaffolding.


The hall was built between 1895 and 1897 as ground zero for Czech and Slovak community life in Yorkville. Designed by architect William C. Frohne, the building replaced the original Bohemian National Hall in the East Village, at 533 East 5th Street. (Not much is known about Frohne, but he did design the spectacular German Shooting Club at 12 St. Mark’s Place in 1888). Though the building remained in Czech hands, as the community began its exodus to the suburbs more and more of it was rented out to others and by 1986 the city had declared it unfit for occupancy.

The Czech government stepped in to rescue the building, and results are already being seen. The fa├žade has already been completed (though is currently hidden under scaffolding), by Czech-American architect Jan Hird Pokorny. The third floor performance space is also completed, and is periodically used for events (watch the Czech Center website for announcements). More renovations are underway by another Czech-American architect, Martin Holub.

When complete, the Bohemian National Hall will be home to the Consulate General of the Czech Republic, the Czech Center and the Bohemian Benevolent & Literary Association, as well as a Dvorak Room, a restaurant and performance and events spaces.

The tour of Yorkville essentially ends here, though there are a few other places nearby that could be included: the Czech furniture design shop
Atelier of Prague (970 Lexington Avenue between 70th and 71st Street) is just on the western edge of the old neighborhood, and the current center of Czech life in Manhattan, the Czech Center (1109 Madison Avenue at 83rd Street) is a short walk to the northwest.

Any Czech tour of New York, however, must end across the river from Yorkville, in Astoria at the landmark beer hall and community center
Bohemian Hall (29-19 24th Avenue). As the Czech and Slovak community began migrating from Yorkville to the suburbs, Astoria was the first stop thanks to the ferry that used to run from a pier at East 72nd Street across to another at the end of Astoria Boulevard before the Queensboro bridge went up. Today, you have to take a taxi or a bus or subway, but it’s a perfect end to a day exploring Czech and Slovak New York City.

2 comments:

otillie said...

I lived as a child in Yorkville at-I think 317 East 75th ST. It was on the North side of the street. The last time I explored the old neighborhood--sometime in the 60s--the building was gone--instead there was a firehose--I think named after Bobby KENNEDY. I remember there was a furniture factory in the middle of the block across from our apt. bldg. The
apt bldg, was a 5 story walk-up.
Te time I lived there was aprox between 1934 to 1937 or 38. I remember eating at the Bohemian HALL ON 74TH AS WELL AS PARTICIPATING IN CULTURAL EVENTS AND PARAdes--there was a movie house across the street from the
Bohemian Hall-- where I remember going with my mother. I used to walk from my home on 75th alomg 1st Avenue to go to school at Our Lady of Perpetual Help on 60th street? When we made our First Holy Communion--we said all our prayers both in Czech and English.

Another thing I remember is a
costume establishment--I THINK ON
the corner of First and 75th Street--I think the NE corner--It was owned by a friend of my mother's whose name was Bertha. I know so very little about my Czech family and its background-- since it kind of fell apart when my
mother was hospitalized & I was much younger than my brother or sister. They are very closed mouth & don"t want to talk about "those days". Subsequently, my brother has died & leaving my sister who still remains mum! This has been a wonderful opportunity for me to reconnect with my roots which I want very much to explore more deeply so that I may pass on this extremely rich heritage to my children. My son, Stephen, who turns 50 next week has decided he wants to go to New York to celebrate this marker in his life,by finding out more of his heritage by spending his birthday with his Brazilian wife--visiting & exploring the old Czech neighborhood where I grew up as a child & perhaps have a good Czech dinner or two. I feel this is a tribute indirectly to me and what I tried to impart to him of his Czech background as well as his feeling it is equally important to be a part of this proud & thriving culture. I would welcome any comments you may wish to make to perhaps continue this dialog. My e-mail address is -- otillie@q.com

Patrick Fergus said...

Great comments. I am still in NYC and grew up in the 80s. It has changed quite a bit since the 60s! I took the new 2 Ave subway and thought of the Czech Parades on 72 that I saw pictures of.