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.
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 façade 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.