Nisha Agarwal, New York City’s new Commissioner for Immigrant Affairs, comes to the museum to talk about her goals to support the millions of immigrants in the city. Agarwal will be interviewed by Kirk Semple, New York Times immigration reporter.  

This event is free and seats are first-come, first-serve. Doors will open at 6 pm. Contact Laura Lee at or 212.431.0233 ext. 259 with questions.

This cartoon from 1912 titled “New York under the Dog-Star” gives us a peek at summer time spent in heavy wool dresses and suits. Photo courtesy of the NYPL.

This much jollier scene shows children on the Lower East Side enjoying ice on a less brutal summer day in 1912. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

A portrait of Bone Alley from the 1896. This former notorious slum on the Lower East Side was in the heart of the worst suffering. Photo courtesy of NYPL

Theodore Roosevelt as a young police commissioner. Roosevelt kept a cool head in the crisis and was one of the only officials to attend to the victims. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

You have to be pretty diligent to see the remains of Kleindeutschland in the Lower East Side today.  Kleindeutschland was once a thriving community, and while most discussions of Manhattan real-estate don’t mention it, the General Slocum Disaster made as dramatic an impact on the Lower East Side as, for instance, the High Line is making to the Meatpacking district.

The early waves of German immigrants were for the most part welcomed to the Lower East Side as they were seen as a ‘clean teutonic’ people. This woodcut from a 1874 issue of Harper’s shows a boat departing Hamburg for New York. Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress.

The General Slocum disaster was the single deadliest in New York prior to the 9/11 attacks.  The event is named after the steamboat S.S. General Slocum which launched on June 15, 1904 carrying mostly women and children from St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on 6th street to the North Shore of Long Island for a summer outing.

Records suggest that about 1,350 people would have been on the Slocum, including crew. The boat was steaming up the East River towards Long Island when it caught fire. It had gone only about as far as 97th Street. The boat was made mostly of wood: white oak, locust and yellow pine. More than a thousand people died as the ship burned from the deck down to the water line in less than 15 minutes.

Though a fire inspector had recently deemed the vessel safe, the hoses on board were rotten and burst when the crew attempted to use them. What life preservers were onboard also turned out to be rotten and utterly useless. Few of the passengers knew how to swim and most likely the fashions of the time did little to aid their efforts.

The fire is thought to have been started accidentally but controversy persists as to whether the Captain could have brought the ship to shore sooner, thereby saving more passengers. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The outing had been chartered by the St. Mark’s church for $350, which today would be close to $9,000. This number means nothing in the face of the lives which were lost, but this can help us understand how economically stable and unified the community once was. Kleindeutschland, home to 150,000 people of German descent, was at one time the third largest “German city” in the world after Berlin and Vienna.  With a thousand people lost, few families in this close community escaped the tragedy.  Funerals went on for several weeks after the tragedy, so many funerals occurred that for a time, there was said to be a funeral every four minutes.

The dock at E. 26th Street was made into a temporary morgue to accommodate the 1000 casualties, some of whom were never identified. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The community was so unilaterally affected that depression became endemic in the survivors, mostly men, fathers, brothers, and uncles who had been at working at the time of the excursion.  In the wake of the disaster, there were several suicides and many residents moved away from the Lower East Side to distance themselves from a neighborhood which was so infected by grief.  The disaster became a very emotional push factor for what at first seemed a thriving community. In reality there were a few other contributing factors to the dissolution of Kleindeutschland. By the late 1880s some of the second generation of German immigrants, with their greater command of English, were beginning to settle in other neighborhoods and cities. This period also saw the beginning of a marked increase in Jewish and Italians immigrants, who actually began moving to this neighborhood shortly before the Slocum disaster.

As Immigrant communities often provide support and comfort for countrymen outside of their homeland, it is hard for us today to imagine a disaster disturbing enough to undermine the reassurances of shared language and custom. German speaking communities did gather again in other parts of the city, and of course in other states, but Kleindeutschland became a thing of the past.

It is interesting to consider how strong the German community might have remained in the Lower East Side had it not been for this disaster. Here children of German descent practice a German dance in a N.Y. public school. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

According to the Huffington Post, Tokyo is the cleanest city in the world; New York City is ranked an unimpressive 28th, but this is not for lack of trying. The removal of garbage and refuse in New York City is a near-Herculean undertaking in a time with garbage trucks and recycling plants – imagine what it was like at the turn of the century!

Garbage in Manhattan, 1927. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

New York’s Department of Sanitation is the world’s biggest, collecting 10,500 tons of residential and institutional refuse and 1,760 tons of recyclables a day (private garbage companies haul away another 13,000 tons a day). The Department of Sanitation is comprised of 7,197 uniformed sanitation workers and supervisors as well as 2,048 civilian workers, who operate a fleet of 2,230 collection trucks, 450 mechanical street sweepers, 275 specialized collection trucks, 365 salt/sand spreaders, 298 front end loaders, and 2,360 various other support vehicles. All of these people and machines work together to keep New York as trash-free as possible. Of course, this is with over 120 years of practice! Things could get a little fragrant before the Department of Sanitation, originally called the Department of Street Cleaning, was formed.

A pile of garbage on Mulberry St. Image courtesy the New York Public Library.

Before regular street cleaning and garbage removal, residents of working-class neighborhoods like the Lower East Side were supposed to put their garbage in garbage-boxes set in front of the tenement building, which could prove difficult as these boxes frequently weren’t there! Even when they were present, the boxes were not big enough or removed frequently enough to keep the street clean. In 1863, the New York Tribunereported that garbage boxes were little more than piles of “heterogeneous filth…forming one festering, rotting, loathsome, hellish mass of air poisoning, death-breeding filth, reeking on the fierce sunshine.” Sounds nice.

For decades, household refuse and rotting animal carcasses remained piled in the streets of the city. Not only was this extremely unpleasant, but it was also deadly. According to anthropologist Robin Nagle, “A study done in 1851 concluded that fully a third of the city’s deaths that year could have been prevented if basic sanitary measures had been in place.”

Piles of garbage at Essex and Hester Streets during a Sanitation workers strike, 1911. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

This is not to say that people didn’t make any effort to keep the city clean; for much of the 19th century, street cleaning in New York was conducted by private carting operations who were awarded contracts by the municipal government. Not surprisingly, such a system encouraged political graft and corruption and ultimately proved ineffective. Wealthy neighborhoods could afford to continue with private street sweepers, but many working-class neighborhoods could not, and the garbage piled up again.

Beginning in 1866, the Metropolitan Board of Health assumed authority over street cleaning – the responsibility shifted to the Metropolitan Board of Police in 1872. Finally, in 1881, the Department of Street Cleaning was created with the specific purpose to clean up New York.

A street sweeper with his handcart in 1896. Image courtesy the New York Public Library.

Effective street-cleaning, however, did not arrive until the appointment of George Waring to direct the department in 1895. In that year, Waring, a Civil War veteran, “reorganized the department along military lines, minimized political influence in employing workers, stressed sweeping by hand rather than with machines, and dressed street sweepers in white duck uniforms, earning them the nickname of ‘white wings.’”

Street cleaners got the nickname “White Wings” from their crisp white uniforms.

While Waring’s leadership style often clashed with unions and even some of his own workers, his strategy proved very effective, and under his leadership, the Department of Street Cleaning cleared the streets of shin-deep animal, human, and who knows what else waste.

A page from a 1920 NYC guidebook shows the improvements that Waring made to the fleet of street sweepers. Image courtesy the New York Public Library.

As you can imagine, New Yorkers were rather grateful – in 1896, they threw a parade for the Sanitation workers.

The funny thing about much of New York’s infrastructure is that when it’s working perfectly, it’s mostly unnoticeable. But let’s all take a moment to thank the Department of Sanitation from saving us from the “festering, rotting, loathsome, hellish mass” of the past.

- Posted by Lib Tietjen and Dave Favaloro