Old Czech New York – a guided tour
A century ago the Czech community in New York was centred around the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Indeed, an estimated 40,000 Czechs lived in the area known as Yorkville. Ed Chlanda’s family were members of that community and the 80-year-old kindly gave me a tour of the neighbourhood, taking in a former Czech bank, the street where he grew up, the Jan Hus church and the Bohemian National Hall. But we started at the New York Sokol on East 71st St., where Chlanda is an active member. Surrounded by photos, medals and other memorabilia in the Sokol library, he gave me a flavour of the district back in the day.
Would you typically have heard Czech spoken on the streets?
“Yes, you would. My father never really had to learn English to any great extent, because he lived here.
“He could buy a beer, buy bread and buy his groceries, always in Czech.”
Was he born here?
“No, he was born in Prague. They came here in 1932.
“They arrived on the Isle de France on one-way tickets.
“And when they arrived here in New York and saw the dirty streets and the kids running wild they said, We made a mistake – let’s go back.
“As a matter of fact, 25 percent of immigrants did go back.”
I was reading that this wasn’t the first Czech neighbourhood in New York and that previously Czechs lived somewhere downtown. Is that right?
“Yes, absolutely. Down on East 5th St. That’s where the Czech settlement originally was. It was also a Polish and a German neighbourhood.
“They had jobs, they had work there. However, the cigar factories moved from the Lower East Side to the 70s, to Yorkville.”
What were the Czechs doing making cigars? What’s the connection?
“My father never really had to learn English to any great extent, because he lived here.”
“Well, Kutná Hora, where many of the original members of this Sokol unit came from, was a cigar-making town at the time.
“So they had the skills. Until the cigarette machine killed the business, cigar-making required people to wrap the cigars.
“It was piece work, it was something that they were familiar with. Or their cousin knew it and they could learn it quickly enough.
“They even took it home, so you would have families making cigars, at whatever piece rate it was.
“It was not a great way to make a living.
“Jacob Riis, a Scandinavian-American journalist, wrote a book called How the Other Half Lives and one chapter is devoted to the Bohemians here and how hard-working they were, to make cigars and do all these things, and then to have a good time on the weekend.
“Music was an essential part of that and organisations like Sokol and the Bohemian National Hall were central locations where they gathered together.
When this Sokol opened in the 1890s it wouldn’t, I presume, have been dedicated only to sports?
“No, certainly not.
“The Sokol 150 years ago, in 1867, opened up on the Lower East Side. And they stayed there until 1896, when this building was built.
“That’s because the jobs moved here and the Czech immigrants moved here.
“So this Sokol was built in 1896, long after the 1867 start of Sokol.
“It was not just sports.
“Actually, they had a big library here – and you can see that the remnants still exist today.
“It was a lending library as well, so you could borrow Tom Sawyer and other books in Czech. The Count of Monte Cristo we had in Czech.
“They also gave English lessons and such. And they put on plays. Plays were performed here on the stage downstairs – wonderful plays and musicals.”
In the lead-up to 1918 and independence for Czechoslovakia did the Sokol here play any role in that, or get involved in any way?
“Down on East 5th St. is where the Czech settlement originally was. However, the cigar factories moved from the Lower East Side to the 70s, to Yorkville.”
“Oh yes. You have to see the plaques downstairs.
“You’ll see that in World War I – which they called the Great War at the time; they didn’t realise there was going to be a sequel – they had many volunteers to the Czechoslovak army.
“Then when war was declared by the United States more than 70 members of Sokol New York marched down to the recruiting station.
“All of them passed the physical exam because they were all gymnasts and well trained.
“However, a number of them were declined because they were too old [laughs].”
Near us here there is a bust of Masaryk. Would he have ever come here to the Sokol?
“Masaryk may have come here, because he did speak in 1918 at Carnegie Hall.
“The Sokols all marched there. They would march from here and they would pick up another contingent from the Slovak Sokol and from the D.A. [Dělnický Americký] Sokol and they all marched together. And also the Croatian Sokol and the Polish Falcons.
“They would all march together to Carnegie Hall to listen to this professor speak about democracy and hopes for democracy in the Austrian-Hungarian empire that they were all oppressed by.”
Wasn’t there some connection between the Sokol here and the Czechoslovak flag?
“So they needed a different flag. The red and white flag was a traditional Slavic flag in many Slavic countries and they wanted to make it more representative of the new nation, Czechoslovakia.
“Knedlhans added a blue triangle for the blue skies of Slovakia.
“That blue triangle stretched one third of the width of the flag – and that is what you will see in the pictures of the march to Carnegie Hall.
“However, the government later on, in the 1920s, had a competition and they wound up with basically the same flag, but instead of a third of the width for the blue triangle it became half the width.
“So I would say that the inspiration for the Czech flag, and the former flag of Czechoslovakia, came from this library here, by Josef Knedlhans.”
From the street where Sokol stands Chlanda takes me onto the relatively busy 1st Avenue. After a block or two we come to a halt opposite a gleaming skyscraper located at 1355 1st Avenue. In the early part of the last century members of the Czech community had their accounts at a bank on that very spot.
“This is Northeast Community Bank. It used to be the Fourth Federal Savings and Loans, or Fourth Federal Bank.
“It was owned by a Czech family and Northeast still is today, as its primary shareholders.
“The inspiration for the Czech flag, and the former flag of Czechoslovakia, came from this library here, by Josef Knedlhans.”
“It used to be a low-rise building and all the Czechs would keep their money there in savings accounts and such. And Sokol, of course, would have their money there.
“It used to be a four-storey building, but if you look at it today you can see that it’s a 30- or 40-storey building, because real estate in Manhattan tends to go vertical.”
And the bank’s business would have been conducted in the Czech language?
“The bank manager spoke Czech for years and years and years.
“So it was easy for Czechs to go there, open their account and transact their business all in Czech with the manager, or with some of the tellers too.”
Around when are we talking about?
“The 1930s, the 1940s. This is when the area had 40,000 Czechs and Czech was spoken on the streets.
“This restaurant over here was a Czech restaurant. There were four or five Czech restaurants around here. Now there’s only one – in the Bohemian National Hall.
“There was Ruč on 72nd St., Vasata and Praha – where they served Pilsner Urquell on draught. Not the same price as in Prague, but they still served it.
“Now they’re all gone, all those nice restaurants are gone. And so is the cholesterol.”
“This is a typical tenement building. One of the ones along here is where I lived as a kid.
“You can see the fire escapes. They were walkup apartments – no elevators.”
In those days would many tenants in you building have been Czech?
“Most of them would be Czech.
“They would be railroad flats. Railroad flats means you have an entry in one room and then you go from one room to the next room to the next room.
“There was a new law in 1911 and they had these air ways built between the buildings, so you would get some air shafts.”
Would this have been considered a nice area when you were a child?
“No [laughs]. These were tenement houses for immigrants that were working in various occupations.
“My dad was a house painter, six months of the year. My mom worked as a cleaning lady and that’s how she put me through school.
“There wasn’t a lot of money. It was probably low-income.
“We always thought of ourselves as middle class, but obviously we were low-income.”
What kind of things would your neighbours have done?
“My doctor was Czech. There was a Czech lawyer in the neighbourhood here whose clients could deal with him in Czech.”
“They worked in factories or restaurants – basically semi-skilled jobs.
“There would a Czech lawyer, a Czech doctor.
“My doctor was Czech. There was a Czech lawyer in the neighbourhood here whose clients could deal with him in Czech.
“It was a Czech ghetto.
“Now ghetto has funny connotations, but it actually works for immigrants.
“Because they don’t have to learn a new language, it ameliorates or reduces the culture shock, so they can buy bakery goods or foods or beer at the tavern, all in Czech.”
I guess some of the more long-established Czech migrants would have helped out the newcomers, giving them work or whatever?
“Yes. My father worked for Joe Jarebek. And my father was reluctant to learn English.
“Decades later Joe Jarebek became my stepfather when my father had died and my mother eventually remarried.
“It didn’t work [laughs].
“So this is the old neighbourhood. Walkup railroads apartments, not air-conditioned, hot and sweltering in the summer time, cold and draughty in the winter.”
From his old street Ed Chlanda and I stroll to the nearby Bohemian National Hall, which was the centre of the community a century ago. Today it plays a similar, if more official, role, housing a number of Czech organisations after highly impressive renovations. Chlanda gives me a potted history on the street outside.
“The Bohemian National Hall was built in 1896, the same time as Sokol.
“Sokol originally had plans to occupy one of the floors but they realised they needed more floor space for the gymnasium, so they built their own building around the same time.
“They both went up very quickly.
“The Bohemian National Hall was all built by donations from Czech immigrants.
“There were about 40 Czech and Slovak societies that were members of the Bohemian National Hall, or members of the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association, which built the building.”
What kind of associations?
“They had all sorts of associations, including a Czechoslovak Karl Marx Club, but they don’t like to stress that any more [laughs].
“There was Sokol New York, for example.
“They had all sorts of associations, including a Czechoslovak Karl Marx Club, but they don’t like to stress that any more [laughs].
“So there were about 40 associations. Song groups, choral groups, all sorts of groups that formed the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association.”
What’s your own family’s connection with this place?
“Oh, my mother would dance the polka here, my dad would drink beer here.”
I was reading that the Bohemian National Hall suffered during prohibition, because their earnings declined.
“I’m sure there would be ways around that.
“There was bathtub gin in those years and bathtub beer in those years and I’m sure there was a fair amount to drink in the Bohemian National Hall and all of Yorkville.”
I know the building now looks amazing, but there was a period when it was in decline. In those years, what was happening here?
“As a widow of 10 or 20 years, my mom would come here to Yorkville to go to dances and to meet with other Czech people.
“I’m sure they were held here, so there were probably dances here.
“But beyond that it was in disrepair, so they couldn’t do much.”
“You have two schools of thought.
“I’m very pleased with it. It’s a modernisation of the building.
“The shooting gallery downstairs is no longer. The grand staircase is no longer – instead you have an elevator to the fourth floor ballroom.”
Did you ever use the shooting gallery?
“I never had a chance to use the shooting gallery. I wish it would reopen.”
One street north on East 74th St. is another remnant of the old Czech neighbourhood, the red brick Jan Hus Church. Being Roman Catholic, Ed Chlanda’s family attended a different house of worship in the area.
“The Jan Hus Church is a Presbyterian church and many Czechs went here as their church.
“The other church would be Our Lady of Perpetual Help, down on 61st St., which has now been demolished. That was a Catholic church.
“There was also a Slovak church – another Catholic church – on 68th St..”
Were you family regular attendees at the Catholic Church?
“Yes, my mom attended the Catholic Church. My dad was not such a church-goer.
“I was baptised at our Lady of Perpetual Help and continued going to Catholic churches as a teen.”
Were the services conducted in Czech?
“Some were. Later on in the ‘50s they weren’t, but some were at that time, yes.”
While my guide and I are chatting outside who should come along but the pastor of the Jan Hus Church, who tells us her name is Beverly Dempsey. She very nicely invites us on a tour of the church, which consists of the original sanctuary building, completed in the late 1880s, and the later neighbourhood house. In all his years, Ed Chlanda has never previously been inside and clearly enjoyed it when Pastor Dempsey showed us around.
“What’s interesting about this sanctuary is that it still contains a lot of features that have never been touched, like the Czech pipes, which were hand-painted, some of the radiator covers.
“This sanctuary still contains a lot of features that have never been touched, like the Czech pipes, which were hand-painted”
“And you will see throughout the building a lot of folk painting by people who came in the late 1800s.
“There’s a congressman, and I cannot remember his name, from Long Island and he recently wrote a letter saying that his grandfather was the artist who actually painted a lot of the furniture and the pieces here.
“So he’s coming back to look at them and maybe put them in some kind of a place to keep them preserved.”
Also I see at the front of the church a chalice, the symbol of Hus.
“And we have this piece of furniture that [the congressman’s] grandfather painted in the 1800s.
“We have many, many things like this and we’re actually in the process of figuring out what to do with it all, because it will not be able to be with us forever.”