Posts Tagged ‘Czech Neighborhood Upper East Side’

5 remnants of the old Czech neighborhood on the Upper East Side

April 19, 2021

It’s been decades since Czech could routinely be heard on the streets. Restaurants like Praha and Vasata, heavy on the goose, duck, pork, and dumplings, are long defunct.

The Little Slovakia bar has vanished, and markets, bakeries, relief organizations, and travel agencies catering to Czech and Slovak immigrants closed their doors long ago.

Yet traces do exist of the former Czech neighborhood centered on East 72nd Street between First and Second Avenues. Created after waves of immigration in the late 19th century and then again in the 1940s, Little Czechoslovak once had a population of 40,000—with many finding work in local breweries (alongside their German neighbors in Yorkville) and cigar factories in the east 70s.

One of the oldest remnants stands on East 71st Street near First Avenue. This beige brick Renaissance-style structure opened in 1896, and its name is still carved into the facade: Cech Gymnastic Association. (Interesting side note: The architect is the same man who designed the building that housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on Washington Place.)

The Gymnastic Association, or Sokol Hall, was an elegant community center. “Old photographs show a space full of gymnastic equipment, ringed by a great oak gallery and painted like a European concert hall—marbleized columns and elaborate stencil and decorative work on the walls,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 1989.

“The hall was a centerpiece for the Czech community in New York, offering dinners, theatrical events, concerts, bazaars and a comfortable social club.” Sokol Hall still operates as a gym, though the restaurant (see the sign above in a photo from 1940) seem to have vanished.

All of New York’s former ethnic neighborhoods had their own funeral parlors, and Little Czech is no exception. John Krtil got its start in 1885, and it’s the only one that remains, on First Avenue at East 70th Street.

Immigrant enclaves always built churches. St. John Nepomucene Church is one that survives; it’s a stunningly beautiful Catholic church at First Avenue and East 66th Street. The parish was founded by Slovak immigrants in the East Village before relocating here in 1925, according to Slavs of New York.

Inside St. John’s recently, I met a parishioner who’d been going to this church since he was a child and recalled the huge congregation and holiday parties in the basement.

I’d passed the Jan Hus Presbyterian Church many times over the years and was eager to include it here. Completed in 1888, this Gothic Revival church on East 74th Street off First Avenue was one of the earliest houses of worship to serve the Bohemian community.

What a surprise to find it impossible to view behind heavy scaffolding! The church building was sold to the Church of the Epiphany, which is doing a heavy renovation. Jan Hus Church will be moving to 90th Street and First Avenue. (The photo above was shot before the building went into hiding; it’s from the Historic Districts Council.)

“The [Jan Hus] Church design evokes the streetscape of Prague with its distinctive Romanesque and Gothic Revival details, including a tower said to recall the entrance to Charles Bridge, which was added in 1915 as part of the expansion,” wrote Majda Kallab Whitaker, in a thoughtful farewell on the website for the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association.

Luckily Bohemia National Hall is still with us. Completed in 1896, this stunning five-story building on East 73rd Street could be described as the heart of the neighborhood. “Since its beginning it has served as a focal point for its community, offering ethnic food, Czech language and history classes as well as space for its large community to meet and hold various events,” the Hall’s website states.

With its lion heads on the facade and beautiful arched upper windows, the Hall serves a new purpose these days. Owned by the Czech Republic since 2001, it’s the headquarters of the Czech consulate, according to the New York Times. It’s also the site of a restaurant, Bohemian Spirit, that serves the kind of Czech and Slovak food once dished out in the small cafes and eateries in the neighborhood,

[Third photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; seventh photo: Six to Celebrate/Historic Districts Council]