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On the Streets of Manhattan: Tracing German Footsteps

Goethe-InstitutCopyright: Goethe-Institut
Mobile guideposts: Taking the smartphone to Kleindeutschland

17 February 2012

In New York there is a brand new way to explore the city. Using a smartphone, you can visit sites of long-forgotten German-American history. At the same time, the German Traces project also reveals how the future of an old profession may soon look. By Nele Husmann

Subway number 7 rattles regularly through the tunnel leading under the East River in New York between Queens and Manhattan. Yet hardly any of the “straphangers,” as New York’s subway passengers self-deprecatingly call themselves, know that they are travelling through the historic Steinway Tunnel, not to mention that New York has a German to thank for this undercrossing. Originally, the German piano manufacturer Steinway had the tunnel built to transport his pianos from the production hall in Queens to the harbour in Manhattan. When the plan failed, he sold the tunnel to the city of New York.

If it were up to the Goethe-Institut in New York, then soon more and more people will knowingly trace the footsteps of German immigrants through Manhattan. Recently, they developed a mobile website for smartphones that puts together tours of German relics in the city. One of its highlights is a feature called Augmented Reality, which layers an archival photo from the past over the modern view seen on the smartphone. “We want to make German influences in the city directly visible,” says project leader Brigitte Döllgast, who has worked as head of the library at the Goethe-Institut in New York for five years. For two years, together with the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, she worked on developing the project German Traces, which went online in late 2011.

The German origins of many things in New York have long been forgotten, although about one third of the 400,000 inhabitants of New York were of German origin in 1840. Back then, the only cities with more German-speakers were Vienna and Berlin. In the most recently evaluated census of the year 2000, 15 percent of all Americans claimed to have German roots. As a consequence of the two world wars and the Holocaust in particular, many German immigrants preferred to conceal their origins. Companies like Germania Fire Insurance and the Germania Bank hurried to remove Germany from their names. This might explain why everyone knows the way to Little Italy, but no one knows where Kleindeutschland is. “It took reunification to make public interest in Germany increase and the image of Germany more positive again,” explains Döllgast.

Similar web projects have also been launched in other cities like Chicago and Washington, DC. Döllgast and her helpers went a step further, though, and adapted German Traces to the demands of mobile phone users. “We wanted to bring this project up to the 21st century and make it appealing in particular to a younger target group.” The mobile website offers podcasts and quizzes concerning each of the almost 40 historic German-American sites. Geodata compile a walking tour from a starting point and the duration that users can choose themselves. On site, the augmented reality app Layar lays an historic image over the camera image on the smartphone, making the past even more palpable.

Aschenbroedel Hall is one very special example of German history in New York. A ball was given in honour of the Prince of Wales’s visit to New York. German-American musicians were not invited to play – there were already anti-German resentments in the mid-19th century. Indignant about being excluded, a group of German musicians, led by August Asche, put on their own alternative ball and had the hall built for this purpose. The name is not only a play on the name of the founder, but also on the way Germans felt at the time, like the unloved stepchild Aschenputtel or Cinderella.

The event commemorated by an often overseen monument in Tompkins Square Park of the East Village is of more tragic dimensions. In 1904 the steamship General Slocum sank on the East River. Most of the 1,300 passengers drowned, among them many German children and their mothers. It was the greatest disaster in the history of New York before 11 September 2001.

Pratt Institute students majoring in library science were especially involved in researching each of the sites of German history. The compiled flyers, images, and written materials from archives. “The project became a prime example of what it means to be a librarian today,” says Döllgast, who is now presenting German Traces at various professional conferences. “Today, it’s about the future of our profession. We librarians convey and prepare knowledge from very diverse kinds of media going far beyond books and newspapers.”

The project not only awakens the curiosity of German tourists in New York, but addresses all New Yorkers with an interest in history. The list of sights, which was limited to Manhattan, even led to protests by local Germans from Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, who suggested countless more sights for the mobile website. The suggestions are welcomed. “We hope that local groups will enhance the list of sites,” says Döllgast. In addition, interested people from Philadelphia and Austin have offered to put together tours for their cities for the platform set up by the Goethe-Institut. Döllgast is pleased. “German Traces got a big ball rolling.”
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