Davenport’s Gold Coast

Hamburg Historic District, Davenport, Iowa

Almost every town has them: The “right” and “wrong” sides of the tracks. Neighborhood reputations can shift from one generation to the next, but generally, the boundaries between the haves and have-nots are pretty easy to spot.

In Davenport in the 1850s, the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroads lay tracks five blocks north of the Mississippi River, along Fifth Street, where the land’s gentle rise from the river begins a much more dramatic slope. The tracks divided the city’s poorer German immigrants, who settled down by the docks, from their wealthier German neighbors in the fancy mansions uphill.

“The more elaborate residences begin as soon as the hills do,” according to the application that got the hillside Hamburg Historic District added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. The 24-block area was nicknamed little “Hamburg,” for its German roots, and also the “Gold Coast,” for obvious reasons.

Neatly framed by Fifth and Ninth and Ripley and Vine, the Hamburg Historic District is Davenport’s version of San Francisco’s famous Pacific Heights neighborhood, where “painted ladies” march shoulder to shoulder right up the hill. Most of the Hamburg houses were built in the decades right before and after the turn of the 20th century, and they reflect all the gingerbread styles of the time: Victorian homes in elaborate Gothic, Second Empire, Italianate and Queen Anne variations, plus a few 20th century Georgian Revival and Craftsman examples mixed in, too. The well preserved neighborhood is a showcase of architectural history and, more than that, a testament to the Iowa’s immigrant experience.

Germans began settling in Davenport in 1848, and their numbers swelled to nearly 3,000 over the next 10 years. That was about 20 percent of the city’s population at the time.

Their Old World countrymen continued to arrive through the early 1900s, and the city earned a reputation as a German town — politically, socially and culturally. The city published two lively German-language newspapers. There were German churches. There were gymnastics clubs for the so-called Turners, a popular pastime for both men and women.

And, of course, there were plenty of beer halls, where the era’s Prohibitionists found particularly vocal opponents, including one mother who was horrified to learn that her son hadn’t been able to afford any beer during his first semester at college. The late Dorothy Schwieder wrote in “Iowa: The Middle Land” that as soon as the young man returned home on his first break, his mom “ran into the kitchen and brought out a bucket of beer and a steaming dinner of sausage and sauerkraut.”

Back in Europe, Germans regarded the Sabbath as a day of rest or recreation best spent bowling or trap shooting or listening to live music in a beer garden. But the “Continental Sunday” — as it was called before the modern “Sunday Funday” — didn’t sit well with the “Puritan Sunday” that German-Americans experienced in their new home.

The Hamburg neighborhood lay low amid the anti-German sentiment during World War I, when German measles became “liberty measles” and sauerkraut turned into “liberty cabbage.” Gov. William Harding issued a proclamation banning the use of any foreign language in a public space, much to dismay of Davenport’s German-American pastors and congregants, who had been worshipping in German for decades.

Anti-German sentiment faded after the war, but the Hamburg neighborhood inevitably began to diversify. Second- and third-generation descendants didn’t have the same language and cultural ties to the homeland as their immigrant grandparents did, and more non-Germans moved up the hill to the “right” side of the tracks.

But even a century later, the neighborhood still offers remarkable clues to the past for anyone who is willing to look. Guided tours of the area are part of this year’s Preserve Iowa Summit, scheduled for Sept. 15–17. The Hamburg — and its ghosts — say “Willkommen.” Come one, come all.

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