Years ago, cities and towns in Europe had Jewish quarters. Most were finitely defined. When the east European Jewish immigrants began coming to the United States en masse, Jewish quarters sprung up in cities along the eastern seaboard. Some were loosely defined, others more precisely. In the early years of Jewish mass immigration, a fairly sizeable Jewish quarter was established in a well-defined area of old Philadelphia, today known as Society Hill and Queen Village. In The Presbyterian, a weekly journal published in Philadelphia in 1889 for the Presbyterian community, the editor wrote: “In Philadelphia we are likely to have a Jewish section, where emigrants from Eastern Europe will congregate. From Fifth Street to the Delaware River and south of Lombard Street these foreign Jews are crowding in, and being very poor, the Hebrew Charities are drawn upon heavily.”1 The Jewish press saw a more confined and a smaller quarter, extending from Spruce Street in the north to Christian Street in the South and from 3rd Street to 6th Street east to west. Within this narrow rectangle, bearded Yiddish-speaking men and their large families settled. This was at a time when sweatshops were moving south from Kensington to Northern Liberties and then south of Market Street to Bank and Strawberry Streets. At this time, German-Jewish wholesale clothiers, like Snellenberg’s, had their businesses on N. 3rd Street between Market and Arch streets. Many of these buildings stand today.2
When immigrant steamers from Liverpool would arrive, trains of the Pennsylvania Railroad backed down onto the piers of the American Line to whisk away immigrants on their journeys to Chicago and places in the West. However, a sizeable number of Russian-Jewish immigrants stayed in Philadelphia and settled in the Jewish quarter. Many concentrated around the eastern end of South Street for three primary reasons: the rent was cheap, housing was near the sweatshops and the neighborhood was near the Emigrant Depot at the foot of Washington Avenue and the Delaware River. Prior to 1900, hardly any Jews lived south of Washington Avenue. The Jewish Quarter of Philadelphia was hemmed in by the Poles and the Irish to the east, by African Americans to the west and Italians to the southwest and, to the south, by the Irish. Crossing well defined boundaries was dangerous for the immigrants. Within this narrowly defined area, a new life sprang up. Curbside and pushcart markets were established; teams of horses flying over cobblestone streets made daily runs to the Dock Street wholesale market. Seen on the pavement of the new S. 4th Street pavement market were pickle barrels and union enforcers, dreamers and paupers, curbside bookies and curbside elections, saloons, pool halls and feed stores—and in the middle of all this excitement were the synagogues, dozens of them.
Central to the new immigrant neighborhood was South Street, called “the great Street for Polish Jews and huckstering of every variety.” Some writers called it the Russian quarter because so many of the newcomers were from the Imperial Russian Empire.3 In 1887, the Public Ledger wrote: “On South Street many “neat” stores have been built and indications point to the further improvement of that old down-town avenue of retail trade.” Dock Street, the wholesale food market of its day, “is not a handsome street; it is old, full of crude commercial bustle in the hours of the day, and after night fall or in the early hours of the night until the nocturnal preparations for the next day begin, it is almost wholly deserted.”4 The first Yiddish theatre was in the center of the quarter, located at the corner of 5th & Gaskill Streets. It was here that the greatest actors of the Yiddish theatre performed, Jacob Adler and Boris Thomashevsky.5 And it was here, in the late 1880s on the little stage lit by candle light, that real horses were used in the tragedies and comedies of that era. In the 1890s, the S. 4th Street vegetable and meat market was started on the sidewalks; it eventually grew into the fabled S. 4th Street pushcart market, still remembered till this day.
Most of the immigrants worked in the nearby sweatshops or in the markets. Markets were located in the shambles along S. 2nd Street, the Washington Market along Bainbridge Street from 3rd to 5th Streets and in the 4th Street pushcart market. Sweatshops in the quarter numbered over one hundred. On the 300 block of Lombard Street alone there were five sweatshops. In 1895, men in these shops were paid $6.00 per week for working 58 hours and women, for the same work and hours, were paid $3.00 a week and sometimes as little as $1.80.
After 1900, Jews moved south across Washington Avenue and within just a few years they lived in great numbers south of Washington Avenue and east of Broad Street. Many Jews in the clothing trade prospered during the 1920s and moved to West Philadelphia and Strawberry Mansion. After Congress cut off immigration from Eastern Europe in 1924, the old Jewish quarter began to die out. Although its demise was slowed, first by the Depression and then by the effects of World War II, outward movement from the quarter accelerated after the war ended. Today, there are four synagogues remaining from the original Jewish quarter. Two buildings built as synagogues—B’nai Abraham, 527 Lombard Street (built in 1910), and B’nai Rueben, 6th & Kater Streets (built in 1905 but used for commercial purposes since 1956)—survive. Today, the twin religious houses of Mother Bethel Church (built in 1889) and Congregation B’nai Abraham stand proudly together at the corner of 6th & Lombard streets—and have stood together since 1910.