Parkside Revisited: The Slifkin Family

42nd and Parkside Avenue, April 26, 1954.

The Brantwood Apartments (4130 Parkside Avenue), October 4, 1945.

To see my original article on the development of Parkside, click here.

During the early 1900s, Parkside-Girard evolved from being an upper-class German and Protestant neighborhood to a middle-class Eastern European Jewish one.   The neighborhood’s first synagogue opened in 1907 at 3940 Girard Avenue.* Many of the Jewish families who purchased the large Victorian twin homes fronting Parkside Avenue, as well as the smaller ones on Viola Street and Memorial Avenue, were originally from the immigrant neighborhoods of Northern Liberties and South Philadelphia. They often owned hat and dressmaking shops. Those in the garment trade described themselves as being in the “schmatte” business, Yiddish for “rag.”

Parkside was definitely an upgrade from stifling, congested old neighborhoods on the other side of the Schuylkill River — the ornate Victorian houses were big and roomy, offering plenty of space for large families, boarders, and servants for those who could afford them.  The verdant lawns and groves of West Fairmount Park offered plenty of green space for picnicking, baseball games, and sledding. For those seeking cultural attractions, the Philadelphia Museum of Art was housed in Memorial Hall, a glass-domed behemoth that was the last surviving major building of the 1876 Centennial Exposition.  Until the museum moved to its new home in Fairmount in 1929, the world-class collection of Old Masters was within walking distance of the stoops of Parkside’s residents.

Then there was the Richard Smith Civil War Memorial, completed in 1912 and adorned with bronze statues of Generals Meade, McClellan, and Hancock. Its twin columns guarded the entrance to West Fairmount Park. Sunday strollers discovered that if they sat on benches on one side of the memorial, they could hear conversations from people on the other side. These seats became known as the “Whispering Benches.”

Memorial Hall, 1960. After the Philadelphia Museum of Art left in 1929, it became a community gymnasium, then a police station. It has recently been renovated as the new home for the "Please Touch" Museum.

Parkside was one of a few comfortable Philadelphia neighborhoods for Eastern European Jews who had transitioned to a more suburban lifestyle. Those who really achieved the American dream migrated from Parkside to Wynnefield, a nearby West Philadelphia neighborhood that boasted Tudor and Georgian houses as grand as those on the Main Line.

One such Jewish immigrant was Jacob Slifkin, who arrived in Philadelphia in 1885 from Dvinsk in modern day Latvia and eventually settled at 900 N. Marshall Street in Northern Liberties.   By the early 1910s, Slifkin had done well enough in the needle trade to purchase a seven bedroom, Flemish Revival home at 1726 Memorial Avenue, located just off Parkside Avenue between 41st and 42nd Streets.  The house was large enough not just to house daughters Anna, Pauline, Ida (and their respective husbands and children), but also Slifkin’s second wife’s parents, a set of live-in servants, and a family of borders.

During the Roaring Twenties, Slifkin invested his earnings from garment making in real estate, purchasing additional properties in West Philadelphia.  The man who had arrived in America with only a few dollars in his pocket was now a well-to-do businessman, the “patriarch” of a big family ensconced in a fine home.  Yet not all was idyllic in Parkside.  One summer evening young Sonny Bernstein, the son of Slifkin’s daughter Pauline, lay tossing and turning his bed, fighting the intense Philadelphia heat.  As he glanced out the window, a luxury car purred up the street and parked near the Slifkin home. Sonny remembered two sharply-dressed gangster types entering the house across the street. Two gunshots sounded, the men ran out, and the car screeched off into the night.

The Great Depression, triggered by the stock market crash of 1929, proved devastating to many of Parkside’s prosperous families. The Slifkins weathered the Great Depression better than most, but by the 1930s Jacob’s children moved out of their father’s house on Memorial Avenue to their own places in Wynnefield.

In the 1990s, Sonny Bernstein would take his grandson Matthew Marcucci to the “whispering benches” of the Smith Civil War Memorial, just as his parents Louis and Pauline Bernstein had before him.

“That might be Parkside’s only real legacy in my family,” Marcucci remembered.

1726 Memorial Avenue (center, with green trim), a c.1900 Flemish Revival house probably designed by architect H.E. Flower for brewer-developer Frederich Poth. During the 1920s, it was the home to three generations of the Slifkin family. Photograph: Steven B. Ujifusa

Eastern European Jewish families like the Slifkins often welcomed a “Landsman” family (Yiddish for a fellow Jew from the same village or province) as boarders in their houses. Sometimes husbands felt like boarders in their own homes. Listen to legendary Jewish entertainer Fyvush Finkel complain about this situation (in Yiddish) in this vintage recording. To listen, click HERE.

*Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia – University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2002), p.117.

**Phone interviews and email correspondence with Matthew Marcucci, June 15-18, 2012.

Special thanks to Matthew Marcucci and members of the Bernstein family for making this article possible.

This entry was posted in Neighborhoods. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

6 Comments

  1. kathleen c glackin
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    Great article, very interesting. Really enjoy this blog!

    • Steven Ujifusa
      Posted June 19, 2012 at 7:26 am | Permalink

      Thank you so much!

  2. Michael Bernstein
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    A beautiful story about my family. I did not know about the gangsters, but I do know that Jacqueline Susan the author also lived on Memorial Ave along with Monsignor Bonner who gave my great grandfather his initial ring with a “B” which was passed down to me. I also was told about a second cellar with a coal shoot that my dad Sonny would used as a sliding board. My dad went to the Leidy School which has a trolley car buried on the school grounds. The Negro league had a baseball field on Belmont Ave which now has a statue and a mural.My dad saw Cool Papa Bell and Satchel Paige play there under the kleig lights.
    There are pictures of my father with his parents on the steps of Memorial Hall sitting on the cannon. He took a picture of me too on that cannon and so did I with my son.

    Thank You,
    MIchael Bernstein

  3. Elise Slifkin-McClur
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    Steve, Thank you for the great article. My grandfather, Robert Slifkin traveled to Philadelphia from Dvinsk, Latvia, on his own, at age 17, in 1893. He arrived to live with his Uncle, Jacob Slifkin, whose story you tell so well in your blog. I, along with other Slifkin cousins have spent many years researching our Latvian roots, and many of our ancestors who came to Philadelphia listed that Marshall St. address as their destination.

  4. Elise Slifkin-McClur
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    My last name got cut off, it is Slifkin-McClure.

  5. Manny Levin
    Posted July 14, 2012 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Thanx for your article ! My Great Grandfather , Avram Aaron Slifkin,was Jacob’s brother. He also came to the US at about the same time, settling in the area near 5th & Girard.

One Trackback

  1. [...] Although the Horatio Alger “rags-to-riches” narrative has firmly wedged itself within the American mythos, Steven Ujifusa shows that in Parkside, it could literally be true, as the Northern Liberties’ Eastern European Jewish clothiers of Marshall Street found their way to Victorian homes west of the … [...]