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.”
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.
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.