The Bernsteins Move to Wynnefield

This is a continuation of the story of the Slifkin family, which had settled in Parkside in the early 1900s. 

By the end of the 1920s, many upwardly-mobile Jewish families were leaving Parkside-Girard and moving to the Wynnefield neighborhood, nestled to the south of City Avenue.  Unlike the rambling (and increasingly outdated) Victorian mansions and rowhouses of Parkside, most of Wynnefield’s homes were more compact and easier to maintain. There was also a broad spectrum of housing types, from inexpensive rowhouses to bona fide mansions, such as the one occupied (and modified) by famed Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer.  The newer houses also had rear alleys and garages, a welcome change from increasingly car-congested Parkside, with housing stock that dated from the “horse-and-buggy” era.

Another reason why affluent Jews chose Wynnefield was that many communities along the Main Line had discriminatory housing covenants.*

Among the Jewish families that moved to Wynnefield in the 1930s were Louis and Pauline Bernstein, and their son Albert (known as Sonny).  Pauline’s immigrant father Jacob Slifkin had become rich in garment making and real estate, and had housed his large family in a brooding Flemish revival mansion on Memorial Avenue, just a stone’s throw away from Fairmount Park.  Yet after Jacob’s death, the Slifkin family scattered and the “patriarch’s” house sold.

The back alley of homes of the 5400 block of Woodcrest and Wyndale Avenues.

Sometime in the mid-1930s, Louis and Pauline Bernstein purchased a spacious house on 5638 Wynndale Avenue.  At first, not everyone appreciated the move. Upon seeing the greenery of their new neighborhood, Pauline Bernstein burst into tears and exclaimed, “You’re moving me to the countryside!”

It was here in Wynnefield that their son Sonny (1924-2011) spent most of his childhood.  He graduated from Overbrook High School, which by then was drawing a large contingent of African-American students from Haddington and Lower Overbrook. Shortly after the war, he married Sylvia Weinberg, a native of South Philadelphia, at Har Zion synagogue at 54th and Wynnefield Avenue.

5424 Woodbine Avenue in 1959. These were the sorts of twins popular with upper-middle class families like the Bernsteins.

Wynnefield remained a predominately Jewish community for two decades after the end of World War II. It had strong community organizations, several synagogues, and good public schools.   Louis Bernstein, a former professional boxer and veteran of the First World War, would frequently meet up with members of his extended family at the Jewish War Veterans Association,  located on 54th Street. His son Sonny Bernstein (who worked as a bandleader and jazz pianist) purchased his own spacious house on the 5400 block of Woodbine Avenue after the death of his father, and mother Pauline moved in with him and his wife.  During the 1940s and 50s, Sonny Bernstein would head to Atlantic City during the summer, where he would play at the Traymore and the President.  While in town, he played with society band leader Meyer Davis, and also wrote vocal arrangements for an up-and-coming singer named Bobby Rydell.

Sonny and Sylvia’s son Michael Bernstein remembered that back then, the alleys behind Wynnefield’s houses were fun and safe places to play.  There were pharmacies and candy stores on the corner of almost every numbered street.  One day, Michael found a pair of Victorian bronze statuettes in a trash can and sold them to an antiques store on 52nd and Lancaster for $27.00.  As an adult, he would open his own antiques business on Montgomery Avenue.

A large turn-of-the-century mansion at 54th and Overbrook Avenue, 1953. Some of the homes in Wynnefield were as imposing as those found on the Main Line.

The Bernsteins remained in Wynnefield until 1966, when they moved across City Avenue to a new house in Merion Station.  By then, towns along the Main Line allowed Jews to purchase homes, and as a result a growing number of prosperous Wynnefield families jumped across City Avenue and moved to Merion, Bala Cynwyd, and Wynnewood.  By then, Wynnefield was transforming into an almost-completely African-American neighborhood.  The racial tension was there, although apparently not as strong as in other communities. As one African-American resident recalled at the time, “The Jew did not want to take on the role of oppressor. Being an oppressed people themselves, they did not want that.**

Yet by the 1980s, with the exception of a small Orthodox community, most of the Jewish residents of Wynnefield were gone, and the synagogues moved: Beth David to Gladwyne and Har Zion to Penn Valley.

*David P. Barady, “Wynnefield: Story of a Changing Neighborhood,” Murray Friedman, ed., Philadelphia Jewish Life, 1940-1985 (Ardmore, PA: The Seth Press, 1986), p.167.

**Newsletter, Wynnefield Residents Association), November 1969, p.3, as quoted by David P. Barady, “Wynnefield: Story of a Changing Neighborhood,” Murray Friedman, ed., Philadelphia Jewish Life, 1940-1985 (Ardmore, PA: The Seth Press, 1986), p.168.

*** Interviews and email correspondence with Matthew Marcucci, Michael Bernstein, Bonnie Bernstein, and Louis Bernstein, June 20-29, 2012.