North Marshall Street: North Marshall Street businesses

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Marshall Street curb market. Image provided by City of Philadelphia Department of Records

North Marshall Street between Poplar Street and Girard Avenue

Although Jewish settlement in the Delaware Valley pre-dates Philadelphia’s founding, it was the influx of Jewish European immigrants starting in the mid 19th century that created Philadelphia’s distinct Jewish neighborhoods. By World War I, the Jewish population had grown to over 200,000. Jewish merchants set up pushcarts and opened storefronts all along Marshall Street. Reminiscent of a European village market, live fish, poultry, fresh produce, baked goods, clothing, jewelry and hardware could all be bargained for in multiple languages. As one former resident recalled, “I loved to go to Marshall Street because Saturday on Marshall Street was an open-air, outdoor, festival. It seemed like a million people [were there].”

A quarter of a century before William Penn founded Philadelphia in 1682, Dutch Jews were already trading with Native Americans along the Delaware River. With permission from the Dutch government, they ventured south from New Amsterdam (New York) in search of new fur sources and eventually settled in Philadelphia. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania houses the first known document to verify the permanent settlement of Jews in Philadelphia. A 1740 land deed from Thomas Penn to Nathan Levy reveals the plot of land on Spruce Street between 8th and 9th was bought for the purpose of establishing the first sanctified Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia. From then on, Philadelphia’s Jewish population continued to grow.

The biggest wave of Jewish immigrants came in the mid 19th century. German Jews began settling the area in the 1860s, followed by Russians and Poles by the early 1900s. Many found both a home and work in the Northern Liberties neighborhood. Cultural differences separated the groups of immigrants who were from different countries. Yet the newcomers carried generations of Jewish tradition that led them to form a close-knit community. German Jews mixed with Eastern European Jews, the secular with the orthodox, synagogues with candy stores. Jewish leaders created a Jewish hospital, Jewish foster homes, The Hebrew Educating Society and Jewish Immigration Society, among other benevolent organizations, to accommodate the needs of the growing population in the community.

Above all, Jewish immigration led to an explosion of vibrant street life. Marshall Street became a bustling marketplace in the heart of the Jewish Northern Liberties community. Between Poplar and Girard Street, Jewish merchants set up pushcarts or worked in storefronts selling a variety of goods and services while peddling offered men a chance to earn a living outside the confines of the neighborhood. The pushcarts are particularly memorable for those who grew up in the area. As one former resident described it, “The pushcart [area] was basically a bazaar. It was akin to what you think of the mall today, but all outdoors. . . . Before World War II and growing up there . . . there were pushcarts on both sides of the street – one right next to each other. . . There were pushcarts for bananas, a pushcart for potatoes, one for produce.”

Another resident recalled how hard families worked in the storefronts. Women rose to the demands of working alongside their husbands and nurturing their children toward American success. Even the children were put to work. But, she says, “we sort of made friends across the street by waving, by coming back and forth when we had a few minutes. After the stores were closed, that was when we all got out into the street and played, whether it was tireball, whether it was kingball, or baseball, or just skating, or learning how to ride one of the two bicycles that people had on the street.” Marshall Street became a center of Jewish American life, creating a society reflective of both valued tradition and necessary adaptation. Everything one needed could be found on Marshall Street. A whole lifetime could be spent within two square blocks.

Merchants served not only the Jewish population in Northern Liberties, but welcomed business from the non-Jewish Germans, Ukrainians, Poles, and Puerto Ricans who lived and worked nearby. In the 1994 oral history, Voices from Marshall Street, by Elaine Krasnow Ellison and Elaine Mark Jaffe, a longtime resident remembered, “You know, the place was a United Nations. So many people. So many cultures and languages. My dad himself came to Marshall Street by way of Argentina.” Others who lived in the neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s remember the Yiddish-speaking African American busboy at the Ambassador Dairy Restaurant at 7th and Girard. Every part of Europe and South America was on Marshall Street every day. It was a polyglot hub of commercial and community activity.

In 1958, Mayor Richardson Dilworth’s urban-renewal plan signaled the beginning of the end of bustling commercial Marshall Street. To counter the growing exodus to the suburbs, the Redevelopment Authority had plans to eliminate the pushcarts and traditional storefronts and build a modern retail complex called the “Marshall Street Mall.” This “renewal” inevitably meant razing homes as well. The Marshall Street Mall plan languished and was never actually implemented; but the looming threat of demolition, the similar fate of nearby neighborhoods, and the uncertainty surrounding who and what would be spared drained the life out of the neighborhood. Anticipating displacement, many Jewish residents moved out before the city could take their homes and businesses. Additionally, as families grew more affluent, they moved away from cramped Northern Liberties to greener, more spacious neighborhoods in the Northeast, West Philadelphia, or the suburbs. Some merchants commuted from their new homes in Oxford Circle and Overbrook to tend to their families’ Marshall Street businesses, but by 1960, the heyday was over. Refrigeration, television, air conditioning (which kept people indoors instead of out on the steps), and the suburbs all combined to diminish the once vibrant street life of Marshall Street.