North Marshall Street: Life in a Bazaar

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Max Krasnow selling yard goods outside his store. Image provided by Elaine Ellison

North Marshall Street between Poplar Street and Girard Avenue

On Marshall Street, our family lived in rooms above our yard-goods store. Ours was one of a hundred-plus row houses/businesses there. My parents, Russian Jewish immigrants, moved to the block in the 1920s from South Philadelphia, as did most of the families on Marshall Street. While Marshall Street runs from South Philadelphia to the Logan area, my Marshall Street sat between 6th and 7th streets on the east and west and Poplar Street and Girard Avenue on the north and south. It was a newer area to open a business. I lived in that house with my two sisters from the time I was born until I married. At times we had boarders living there too, all sharing one bathroom. In the far reaches of my memory, I can recall an outhouse being dismantled in the back yard.

My father occasionally mentioned that he came to America in 1915 after running away from being conscripted into the Russian Army. His parents, brother and sister arrived sometime later. In the Odessa area of Kiev he and his brother helped my grandfather sell yard-goods, silks, and cotton in local bazaars and along the Dnieper River shtetls, or small villages. My mother arrived to America in 1913 from the shtetl called Boslov, near Kiev. Although families from various parts of Philadelphia shopped on Marshall Street, we never thought our street belonged to the area known as Northern Liberties. Sixth and Girard was the dividing line. Yet, a nearby hospital on 7th Street was called Northern Liberties Hospital. Sometimes I told school friends I lived in Northern Liberties. Other times I said “North Central Philadelphia."

Looking back, life on Marshall Street was filled with vivid, sensory experiences. Early mornings, the pushcarts clattered down the street from their garages on Randolph Street, then parked side by side from Girard to Poplar and further down towards Parrish Street. Boxes filled with fruits and vegetables dropped from trucks or horse and wagons. Voices shouted, “Over here!” Some complained, “Don’t give me that rotten stuff!” And if two pushcarts next to each other sold the same thing, the pushcarnicks shouted and argued for the rest of the day. The odors of the street varied from delicious fresh bread and cakes wafting from the bakeries to garlic pickles in barrels, live chickens and their droppings and garbage rotting in the gutters at the end of a busy summer Saturday. People who shopped in our store spoke German, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, Italian and “Gypsy” or Romano. African Americans, Mongols from the steppes of northern Russia, and Asians came too. My parents, as well as most of the storekeepers and vendors understood and spoke some of those languages with them. And I loved listening to the different sounds. The place was a bazaar filled with the spice of life.

Neighbors were never strangers. Mothers and fathers in the stores kept their eagle eyes on children at play. With cars, pushcarts and shoppers clogging the street, the boys and girls roller skated, rode bikes and chased balls that rolled in the street from sidewalk games. Any parent was quick to help someone who fell, skinned a knee, or was punched in a fight. Parents sent their children to shop for food. “Buy two potatoes, a quarter of rye bread and two ounces of corned beef.” If a child did not bring enough money, the store keeper or pushcart man would say. “Bring it later or tomorrow.”

We never felt isolated from the places to see in Philadelphia. My sisters, my friends and I could easily ride the number 15 trolley on Girard Avenue to go to the Free Library’s main branch on the Parkway. Many Sunday afternoons we marveled at the children’s section, the music room, and couldn’t wait to take books from the adult area. In good weather, we sat on the library roof reading before taking two trolley cars back to Marshall Street. Some summer evenings we would walk into town, down towards Race Street and then walk the footpath across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, (called the Delaware River Bridge at that time). On Wednesday nights the stores in town were open until nine o’clock. How easy it was to ride the trolley to Market Street and buy something special in Wanamaker’s, Gimbel’s or Strawbridge’s. And yes, families had cars. A few children could pile into a neighbor’s car to ride through Fairmount Park. Many neighbors collaborated to have family picnics there and fill their bottles with water from the springs along the river.

My family kept our business and family quarters on Marshall Street until early 1960s. Many of the families kept only their business and commuted each day from newer neighborhoods. Wherever the families eventually lived, the camaraderie of the generations who lived in the area of the 900 block of North Marshall Street has remained a source of friendship to this day.

Elaine Krasnow Ellison was born on Marshall Street and lived there until her marriage. She is the co-author, with Elaine Jaffe, of Voices From Marshall Street: Jewish Life in a Philadelphia Neighborhood 1920-1960. She is a community advisor and a member of the PhilaPlace advisory committee. Read Elaine's blog post here.