By Evan Macy

Strawberry Mansion: A Former Resident Returns

Strawberry Mansion: A Former Resident Returns
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Mourners leave a synagogue in the early 50's.

Mourners leave a synagogue in the early 1950s.

It is not unusual to revisit an old neighborhood. Sometimes a sense of nostalgia drags people back to the places where it all began, and according to Allen Meyers, who grew up in Strawberry Mansion over 40 years ago, there are two types of returning visitors.

“There are some people who are afraid,” Meyers said, “and others who will even go up and knock on peoples’ doors where they once lived, get access to their old houses, and be welcomed as neighbors and as parts of the family, which I think is incredible.”

Meyers can be described as the latter of the two schools of thought. Born in South Philadelphia, he and his family took residence in Strawberry Mansion from 1952 until 1961. During his stay there, the neighborhood was a hub for Jewish activity.

“My dad was from west Philadelphia, my mom as from south Philadelphia,” Meyers recalled. “They picked a neutral part of town to live in, Strawberry Mansion.”

According to Meyers, who has written several books about Philadelphia neighborhoods, almost 60 percent of the population was Jewish in its heyday, with 50,000 Jews and more than two dozen synagogues.

Services end in a Philadelphia Synagogue.

Services end in a Philadelphia synagogue.

“There was a tremendous amount of unity in the community,” Meyers said. “Strawberry Mansion was known throughout the eastern seaboard as a Jewish place of existence.”

After his Philadelphia upbringing, Meyers attended Penn State University and Gratz College, where he majored in urban studies, sociology and history. It wasn’t long before Meyers was able to use his fields of study to discover his passion.

“I had to write a paper and I chose old neighborhoods,” Meyers said. “I talked about how they grew and developed. It turned into a lifelong project.”

Meyers wrote his first book in 1990 and since then has authored literature detailing the history of many neighborhoods in Philadelphia. He also takes pride in his heritage and has studied the history of synagogues all over the city and its extended suburbs.

According to Meyers and his extensive research, the Jewish community started in the late 1890s, as the community migrated from Northern Liberties and Fairmount.

“Many Jews took a left-hand turn and followed the trolley cars westward to (Strawberry Mansion),” Meyers said.

The first synagogue in the neighborhood was Beth Israel, which migrated in 1909 from Eighth and Jefferson to 32nd and Berks. After an act of Congress in 1924 halted Jewish immigration, the neighborhood really flourished.

“It was more than just a neighborhood of synagogues,” Meyers said. “This community was composed of free thinkers, communists and people who had democratic values. Opinions ranged from far right to far left, with 60,000 Jewish people at its height.”

At its height, about one-fifth of the Jewish population in the city lived in the enclave between Lehigh and Oxford streets, and 29th and 33rd streets. There were four elementary schools, but no high school, no police department and no hospital. Over 60 businesses existed on 31st Street beginning at Montgomery Avenue.

“You could buy anything from bread to rolls to jewelry to hardware, 31st Street was the place to be,” Meyers remembered. “Everything was here: the meat markets, the bakeries, the delicatessens, the poultry shops.”

The community was once filled with culture. Meyers and his parents would spend an afternoon at Smith Playground in Fairmount Park, one of the first playgrounds in the nation. They would see a Vaudeville show on Oxford Avenue or go to the Robin Hood Dell to see an outdoor play.

The Playhouse at Smith Playground hosted performances of many kinds and still stands today.

The playhouse at Smith Playground hosted performances of many kinds and still stands today.

But when Meyers took a leisurely drive through the dilapidated and brittle-looking neighborhood, vacant lots and dilapidated houses stand in the same place where a once-thriving and prosperous mini-metropolis sustained a large population in the first half of the 20th century.

He saw shadows of what once existed and was reminded of the demise of the Jewish, and white- dominated Strawberry Mansion community.

“In the late ’50s they knew the community was coming to an end,” Meyers said. “The flight of white people from this community was overnight. They moved to Logan, Feltonville and Mt. Airy. New houses were being built and the G.I. bill gave people access to housing outside of the city.”

As the white population moved to suburbs, the Brown v. Board of Education ruling allowed African Americans to slowly take their place in Strawberry Mansion. Eventually, the neighborhood became predominantly black and poor.

Meyers has no trouble fondly remembering the tarnished remains of brownstones in his former home.

“I think that the western sky, the sunset, spiritually in my mind lit up the community and gave it its flavor in some spiritual way,” Meyers said, watching the pink, purple clouds float over an orange setting sun above the seemingly endless forest of Fairmount Park.

55 Responses to Strawberry Mansion: A Former Resident Returns

  1. Susan Schwartz August 9, 2017 at 12:34 am

    My Grandmother had a lingerie store, 1925 31st street, in the 30s – 50s. My father, Sidney, and his two sister Hannah (Zaza) and Sady, grew up in Strawberry Mansion, from the 1920, dad joined the US Navy during WWII, My aunts were there until they married and moved away in the 40s. I had an Aunt Sady and Uncle who owned a fruit and vegetable store a few doors down on the other side of the street. I remember in the early 1950s, when we would visit my grandmother, I’d wake up very early in the morning and watch from the brownstone window on the third floor to see the vendors and the owners open their stores in the dawn morning hours. I remember the trollys and the ‘turnaround’ at the end of the steer and I think it was Greenberg’s bakery at the corner. We’d go to the ‘Robin Hood Dell and sit in the grass in the hill at night and listen to the concerts. I have very fond memories of those times.

  2. Pat Bell March 21, 2018 at 8:44 pm

    Does anyone know the Cravitz Family who lived on Gordon St between 32nd and 33rd streets. Father’s name was Marvin, Mother, Sylvia, Children Florence and Richard…one more child but I don’t remember his name Cravitz was the last name

  3. Pat Bell March 21, 2018 at 8:53 pm

    one family invited me to live with them permanently…fond memories of that summer in the “Mansion.” but it was time to move on..I was 12 years old

  4. Charles Dorfman September 18, 2018 at 4:25 pm

    My grandfather was Morris Dorfman and he owned Park Tire Service (Mobil Station with curbside pumps & Appliance Store) at 3451 Ridge Avenue (across from the Robin Hood Dell). My father Marv and uncles Dave, Jack and Ron worked with him. In ’69 The City of Philadelphia Redevelopment Program came into the store and told him that the area was being redeveloped and he had 6 months to move or else the city would take the property (imminent domain?) . My grandfather found a place at 3000 N. 27th and moved the business. 6 months later the city found utility lines that ran under the property that ran under the Schulykill as well and did not develop the area (until at least 20 years later) with another project. My dad has told me great “neighborhood” stories from different customers that came into the store, to how my grandfather gave credit to men (when credit was not being given in the WWII years for sets of tires).

    Sidebar, does anyone remember “Sam, the knish man?” I have always heard about this individual.

    Can anyone tell more about Linton’s…was it a chain? I remember the one at Hunting Park and Wissahickon. Others talk about one in Oxford Circle. Was it like a diner? or smaller?

  5. Allan Kramer November 1, 2018 at 7:09 pm

    To Allen Myers; I lived at 1835 Natrona St. from 1941 to 1950. Did you also? Maybe when we moved out?
    Love to hear from you.

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