Strawberry Mansion: A Former Resident Returns
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.
“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.
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.