Rauh program recounts in personal detail bygone Jewish business center

Rauh program recounts in personal detail bygone Jewish business center

Rauh Jewish Archives
Rauh Jewish Archives

Between 1880 and 1950, the eight-block-stretch of Fifth Avenue from Crawford Street to Sixth Avenue was one of the country’s largest and most impressive Jewish business districts.

Popularly known as “The Avenue” it included in its heyday businesses such as Jacob Shapira’s The Pittsburg Cheap Store, which sold all manner of discounted dry goods purchased directly from manufacturers in quantities called job lots. Another business, Scheinberg & Weisberg, advertised clothes, suits, waists, skirts and furs. Their motto was “If we do not have it, we will get it for you. If we cannot get it for you, it is not made.”

Though the district started to decline after 1950 and was all but gone by 1980, a standing-room-only crowd packed the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz Regional History Center on Sunday to hear researcher Amy Lowenstein and writer Eric Lidji bring it back to life.

“While the physical district is essentially gone, the personal legacy of the Fifth Avenue Wholesale District remains, which is pretty obvious by how many people are here,” said Lidji.

Lowenstein and Lidji’s talk, “They Could Get It for You Wholesale,” was the first presentation of organized knowledge collected about Pittsburgh’s once-great wholesale district, and the first installment of what they’re calling the Fifth Avenue Project. Lowenstein had wanted to research and chronicle The Avenue for some time, but initially didn’t know where to begin. A historian friend suggested she start digging through old city directories.

“What could I possibly get from a list of names and addresses?” Lowenstein wondered. “After one day of working with a directory, I realized that she was right. It’s an absolute treasure trove of information.”

Now, six years, a century’s worth of city directories, 20 oral history interviews and a smattering of other research later, Lowenstein, with Lidji’s assistance, has created a database that chronicles life on The Avenue. Housed in the Rauh Jewish Archives at the History Center, it contains more than 6,000 entries about the people and places of The Avenue. It’s still growing, and might soon be available online.

Alternating between Lidji’s straight history and Lowenstein’s myriad of colorful anecdotes, the presentation included audio clips of interviews with Avenue business owners, as well as photographs depicting the differences in the area between the past and present.

The Avenue started in the 1880s as traveling merchants who’d saved enough money to start their own businesses began purchasing land and buildings in the once-affluent Pittsburgh suburb of Boyd’s Hill, the area now called Uptown.

“Immigrants would come to Pittsburgh, purchase as much merchandise as they could carry, and travel across the region selling it to retailers and locals,” said Lidji.

As the immigrant population swelled, so too did The Avenue. For a time, the district was the single densest supplier of dry goods between Chicago and New York, and its businesses often blurred the line between wholesale and retail.

Merchants obtained their goods from wherever they could. One advertisement in the local Yiddish newspaper, The Volksfreund, advertised shoes acquired from a sheriff’s sale in New York, available at 60 cents on the dollar. The Hebrew letters at the top of the ad, transliterated, said, “Sheriff’s Sale.”

As Jewish immigrant populations spread across the region, so too did Jewish-owned businesses. Towns outside of Pittsburgh, such as Galitzin, Clarion and Evans City, had Jewish-owned clothing shops and dry goods retailers.

“The Fifth Avenue district in Uptown was already distinguishing itself,” said Lidji. “A 1917 survey of Uptown by the Pittsburgh Council of the Church of the Christ described the once-upscale suburb as ‘a scrum of businesses and residences run by foreign people.’ ”

In 1919, the Jewish Criterion, which served as the principle newspaper of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community from 1895 to 1962, launched a monthly advertising section, headlined with the words, “Merchants of Nearby Towns: Buy in Pittsburgh.” The headline was designed to draw retail merchants in the towns surrounding Pittsburgh to buy a greater percentage of their goods locally, rather than deal with wholesalers in East Coast cities such as New York and Baltimore.

It worked. At its peak, The Avenue was home to more than 300 businesses at a given time, two-thirds of which were Jewish-owned. The Avenue wasn’t just the center of the retail economy, it was a regional hub of Jewish cultural life — especially on Sundays.

“This is when the Jewish merchants from the surrounding towns flooded Fifth Avenue,” said Lidji. “A business could cover its entire weekly expense on a Sunday.”

According to Lowenstein, regional merchants not only bought from their stores, they stocked up on kosher food and housewares, and lunched on corned beef sandwiches at the local delis.

“It was a happening,” said Lowenstein. “Parking was terrible, but there was an enormous camaraderie. All the Jews who had moved to small towns really had a sense of belonging that they didn’t have in the towns they lived in.”

Of course, you could get more than just dry goods and food on The Avenue, so long as you knew where to look.

In 1933, the Criterion reported that “Numerous businessmen, particularly those working in the uptown Fifth Avenue district, make it a point to stop daily at Al Rice’s for lunch and an hour or two of recreation, or in the evening, for dinner and several games of billiards or other amusement.”

“It had a long counter with booths on one side, and the last booth was the numbers operation,” Lowenstein said. “On the weekends, they opened up the upstairs, which encompassed the whole storeroom, and it was like a small Las Vegas with blackjack and craps tables. It was not a speakeasy. It was open to anyone who wanted to come.”

The tavern, which was crowded every weekend and included Mayor David L. Lawrence among its regular clientele, was a cash-only operation that never wanted anyone to leave unhappy.

“They didn’t want anybody to go out totally broke,” she said. “If someone lost it all, they’d give them back their money. That’s the kind of operation it was.”

That generous sentiment was pervasive amongst merchants on The Avenue. The prices customers paid for goods were often determined by their relationships with the wholesalers and nobody wanted to lose even their most slow-paying customers. It was typical of wholesalers to charge very low or even zero interest to customers who were slow or struggled to pay their bills.

“My father was asked to be a pallbearer once at one of his customer’s funerals,” Lowenstein said, “and he said, ‘Well, certainly. I mean, I’ve carried him all his life.’ ”

As times changed, so did The Avenue. In the late 1950s, the Urban Redevelopment Authority bought and demolished a three-block chunk of the district’s south end to build Chatham Center.  The nature of retail changed, too. As the small industrial towns around Pittsburgh saw much of their industry die off, the retail merchants who bought on the Avenue found themselves serving smaller populations. The emergence of big-box stores such as Kmart and Sears only hastened the death of the wholesale industry.

“Between 1953 and 1960, the commercial population of the Fifth Avenue Wholesale District dropped nearly in half, from 280 to 152. It was the smallest population of businesses on the Avenue since 1895.” The last bastion of the Avenue, Lidji added, was Specialty Clothing, which Larry Rubin bought in 1973 and ran until it was demolished in 2008 to make room for Consol Energy Center.

Lidji emphasized that the event was just the first step in what he and Lowenstein hope becomes an ongoing process, and that he and Lowenstein are particularly interested in researching how the relationships between the businesses of The Avenue and the stores they supplied compare to Jewish mercantile districts in other cities, such as Cincinnati.

“We’re really interested in hearing from other people who want to talk about it,” he said.

(Matthew Wein can be reached at wein.matthew@gmail.com.)