In 1879, the great wave of immigration lifted a Jewish man from Suwalki, Poland, and deposited him in Pittsburgh. With few other career options available, he peddled along the streets of a smoky city at the brink of the modern age, boasting its first streetlights and phone lines, and sending railroad tracks in all directions, especially west.
He was arrested for peddling without a license, but got off with the help of a landsman named Morris Rosenthal, a Civil War veteran known as The King of the Jews and the first Jewish officer in the Pittsburgh Police. Our humble peddler would eventually marry the King’s daughter, but first he needed to earn a living. So he peddled on foot from Pittsburgh to Ligonier, selling his goods by day and sleeping in barns at night.
Eventually, he opened a wholesale clothing operation on Fifth Avenue, the first of its kind in Pittsburgh. In 1902, he sold the business for $129,000 — millions today. He moved to New York and invested his fortune in the stock market. By 1905 he couldn’t pay his rent. So our peddler-turned-wholesaler-turned-investor, along with his wife and seven children, returned to Pittsburgh. He took a job for $25 a week and started from scratch.
“By 1929 I wouldn’t be surprised if he was worth half a million dollars in stocks,” his son, from whom this account is taken, told an interviewer in 1982. “But he got caught in the crash, too. But this time he wasn’t wiped out and he was able to hold on.”
Our man was William Wolk. His son was Abe Wolk, the former city councilman and judge who cleared the skies of this once smoky city, brought the Civic Light Opera into existence and served leadership roles in numerous local Jewish organizations.
These facts are merely crumbs from one slice of the long, braided challah that was the Fifth Avenue wholesaling district. Over the course of a century, this small stretch of Uptown Pittsburgh housed hundreds of wholesaling operations, making it the largest district of its kind between New York and Chicago. Most of the businesses were Jewish-owned. They sold jewelry. They sold home furnishings and electrical supplies. They sold dry goods and notions. And, of course, they sold clothes — lots and lots of clothes.
Although “the Avenue,” as the district was affectionately known, never made major inroads into department stores such as Horne’s, Gimbel’s or Kaufmann’s, it stocked most small-town retailers across the tri-state area. Salesmen worked punishing schedules, sometimes spending six days a week on the road collecting orders, eating candy bars for lunch and sleeping in cheap motels. On Sundays, the small town merchants descended upon the Avenue en masse to fill in their stock, buy meat or matzo, and visit friends.
I first learned about the Avenue from Amy Lowenstein, a brilliant researcher and the daughter of a successful shoe wholesaler on the Avenue. For six years, she dutifully combed through city directories to compile a comprehensive list of businesses on the Avenue from 1883 to 1973. Her database includes more than 6,000 entries.
Now, I am constructing a history. The story of the Avenue is the story of individuals. Lowenstein has conducted interviews with many people associated with the Avenue, but there are more stories to hear and time is running out to collect them.
That is why I’m asking for help from the community. If you worked on the Avenue or bought from the Avenue, I want to hear your story. If your parents or grandparents worked on the Avenue, I want to know what they told you about it. If you’ve got artifacts — photographs, ledgers or attaché cases — I want to see them.
The Avenue propelled many families into the middle class, which helped sustain local Jewish institutions. The wholesalers advertised in yearbooks for congregations and day schools. They helped launch the United Jewish Fund. The Pittsburgh Wholesalers Credit Association promoted their annual banquet through the pages of this newspaper.
And by stocking mom-and-pop retail outlets across this region, often on credit, in good times and bad, the Avenue also contributed to the health of small town Jewry.
We have seen fit to document institutions such as the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House, Montefiore Hospital and the Concordia Club, but the Avenue hasn’t yet been given the same treatment. It might not have been a religious institution, or a cultural institution, or even a formal institution at all, but it shaped this community in a unique way. The story of the Avenue is the story of thousands of Jews struggling to thrive and prosper in society. They were religious and secular. They were strangers, friends and families. They were united by proximity, a common history and a common goal.
That, to my mind, is a good definition of “community.”
(Eric Lidji is a writer living in Pittsburgh and a former associate editor of The Jewish Chronicle. He can be reached at 907-687-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)