Bergen Street - Jewish Weequahic's 1940's-1950's Shopping Center

by Nat Bodian


Just as Prince Street had served as the main shopping street for the struggling immigrant Jews of the old Third Ward in the 1920s and 1930s, by the 1940s and the 1950s, the second and third generations of Newark's middle-class and lower middle-class Jews were clustered in the Weequahic section.

The Jewish inhabitants of the Weequahic section relied for their neighborhood needs on a five-block strip of approximately 100 small businesses, starting at Lyons Avenue (No. 1079), and proceeding north past Lehigh, Mapes, Shepard, Scheerer, and Renner to just beyond Custer Avenue (No. 943).

The northern end of this five-block shopping strip, Custer Avenue, was just a short walk up from Elizabeth Avenue and the famous posh Jewish dining favorite -- The Tavern Restaurant, on the corner of Meeker and Elizabeth Avenues.

At the southern end of the shopping strip is Lyons Avenue and the Lyons Avenue entrance to Weequahic Park. From Bergen and Lyons down to Weequahic Park is less than a quarter of a mile.

Bergen Street Strip a Self-Contained Community

The Bergen Street shops along this shopping strip from Custer Avenue in the low 900s, to Lyons Avenue in the 1080s, were a veritable self-contained community where the merchants knew and dealt with many of the shoppers on a daily or frequent basis.

One former Bergen Street shopper, Hannah Litowitz, recalled it as "a neighborhood of people knowing each other."

My friend, Elliott Sudler, associated with Kay's Pharmacy on Bergen Street, recalled the fraternity of the people who came to Bergen Street to shop: "It might for three rolls at the Bergen Bake Shop, but they rubbed elbows uninhibitably with the more affluent shoppers."

He added: "It was a stable community, but there was always an open door for newcomers."

Many area residents of limited means frequented only the stores that provided their everyday necessities. However, the more upscale specialty shops attracted patrons not only from the immediate Weequahic neighborhood, but also from outlying neighborhoods, and from the 4,000 Jewish population of adjacent Hillside, many of whom came to Bergen Street attracted by the available high style fashions.

Types of Stores

The stores, which totaled from around 100 to 150 offered virtually everything a neighborhood resident wanted or needed from everyday necessities to upscale high-fashion clothing, art, antiques, and pianos.

Most were mom-and-pop establishments, utilizing family help, but many also relied on either part-time or full-time extra help.

My older brother, George, and his wife, Ruth, at various times were part-timers in Bergen Street establishments -- he in various shoe stores, and my sister-in-law in a store that specialized in camping supplies.

A Selection of Choices Available

Clothing: There were many and varied men's and women's clothing stores -- many very upscale ... men's and women's shoe stores ... and for the ladies, a corsettier, millinery and hat shops, lingerie, hosiery, furriers galore (8), women's sports wear, and more...and for the children -- student apparel ... also dry-cleaners ... hand laundries ... a shoe repair shop.

Children: A baby-carriage store ... baby needs store ... kiddie furniture ... toys ... children's shoes ... and for the musically-talented, pianos.

Household Supplies and Furnishings: A quilt shop ... a curtain store ... a linen shop ... a dry goods store ... a 5 cent & 10 cent store.

Food and Dining: Assorted food stores, including an A&P ... a dairy-grocer ... fruit and vegetable store ... live fish markets ... butcher shops (kosher and non-kosher) ... jewish delicatessens ... an appetizer store ... several bakeries ... luncheonettes, sandwich shops, and restaurants ... two ice cream parlors.

Personal Services: Barber shop and numerous beauty parlors ... miscellaneous shops such as: a tobacconist ... greeting-card shops ... two book stores ... four drug stores ... jewelry stores ... a movie theatre.

Selected Bergen Street Shopping Memories

From Jacqueline Klein:

... frozen dough cookies from the Bergen Bake Shop ... the smell of the shoe repair shop near the Bergen Street firehouse ... black patent leather Mary Jane shoes from Brody's Shoe Store ... and looking at the beautiful hats in Nettie's Millinery shop.

From Marc Levy:

... as a child, I remember Breslow's Toy Store. It had quite a large mechanical children's ride that stood parked by the door. It was not far from Sid Miller's meat market with saw dust on the floor. I went often to Henry's Sweet Shop, and sometimes my Dad took me to the Lion's Den across from the Park Theatre, where I sat at the counter, or in a booth, and drank milk shakes.

From Barbara Rothschild:

... as an eighth-grader in the 1950s, Friday nights we went to the Park Theatre. Many boys of the seventh and eighth grades enjoyed tormenting us girls by tossing candy wrappers down from the balcony ... After leaving the Park Theatre, we would go to Henry's Sweet Shop nearby for malteds and other goodies.

From Katie Klein:

... Belov's Fish Market with live fish swimming in its huge live-fish tank ... the friendly Dalmatian in the firehouse at the corner of Lehigh ... the magnificent doll house in the window of the men's
barber shop near Custer Avenue.

The Smells of Bergen Street

Bergen Street was not only a street of food and specialty stores-- it was also a street of 'smells'.

In discussions with former Bergen Street shoppers, the subject of smells came up, whether it was the smells of the Jewish delis or the shoe repair shop, there was aroma in the Bergen Street air.

One told me "You could walk along the street and smell what was in the store."

Another remembered the appetizer store and recalled to me "I can still smell those barrel pickles."

Where the Bergen Street Shoppers Lived

Bergen Street catered to the middle class and lower middle class. While there was a scattered mix above and below Bergen, generally, the moneyed Jews lived below Bergen going toward Weequahic Park.

The less-affluent usually were found in the 2-1/2 family houses in the streets above Bergen.

The shoppers from below Bergen lived in either finely fashioned one-family homes, or in one of the two high class luxury apartments -- one at 19 Lyons Avenue and the other at 25 Van Velsor Place.

In these two apartment buildings with uniformed doormen and lavishly furnished suites with sunken living rooms lived the wealthiest and most successful Newark Jews.

As one former employee of a Bergen Street drug store told me, "These were the Jews who had made it. When I made a delivery to someone in these two apartments, it was like going into a museum...and they were big tippers."

Roth Recollection of Neighborhood

The houses on the side streets adjoining Bergen were described by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Philip Roth, of this childhood neighborhood, in one of his books:

"The house were all two-and-one half family houses. There was a full apartment on the ground floor and a full apartment on the second floor. On the third floor was half and apartment, for a young couple or a bachelor or an elderly widow. The lawns were nice and there were no fences."

Roth, son of an insurance agent, himself lived with his family in one such house as described, on Summit Avenue, a block from Weequahic High.

Bergen Shopkeeper's Children

The children of the mom 'n' pop shop-owners of Bergen Street nearly all attended Weequahic High School, which, by the late 1940s was at its saturation point. As a group, they were instilled by a love of education and a desire for success and were achievers in the various professions -- medicine, law, education, accounting, pharmacy, and more.

Still others started small businesses which ultimately evolved into large-scale chains doing business in the millions, and even billions.

One Child's Success Story

I was personally acquainted with the son of one Bergen Street shop owner, Arthur Brody, whose father, Samuel Brody, owned Brodelle's Book Shoppe at 1049 Bergen at Harding Terrace.

Young Arthur, age 20, helping out in his father's store, discovered and ultimately patented a new way to protect book covers. He fathered an entirely new industry -- the plastic book jacket industry -- a product now found in virtually every library in the world. His success led to Brodart Industries, a major supplier of books and services to libraries, as well as a leading manufacturer of library furniture.

Shopping Connections to Bergen

Many shoppers were attracted to Bergen Street from outlying neighborhoods. As a resident of Hillside in the 1950s, just over the Weequahic-Newark line, I recall seeing mothers from my street walking baby carriages down to Bergen Street on shopping excursions.

Bergen Street was also serviced by several bus lines that shoppers used, among them the No. 9 Clifton, the No. 8 Lyons Avenue and the No. 48, Maple Avenue.

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Historic Recognition

The five-block strip of shops covered in the above Bergen Street "Memory" all fall within the 2003-designated "Weequahic Park Historic District #03000013". In the list of Significant Historic Functions of the Weequahic District are architectural style of single and multiple dwellings, and specialty stores, virtually all of which were on Bergen Street.

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