Little Jerusalem: The mission to make Upper King Street a U.S. Historic District
In the century after the Civil War, Charleston’s Upper King Street district became one of the city's most culturally diverse neighborhoods. From the 1860s through the 1950s, the area along Upper King Street from Calhoun Street to approximately Line Street became known locally as “Little Jerusalem" for its establishment as a booming commercial enclave of mostly German, Polish and Russian Jewish families. Other immigrants, such as the Irish, Italians, Greeks, Chinese and Lebanese, as well as Black families also settled in neighborhoods north of Calhoun Street and established businesses in Little Jerusalem. Little Jerusalem's diverse population created a self-sustaining commercial district that serviced the northern neighborhoods on the Charleston peninsula and became integral to the revival of the city’s postwar economy.
Most of the buildings that historically defined Little Jerusalem survive. Through recent widespread restoration and rehabilitation of the corridor’s building’s, Upper King Street has emerged as a vibrant entertainment district with a high degree of historic integrity and again as one of the most economically-important thoroughfares in the city.
Now it is time to gain the historic recognition it is worthy of and honor the history of the people and places who established the legendary corridor on a national level. If approved as its own historic district on the National Register of Historic Places, the district will honor the journey and culture of the diverse inhabitants who built Upper King Street and the family businesses they operated.
BVL HPR is working together with the Charleston Jewish Federation to raise the funds needed for our team to compile a formal National Register of Historic Places nomination for the proposed Little Jerusalem Historic District.
The Full Story: Little Jerusalem
In the decades after the Civil War, Charleston’s Upper King Street district became a booming commercial enclave of newly immigrated Jewish merchants. This area, which extended along Upper King Street from Calhoun Street to approximately Line Street, became known locally as “Little Jerusalem.” There, German, Polish and Russian Jewish families created a self-sustaining commercial district that serviced the northern neighborhoods on the Charleston peninsula and became integral to the revival of the city’s postwar economy.
The late nineteenth century influx of Jewish immigrants to Charleston, and more specifically Upper King Street, was most likely a result of South Carolina’s attempt to diversify its population in the postbellum period. By 1870, there were 4,000 more Black citizens in the city than white, a demographic reflected in many other South Carolina cities.To combat the Black majority and stimulate the economy following the war, the state created the Bureau for Emigration to attract emigrants to South Carolina, establishing “a line of steamers to travel between Charleston and the ports of Germany, Ireland and Northern Europe.” Many other European immigrants, as well as Irish, Italians, Greeks, Chinese, Lebanese and Germans, flocked to Charleston for economic opportunity, often settling together in new middle and lower class neighborhoods north of Calhoun Street and establishing businesses in Little Jerusalem.
While King Street south of Calhoun Street remained the center for retail trade in the city, Upper King Street, which was historically occupied by farmland and vast estates prior to the mid nineteenth century, gradually developed into a secondary commercial thoroughfare of immigrant-owned businesses. Although Charleston was home to a population of wealthy Jewish merchants as early as the mid eighteenth century and the largest Jewish population in the United States by 1800, the years 1905 to 1912 saw the greatest population spike of Jewish citizens to the city. Unlike the “Downtown Jews,” a nickname given to upper class Jewish citizens who mainly resided in the South of Broad neighborhood and descended from colonial and antebellum Charlestonians, the “Uptown Jews” comprised of the newly-immigrated middle and working-class population of merchants and laborers who resided in the blocks surrounding Upper King Street. According to Solomon Breibart in an oral interview with the Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina in 2004:
The uptown Jews were those who came late. They were the Russians and the Polish Jews who came between 1880 and 1920. And they opened their places of business north of Calhoun Street…Small little stores: clothing stores, shoe stores, furniture stores, notions and that kind of thing. But from Calhoun Street to Line Street, practically, I’d say seventy-five percent of the stores in there were Jewish owned.
In addition to operating the first-floor commercial spaces, many Little Jerusalem business owners also lived on top of or behind their Upper King Street storefronts with their wives and children also working behind the counters. The Read family, for example, inhabited the third-story apartment of the Read Bros. Building from 1920 to 1930 while most members of the family were employed downstairs. Also similar to the Read Bros. Building, most stores on Upper King Street closed on Saturdays for the Jewish Sabbath and shopkeepers often held daily prayer services in the residential spaces above and behind the stores. According to Breibart:
On a holiday, on Rosh Hashanah, we used to walk from where we lived on Meeting Street, all the way down to the synagogue which was down on—the Little Shul, as they called it, was on St. Philip Street near Morris Street. And when we would walk down King Street hardly any of the stores were open. Very few stores were open. The streets were bare.
The street’s density of Jewish residents also spurred and supported the establishment of several religious and community institutions in the blocks surrounding Upper King Street, including Brith Sholom Synagogue (68 St. Philip Street, 1874), Beth Israel Synagogue (145 St. Philip Street, 1911) and Brith Sholom Beth Israel (182 Rutledge Avenue, 1948).
While the entire corridor remained consumed by Jewish storefronts for nearly half a century, the 500 block of Upper King Street ultimately became the most saturated by the 1910s. According to researchers with the College of Charleston’s Jewish Heritage Collection:
One could go to Hebrew school, see a Jewish physician, attend a meeting of the Kalushiner Society or a function at the Daughters of Israel Hall, buy a sandwich and sour pickle at Elihu Mazo’s deli, and patronize Zalkin’s kosher meat market, all within a small radius. The further north one went on King Street, toward newer neighborhoods and less expensive rents, the denser the Jewish presence became, with the epicenter in the 500 block.
In 1997, Irving “Itchy” Sonenshine (b. 1921), whose family owned the Sunshine Shoe Store at No. 589 King Street in the 1930s and 1940s, recalled the block’s density of Jewish businesses during his childhood:
Next door to my father’s store was the Fechters—they had a hardware store. Down the street from the Fechters, about two doors, was another Ellison. There was Haskell’s father, he had a shoe store. Across the street was the Read Brothers, Firetag, Mr. Goldberg or Geldbart, and then Mr. Alec Ellison, Shera Lee’s father. And then you got on the next block the Alperns. You had the Kareshes, and you had the Barshays, the Cohens, I mean, but they’re all gone. Oh, I hate to talk about that, but Ms. Laufer had her little restaurant and the Zalkins had the meat market. It was a close-knit community and people got along real well.
Several black-owned businesses were also recorded among the Jewish storefronts in Little Jerusalem between the 1890s and 1950s as the streets surrounding Little Jerusalem, such as Morris, Cannon and Spring Streets, were predominantly occupied by Black working-class. For example, out of the 80 Morris Street residents recorded as the head of households in the 1919 City of Charleston directory, 59 (74%) were recorded as Black citizens. This was also true for the north end of St. Philip’s Street between Cannon Street and Line Street, which was approximately 60% Black at this time.Nearly every block within these streets, however, also contained immigrant families and businesses, with Upper King Street as the retail mecca. Because of this, most of the Jewish stores in Little Jerusalem catered to and employed the neighboring Black population during the Jim Crow and pre-Civil Rights era. Sam Kirshtein, whose family operated Dixie Furniture at No. 579 King Street, stated in 2017:
Uptown, where we operated, had the…merchandize that was more inferior [than the downtown stores.] The clientele at that time was about eighty percent black. The other end of King Street was probably the opposite.
According to Dale Rosengarten, the founding director of the Jewish Heritage Collection at the College of Charleston, Black shoppers played a significant role in the success of Little Jerusalem and as the oppression of Jewish citizens continued in other parts of the world, “there was a natural allegiance” to the persecuted clientele. Jewish merchants who both catered to and hired Black citizens included neighboring storeowners Frank Read and Samuel Banov, both of whom the New & Courier credited in 1933 as establishing the area as a thriving business sector. Banov ultimately opened the city’s only exclusively black movie theater, the Lincoln Theater, at the northwest corner of King and Spring Streets in 1923.
As their wealth improved and Charleston’s suburbs increased by the early 1950s, however, the city’s Jewish population began to spread to new neighborhoods, including Hampton Park Terrace and those in West Ashley. In the 1953, for example, prominent Jewish lawyer William Ackerman (1915-1999) completed the first housing subdivision west of the Ashley River, known as South Windemere, and a large portion of Little Jerusalem’s population purchased the neighborhood’s first dwellings. By 1958, there were over twenty Jewish families in South Windemere, many of whom were Upper King Street residents, such as the Goldberg’s, Cohen’s and Sokol’s. Today, South Windemere is still occupied by many Little Jerusalem families.
In addition, children of the original Little Jerusalem families were less likely to enter into the retail business of their parents as many entered the professional fields of law, medicine and finance. With this shift, the commercial corridor of Upper King Street began to deteriorate, a 1960s City of Charleston land survey identifying significant decreases in population, density, economic importance and condition. In 1981, over 10% of Upper King Street was vacant with only a few Jewish families present. By 1990, however, that vacancy percentage increased to over 40% as Hurricane Hugo permanently destroyed several abandoned structures, including those on Banov’s adjacent property.
Other buildings were also demolished for new development and surface parking by this time. In 1912, for example, Jewish storefronts immediately surrounding the new Read Bros. Building at the King and Spring intersection included Buell & Roberts dry goods at No. 575 King Street, Hyman’s clothing store at No. 589 King Street, S. Banov & Bro. clothing store at No. 601 King Street, J. Doobrow Clothing at No. 611 King Street and Myers Bros. dry goods at No. 635-639 King Street. All of these establishments, with the exception of the late nineteenth structure at No. 589 King Street, have since been demolished for parking or development. That same year, Little Jerusalem stretched from the corner of King and Calhoun Streets with clothiers Banov & Volasky at No. 383 King Street to the intersection of King and Line Streets with the grocery of Henry G.W. Mohlmann at No. 651 King Street, both of which are no longer extant.
Most of the buildings that historically defined Little Jerusalem between Calhoun and Line Streets, however, survive.Out of the ninety-seven buildings extant on King Street between Calhoun and Line Streets, over 75% date to before 1940, with approximately 60% built within the period of significance for Little Jerusalem. More specifically, approximately 90% of the structures within the 500 block of Upper King Street represent the history of Little Jerusalem, dating before World War II. Through recent widespread restoration and rehabilitation of the corridor’s building’s, Upper King Street has emerged as a vibrant entertainment district with a high degree of historic integrity and again as one of the most economically-important thoroughfares in the city. The collection of buildings built before 1940s between Calhoun and Line Streets retain high to medium integrity, with the most intrusive alterations being late twentieth century storefront renovations or glass replacement. Most convey their historic character, retaining key architectural elements and overall massing, to represent their associations with Little Jerusalem and the significant contributions of the Jewish community to the area’s late nineteenth and early twentieth century economic success.
In 2019, the South Carolina State Historic Preservation Office approved the installation of an historic marker dedicated to Little Jerusalem at the northwest corner of King and Spring Streets through the state’s Historic Marker Program.
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