Thursday, March 9, 2017

Those Places Thursday: My Mahler Ancestors in Jewish Harlem

Professor Jeffrey Gurock recently published his authoritative The Jews of Harlem, with additional research and updates to his earlier book on the subject, When Harlem Was Jewish, 1870-1930. I got my hands on a copy of the new book after reading about it in the New York Times.

My Mahler ancestors lived in that area of upper Manhattan, during the period Prof. Gurock describes. This book gave me a window into their Jewish immigrant experience, arriving and living in the Lower East Side, then moving uptown to Harlem.

Prof. Gurock writes that the opening of the elevated subway (1904) brought many immigrants to Harlem, escaping the teeming crowds and cramped tenements of the Lower East Side. He also notes that the move allowed many to find work locally in Harlem rather than commuting to jobs in midtown or, more commonly, in lower Manhattan.

Interestingly, Prof. Gurock points out that the density of population in Jewish Harlem tenement neighborhoods was, in fact, quite intense. Later, as families had a bit more money, they moved to the "subway suburbs," including the Bronx.

My Mahler family followed this pattern. Great-grandpa Meyer E. Mahler (1861-1910) and great-grandma Tillie Jacobs Mahler (185?-1952) originally lived in the Lower East Side when they arrived from "Russia" (really Eastern Europe). Around the turn of the 20th century, they lived on Chrystie Street and a bit later at Allen Street. Then the "el" opened and life changed.

By 1905, the NY Census shows the Mahler family at 1956 Third Avenue, between 107th and 108th Streets--a walkup tenement in Jewish Harlem. Meyer Mahler worked as a tailor in 1909 at 63 E. 117th Street. I can imagine him walking to work there, half a mile north of his residence (in a building no longer standing).  

By 1910, the family was living at 7 E. 105th Street, a much less crowded area of Jewish Harlem, as I understand Prof. Gurock's explanation. Poor Meyer died of stomach cancer that year, but his widow and children remained at that address until well after WWI. The younger son, Morris Mahler, seems to have been the main breadwinner at that point, and he commuted to work outside Jewish Harlem.

By 1925, the NY Census shows that the Mahler family had moved to the "subway suburb" of the Bronx, living at 2347 Morris Avenue (the first of a few addresses in and around the Bronx). The timing corresponds with what Prof. Gurock writes in his chapter, "The Scattering of the Harlem Jewish Community, 1917-1930." 

3 comments:

Anna Matthews said...

That is fascinating. What a great find that book is.

Dana Leeds said...

It sounds like a wonderful book for you! And, it's a great reminder for us all to look for books that explain the times and places our ancestors lived.

Amy said...

Thanks for writing about this book. My grandfather arrived in NYC in 1904 as a fifteen year old, all alone. He settled in Harlem---something I always wondered about. Why not the Lower East Side? I will have to buy this book! (Perhaps your relatives knew my grandfather...)