A Walk on the South Side of New York Avenue in the 1920s
By Alexander Kompier
This is reprinted from the Whiting-Robertsdale Historical Society Newsletter from the winter of 1990.
Whiting, populated predominantly by Germans prior to the 1860’s, began to experience an influx of Irish, once the railroads began to penetrate this isolated settlement. With the building of the Standard Oil refinery, it had a population explosion, and many of the newcomers were from the eastern part of Europe. And just as the United States was becoming a “melting pot,” Whiting was becoming a microcosm of this phenomenon. One of the most colorful and most ethnic streets exemplifying this diversity in the 1900s was New York Avenue south of 119th Street.
So let us take a stroll down the New York Avenue of the 1920s. One can still wonder at the number of stores, operated and owned by people of varied ethnic backgrounds. The southeast corner of 119th Street and New York Avenue was occupied by the Bank of Whiting, now the First Bank. Built in 1911, the bank had moved from its original location at the eastern end of 119th Street. It occupied only the front half of the first floor. The rear section served as the post office until that moved into a new building at the corner of Clark Street and Fischrupp Avenue. Subsequently, the Central Drug Store and the Lake Meat Market were there. Let us continue south on the east side of the street.
Across the alley from the bank was the grocery market of George and Dora Gurevitz. At 512 (old address) was the Whiting Plumbing and Heating Company, owned by Lipschutz and H. Kaplan. Ernest Assenheimer, an old time Whiting policeman with a no-nonsense reputation, lived at this address also. In this area was a Chinese Laundry. At 514 was the Bartlett and Lee grocery store, later taken over by Bill Gurevitz. F. Christian was listed as the owner of a lunch room at 516, and the Whiting Central Cleaning and Tailoring Shop occupied the 518 address.
One of the most popular stores in this block was Nick George’s candy store. It was always filled with children who came to buy and to look at the many boxes of rainbow-colored penny candies in the store and windows.
Across Fischrupp Avenue the Roman restaurant catered to many Whitingites for a number of years. The family lived in the back of the building. In 1925 Sadie Pinsky had a candy store at 530, but by 1929 Jim Alle had a coffee house in this building. In the large building next door was the B. Barton Furniture Store, where all kinds of used furniture and articles for the home were sold. At 536, Hashman Hassain was the proprietor of another coffee house.
There were a number of men living in Whiting at this time who had come from Turkey, although not all were Turkish. Some of them were members of minority groups that had lived under the control of the Turkish government, such as the Albanians and Kurds. Many of these men, when they came to Whiting, worked in the refineries as still cleaners because they could withstand the high temperatures.
Now that I have covered the east side of New York Avenue, I shall go back to 119th Street and travel south on the west side. In the Klose Building on the corner of 119th Street and New York Avenue was the Gordon and Sons store that featured clothing. Later they built the store on 119th Street that was rather successful. As we cross the alley, we come to the grocery of Frank Allison, and next door to it, at 513. was the Brandman store, a general merchandise business. In a small two-story house next to the Brandman store was the A-O K Battery Service. The living room of the house had been converted into a garage, and it was here that the men charged the batteries and serviced the automobiles. Radios, at the time, were run by battery, and I can remember taking our battery there to be recharged.
On the corner of New York Avenue and Fischrupp, at 521, was one of my favorite places, the Paul Scholz and Co. Feed Store. It was in a two-story brick building that was unfinished and looked like a warehouse. In the rear section bales of hay were stacked halfway to the ceiling, and in the front were barrels of seed and feed for animals. Mr. Scholz allowed some of the children he knew to slide down the chutes from the second to the first floor. As I walked by, I would close my eyes and try to imagine that I was not in Whiting, breathing the odors of the Standard Oil Company. Instead, I imagined I was out in the country, walking through fields of freshly mown hay.
On the north side of the Scholz store was a combination lunch room and coffee house that was run by a Mr. Alle Bey, and in a building near the alley was a shop where safety glasses made of isinglass were produced. Behind the Scholz store was a large building where the Wargo garage was located, as well as other business ventures.
Across Fischrupp Avenue, at 525, was a Variety Store that was owned by Mr. J. Chrustowski, and in the rear building was his shoe repair shop. A little later Gus and Jim Pettas opened the Whiting Fruit Market in the building. This was another of my favorite stores. Back in the 1920s this store did not, as it does today, extend out to the New York Avenue sidewalk, and it was in this area that the owners would display bushels and baskets of fresh fruits and produce, ranging from apples to zucchinis. One could, almost, walk blindfolded past the store and be able to tell what season it was by the smell of the items displayed.
At 527 was the Meyer Gardner store, which featured clothing for children. The Oprisko family lived next door. At 531 Rev. A. B. John lived. I am not certain, but I think he was associated with the Nazarene Church. Mr. Nate Gurevitz had a shoe repair shop at 533, Mr. Mike Molson lived at 535; Mr. S. Visnyai lived at 537, and Mr. John Kopcha lived at 539. I knew these families rather well because Sam Gurevitz, Joe Molson and Mike Kopcha were my classmates, and while writing this article, I did question John and Steve Kopcha about New York Avenue, since they were living there in the 1920s. Next to the Kopcha house was a two-story flat and next to it was the Brandman house. The lot next door was empty and during the summer it was the location of medicine shows and circuses.
On the corner of New York Avenue and John Street was a two-story frame building. The first floor had a store front and Mr. Sam Wolf had a second-hand clothing store in the building. Attached was a one-story building where Mr. Paul Bodney had a pharmacy. Later the Salvation Army used both buildings as a resale store.
At the northwest earner of New York Avenue and Fred Street was one of the most attractive homes in Whiting. It was a two story, dark brick building that was flush against the sidewalks of these two streets. The entrance, facing New York Avenue, was semi-circular, but the doorway was set back, creating a covered entranceway, and this area was lined with white tile. A large bay window protruded from the second floor. In the back of the house was a large porch that extended the width of the house. In the rear of the lot was a brick one story building, the width of the lot, that was used as a garage battery Service. The living room of the house had been converted into a garage and storage area. The yard was a manicured lawn with a large fountain in the middle. A black wrought iron fence ran the length of the lot on New York Avenue. The building still stands, but it has lost some of its charm.
At the northwest corner of New York Avenue and 121st Street stood a large, two story brick building that was built by Mr. Joseph Brozovich. Originally, a grocery store was in the front part of the building and an ice cream parlor and confectionery store occupied the back. The family lived on the second floor. The building is still standing and is now a tavern.
Across 121st Street was a two-story brick building. In the 1920s Mr. John Jancosek had his grocery store on the first floor. I remember that Mr. Jancosek did not look like a grocer because he always wore a three-piece suit, shirt, tie and hat. If he had groceries to deliver, he would use his Chrysler. He was one of the Whitingites who bought the recently introduced Chrysler. It is interesting to note that at this time there were three grocery stores at this intersection of New York Avenue and 121st Street.
Between 121st Street and Steiber Street there were one or two other stores at various times, and on the southwest corner was the Eichmann grocery. At this point we may conclude our tour of the New York Avenue of the 1920s. Even today, one cannot help but be amazed at the number of stores on the street and the diverse ethnic backgrounds of their owners. Some of their children are involved, even today, in the affairs of Whiting, while others have moved to other parts of the country to seek their fortunes. But, regardless of their locations, they all cherish memories, early memories, of ''The City by the Lake.''