Volumes have been written about the earliest Jewish shopping areas in Providence, one in the North End and the other on Willard Avenue in South Providence. Willard Avenue in particular has been the subject of numerous nostalgic essays since it fell victim to urban renewal in the 1950s. Actually, it was already past its prime after World War II; the flight to the suburbs and the East Side had taken its toll. But the few remaining stores still lured shoppers, as few Kosher markets successfully made the move to areas outside Providence. For a while, the North End retained a few stores on its fringes, but eventually they too succumbed to the “revitalization” of the area.
At the same time, a six-block area of Hope Street began to take shape as a shopping center for the East Side of Providence. When Warren and I moved into the neighborhood in 1954, the area had become a destination and gathering place, easily accessible to people who wanted to use their cars as well as those who preferred to walk.
The wide range of available goods and services made the area interesting and appealed to the diverse population of the neighborhood. A collection of small shops also offered a friendly alternative to the larger retailers elsewhere. The only chain stores were the small A&P supermarket and the First National, situated at opposite ends of the area.
What could you find on Hope Street? Generations of students who attended the Summit Avenue School remember the penny candy counter at Royal’s Variety Store. The choices, the sweet agony of decision, the pleasure their pennies could buy, still resonates in their entries on Facebook. Two chocolatiers catered to more sophisticated tastes for sweets, and an (homemade) ice cream shop tempted all ages.
Crammed into that six-block area as well were many other shops and services, including: three gas stations, where the attendants would fill the tank, clean the windshield and check the oil; three food markets, a specialty food store and a greengrocer; four eateries; three liquor stores; three cleaners and two laundries; two drug stores (you could pay your gas bill at one of them); three bakeries; two card shops; a 5 and 10 store; two dentists; a barber; and three hairdressers.
Refurbishing your house? A hardware store had a supply of paints and tools. Oriental rugs, drapery fabric and TVs could be purchased right there, near the bank, which offered small kitchen appliances or dishes with many transactions.
Children’s needs were not left out either. There were stores selling cribs and strollers, layettes and toddler clothes, as well as shoes (oh, the arguments over who got to sit in the store’s bunny chairs!)
For many in the neighborhood, the star attractions were the two delis – Miller’s and Auerbach’s. Miller’s was the larger of the two and carried Kosher meat as well as a greater variety of other Kosher and homemade products. Both were rigorous in separating meat and dairy.
Though some of the stores had Jewish owners, this area could hardly be called a Jewish shopping center. It was a far cry from Willard Avenue or the North End. However, one did not need a calendar to know that the High Holy Days were coming. A happy buzz settled over the area as holiday greetings were exchanged. The stores were more crowded as people prepared for the holidays. The dress shop next to the Hope Theatre offered the latest fashions. Floral centerpieces streamed out of the flower shop, and customers at the Jewish bakery and the delis were encouraged to order ahead for round challot, raisin or plain. At Miller’s, Leo, one of the owners, appeared in a gas mask to begin grating the horseradish for the condiment to accompany the homemade gefilte fish.
A month before Pesach, cases of Kosher wine filled the aisles and back rooms of the liquor store, while boxes of matzot were stacked high enough to cover the front windows of Miller’s, obscuring the hanging salamis on the inside.
Hope Street in the 1950s resembled the centers of many small towns of a bygone era, and like them, it is gone, replaced by services, shops and eateries more in tune with modern times.
GERALDINE S. FOSTER is a past president of the R.I. Jewish Historical Association. To comment about this or any RIJHA article, contact the RIJHA office at email@example.com or 401-331-1360.