Jewish History in Utica: An Evolving Neighborhood in the Second Ward
The area bordered by Liberty and Whitesboro Streets was known as Bagg Square West when Utica was first incorporated as a city. Homes on Whitesboro St. were owned by important men such as Judge Nathan Williams, who owned a home on Whitesboro at the foot of Hotel St. Judge Williams was also the first District Attorney, the first Congressman from Oneida County, and the first President when the village was incorporated as a city of Utica. The Williams house was later bought and torn down to make way for a warehouse. Next to the Williams house was that of Governor Horatio Seymour, built by his father, Henry Seymour, who was an Erie Canal commissioner (Observer-Dispatch, December 9, 1945).
In the mid-1800s, Whitesboro St. was one of the best residential streets in Utica. Later Whitesboro St. became "the heart of Utica's Jewish colony" (Draheim, 1972), but it wasn't until nearly 1870 that a Jew could even rent rooms on the street (Utica's Ghetto, 1911). The early Jewish settlers in Utica were peddlers, small store owners, and farmers. The first permanent Jewish settlement was about 1845 and was comprised of mainly Russian and German Jews. Rabbi Kohn noted that peddlers were attracted to Utica as the geographic center of New York State and located on the Erie Canal, a focal point for commerce (Kohn, 2002). The settlement was largely Russian Jews and grew rapidly (Draheim, 1972). The Jewish population numbered only 140 in 1850 but was estimated at 1600 in 1917 and reached 2517 in the 1920 national census (Jewish Community of Utica, Self-Study, p. 3). The area had a Welsh history even prior to the Jewish settlers, as there was a Welsh Congregational Church built in 1805 at Whitesboro and Washington Sts. that was later purchased and used as a synagogue. (Edwards, 2007, p.55).
In 1840, 40 families had established a synagogue on Whitesboro St., chartered in the name of House of Jacob. The building was sold in 1882 and a new building purchased on Seneca St., which had previously been the Moriah Welsh Church. In 1842 or 1848 Beth Israel Synagogue was begun with a membership of twenty families renting and occupying a wooden house of worship at Whitesboro and Hotel Streets. In 1889 a synagogue opened at Whitesboro and Washington Streets with 50 families and seating for 375. In 1948, the House of Israel still existed at that location with a membership of 61 families. In 1904, the Polish Jews established their own synagogue, the House of David on Broadway.
Around the year 1890, there was a large concentration of Jews in an area bounded by Genesee St., Columbia St., State St. and Water St. The area could be thought of as a ghetto because all basic human needs could be fulfilled within the general area; for instance, there was a grocer, baker, doctor, lawyer, butcher (Heywood and Kaye, 1968). In fact, the Saturday Globe described the area around Whitesboro St. as a ghetto in 1911, emphasizing the foreigness of the Jewish families who resided there:
Whitesboro St. itself [the average Utican] does not know. Its fasts and its feasts, its great personages and its common folks, its markets, its restaurants, its ceremonies, the very language it uses, are as strange to him as if the street, with all its mysterious customs and usages of a dead past were IN ANOTHER LAND (capitals original) . . Around this center [of Broadway and Whitesboro Sts.] is Utica's Ghetto.
The Globe further reported that, "It is 28 years ago that Louis Silverman opened a grocery store on Whitesboro St. and he was one of the pioneer businessmen. Slowly, steadily, the Jews acquired property. Family after family bought homes until to-day Whitesboro St. from Hotel to the canal is almost solidly Jewish – a notable record in 30 years" (Utica's Ghetto: Transformation wrought by Jews, 1911.) Almost every house on Whitesboro St. had a store connected with it. Beginning as peddlers, as customers increased, owners found it necessary to have a store and fitted small stores into their homes. The stores increased over time in size and importance.
After the end of World War I, Utica's Jews were more financially secure and secure in their place in the community; from the 1920s on,
Utica's Jews were ready to branch out demographically, educationally and communally. . . many began to move out of the old Jewish 'ghettos' in the Second and Third Wards and into the southern section of the city. (Kohn, 2002, p. 136).
By 1948, at a time when Washington Courts housing project changed from defense housing to traditional low-income housing, Jewish families in Utica numbered 1,028 (3,024 individuals). Just over half owned their own homes, and more than 1/3 (36%) had lived in Utica for more than 25 years. They had shared their neighborhood with Black families and acted as landlords for many years, and many still had businesses in the Second Ward.
DeAmicis, J. (2002). The search for community: Utica's African Americans. In Ethnic Utica
, (pp. 7-35), James S. Pula, Ed. Utica, New York: Ethnic Heritage Studies Center, Utica College.
Draheim, H.P. (July 8, 1972). Jewish roots in 1830. Press scrapbook No. 1193. (Oneida County Historical Society Archives).
Edwards, E.R. (2007). Around Utica.
Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing.
Jewish Community Self-Study of Utica, Jewish Community Center, April 1, 1948.
Kohn, Rabbi S. J. (2002). "Kehillah": The Jewish Community. Edited and Revised by Diane Matza. In Ethnic Utica
, (pp. 127-147), James S. Pula, Ed. Utica, New York: Ethnic Heritage Studies Center, Utica College.
Utica's Ghetto: Transformation wrought by Jews. Utica Saturday Globe
, Nov. 18, 1911.