Walking Tour of Historic Jewish Businesses of Downtown, Knoxville, October 2023
One of my favorite pastimes involves walking down a street in the city and imagining or looking for clues of past generations in the city. Many of the buildings themselves stand as monuments to those who’ve gone before. We retain many buildings from the early 20th century, late 19th century and even a few that stretch back to the early part of that century or the end of the one before. Sometimes all that is left of a business and the people who lived here are faint letters on the side of a building or dusty records in the History Center.
Most of the people who wrote the early history of our city arrived here from elsewhere and often from very far away. Germans, such as our eventual Mayor (1890 – 1892), Peter Kern, played major roles in the city’s development and businesses, but many arrived from a range of other countries. Jack Neely tells of the wide variety of languages that would be heard in what we now call the old city in the late 1800s.
One consistent and distinct group in Knoxville from the latter part of the nineteenth century through today, is the city’s Jewish community. The relative size of that community over the years was debated and answered differently by representatives of the Knoxville Jewish Alliance serving as docents for a “Walking Tour of Historic Jewish Businesses of Downtown Knoxville,” held yesterday. The question was prompted by the sheer number of Jewish businesses listed for downtown addresses in times past, making it seem the community is much smaller today. The answer most often centered around a relatively small 1,500 to 2,000, with perhaps a higher peak in the 1920s, though no one was certain.
One possible explanation for the relatively few Jewish-owned businesses today is that new immigrant communities tend to operate businesses if given the opportunity, whereas the subsequent generations, given more education opportunities, tend to gravitate more to professions. Whereas one generation may be filled with shop owners, their children and grandchildren, given financial success and opportunity, tend to gravitate towards doctors, lawyers, therapists, and other occupations.
The tour started on Market Square and examined businesses there, then on Union Avenue, followed by a look at several different blocks on Gay Street. The sheer magnitude of Jewish-owned businesses soon became overwhelming. Shoe stores, clothing stores, restaurants, department stores, grocery stores, fish markets, jewelers, schools of beauty, saloons, cigars, shoe repair, pawn shops, drug stores, hardware, and more did business on virtually every block at one time or another. Market Square, alone, had Jewish-owned thirty-one documented businesses at fifteen different addresses (there were 36 addresses at its peak).
Some of the addresses no longer exist and some of them boasted more than one such business over the years. Six are documented to have operated within the Market House. RCA Records learned about Elvis from Mary Linda Schwarzbart’s father, Sam Morrison, owner of Bell Sales Company at 22 1/2 Market Square. Elvis recorded for Sun Records in those days and Mary served as docent for Market Square and, as did several other docents, shared personal memories of Knoxville’s downtown, which made the tour more poignant.
Union Avenue boasted five known Jewish-owned business. One of the names survives in the form of the Arnstein Building at the southwest corner of Union and Market. Just around the corner, the four hundred block of Gay Street has been home to eleven such businesses. M.B. Arnstein operated there for a time before moving a block away to the building that holds his name. Kay Jewelers and Tennessee School of Beauty, both Jewish-owned, operated there. The remaining Jewish name paying tribute to the businesses once located on the block is Lerner Lofts, a tip of the hat to the Lerner Store located there. A Jewish-owned chain started in New York City in 1918, it now operates as New York & Company and sells online only.
The 300 block of South Gay at one time or another was home to twenty-one Jewish-owned businesses at ten different addresses. The now-missing 200 block of South Gay to an eye-popping 39 businesses at twenty-one different addresses. The 100 block of Gay Street held over thirty such businesses over the years, mostly concentrated on the western side. That side of the block included likely the best known of all the Jewish businesses among people alive today: Harold’s Deli at 131 S. Gay, operated from 1948 – 2005 by owner Harold Shersky.
At least eight Jewish-owned businesses operated on the 300 block of N. Gay Street (other side of the tracks), as early as 1898 and as late as 1959, but mostly in the 1940s. The 1959 business was Royal Beauty Supply operated by Samuel Jacobs. The company is still in business and continues to be operated by Samuel’s family. The final business on the tour operates on that block and is still in business: Potchke Deli. Participants ended with a lovely spread by the Jewish deli.
Another question raised repeatedly during the tour was whether the business owners also lived at that address, above their business for example. While some likely did, the docents pointed out that much of the Jewish community lived in Fourth and Gill and along Magnolia at that time. Contributor Scott McNutt sent me an additional note on the Fourth and Gill connection, reminding me that “what’s now Fourth & Gill was briefly an independent city, North Knoxville. We live on a street named for its first mayor, L.A. Gratz, who was Jewish. (The remains of Gratz’s house abide under the sea of asphalt surrounding the back of Broadway carpets.)”
I’ll conclude by quoting myself from the program for the event, which contains a pretty clear statement of how I see our city and all others.
As Knoxville evolves into a modern city, it is crucial that we remind ourselves of those who laid the foundation. Knoxville’s rich history of contributions from a range of immigrant and ethnic groups, such as those of our Jewish citizens, must never be forgotten. As we assume our identity for the future, we must remember who we truly are as a city and that includes all those who brought us to this place.
I completely enjoyed the tour and would love to see a repeat with even more information about the Jewish community in downtown Knoxville. It would be a great addition to see other groups stepping forward so that we can fully appreciate a range of contributions to the city we love.