Then and Now: Before quake, Jews clustered South of Slot

San Francisco is attempting, once again, to make Market Street “the premier cultural, civic, transportation and economic center,” as the city’s Department of Public Works described it at a recent meeting. Congestion and blighted blocks are the main complaints.

View up Market St. toward the Ferry Building, early 1900s

In the old pre-earthquake days, Market Street symbolized something else for the thousands of struggling Jews who lived nearby: freedom. And the gridlock they feared was not that of cars and buggies, but of economic stagnation.

Many local Jews were prosperous, living uptown from the factories. But slums and saloons blighted what is now SoMa, and many new immigrants lived “South of the Slot,” as the South of Market neighborhood was called.

Made famous in a Jack London short story about a Berkeley professor studying the working class, the “slot” referred to the iron crack on which the cable cars were pulled. Poetically, it suggests the jackpot of economic opportunity represented by the thriving businesses on and above Market.

After 1906, the mostly Eastern European Jews who had clustered downtown moved to the Fillmore District, which for two generations housed the majority of the city’s Jewish institutions. In recent years, as young Jews have flocked to SoMa to live, work and play, the traffic on Market Street has reversed direction. The alleys and lofts that used to house noisy sewing machines and multifamily domiciles now buzz with new kinds of social networks.

This column is provided to j. by Daniel Schifrin, writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, where stories of local Jewish life are explored in “California Dreaming: Jewish Life in the Bay Area from the Gold Rush to the Present.”