At the end of the 19th century, Hartford’s Front Street was a settling place for many immigrants — bustling with Jews, Irish, and Italian families that lived in tight tenement housing, and worked in retail or local factories.
The Jewish community, seeking political and religious freedom from Germany, thrived on the East Side, establishing synagogues and community organizations. Many budding entrepreneurs had push-carts that lined the streets. By 1855, Jews owned 13 of 27 retail stores in Hartford. One of those owners was Gerson Fox, who ran a small dry goods store.
By 1910, 60 percent of Italian immigrants in Hartford lived on Front Street – what had now become known as “Little Italy.” Along with their pushcarts, many worked in nearby factories, like Samuel Colt’s, Phoenix Iron Works, or Hartford Gas Works, which was located on the corner of Front and Arch streets.
The flood of 1936 devastated the Hartford riverfront area. “There were a lot of stories about the flood,” said Estelle Kafer of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford. “One particular synagogue, Ados Israel — when the water started rising, the members realized they had to go in a save the Torah scrolls.”
One of those community members was Herman Holtz. His family helped found the synagogue, the city’s oldest, and he was one of the men that saved the scrolls during the flood.
Listen below to Holtz tell the story, from a 1975 interview:
Kafer said she’s in awe of the many contributions that the Jewish community made to Hartford. “I’m always very impressed at how much of the city’s economic growth was due to the first Jewish peddlers and business owners,” she said. And it wasn’t just businesses who made a difference. The Jewish community contributed to the arts as well.
Sophie Tucker grew up on Front Street. Her dad owned a restaurant there, where she sang songs as a young girl.
Inspired by the vaudeville stars that came through town, Tucker eventually made her way to New York, and toured across the country. She became one of vaudeville’s biggest stars, and was known as “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas.” She was also the inspiration for Matron Mama Morton, played by Queen Latifah, in the Oscar-winning movie “Chicago.”
Tucker performed near the end of her career on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1960:
The history of the riverfront and Front Street is one of change. After the floods, most immigrants who had settled there slowly moved away. In the 1960s, the city of Hartford razed the entire Front Street area, including the beautiful Ados Israel synagogue, to build Constitution Plaza.
The revived commercial Front Street District is a few blocks away from where its namesake was originally. It’s all part of the city’s effort to revitalize this once-thriving part of town.
Listen below to more from Estelle Kafer on the early Front Street Jewish community: