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A Tour of Brownsville, Brooklyn’s Jewish Past

September 26th, 2010 by DavidFreeland

Yesterday afternoon, a hot one here in the city, I was inspired to take a trip out to Brownsville, Brooklyn, once a hub of Jewish cultural life and now considered one of the most dangerous sections of New York.

Former Synagogue in Brownsville (note Star of David at top)

I was thinking of my late friend, George Sandler (father of my friend Rita), who was born in Brownsville in 1916 and grew up in the neighborhood.  While aware that many of Brownsville’s storied tenements were razed for public housing projects beginning in the 1950s, I was curious to see what might be left, in a physical sense, of Brownsville’s Jewish history.  Urban renewal seems to have impacted New York in a less overarching way than it did other U.S. cities, and, as it turns out, Brownsville still bears traces of its past.

I started with the old Loew’s Pitkin Theater on eponymous Pitkin Avenue, Brownsville’s commercial artery.  Opened in 1929, the Pitkin bears a remarkable similarity to the slightly later Loew’s 175th Street Theater in Manhattan’s Washington Heights.  George remembered coming to the Pitkin as a teenager, and, according to a 1932 New York Times account, the great Yiddish composer, Rumshinsky,  appeared here for a week’s engagement.  Outside the theater, a sign hints at plans for some sort of revitalization.

According to a 1951 book in my library on Murder, Inc., the infamous crime syndicate which grew in part out of Brownsville, “neighbors firmly believe Pitkin Avenue compares with Fifth Avenue…or any other promenade famed for its shops and shopping.”  Today, there is still much to be seen on Pitkin, including this terra cotta beauty.  It was once the Simon Ackerman department store.

And while we’re on the subject of gangsters, here’s a shot of Amboy Street, after which the notorious “Amboy Dukes” were named.

Amboy Street, home of the “Amboy Dukes”

While often cited as being a “fictitious” gang, George Sandler and others have claimed the Amboy Dukes were real.  In fact, as children George and some friends once got stuck in the Amboys’ clubhouse.  To frighten him into keeping quiet about what he might have heard, the Amboys smeared rotten eggs over his head!

Lovers of old signs will find much to savor in this remnant of what was probably a Chinese restaurant, on Pitkin.

Neon Survivor

Meanwhile, those interested in 1930s Deco will appreciate this Art Moderne-styled bank building, with Federalist touches.

Art Moderne Bank on Pitkin

I ended my tour beside the Pitkin Theater at “Zion Triangle,” a small park dedicated to Jewish veterans of the First World War.

Zion Triangle

“There were no subways at that particular time,” George once told me.  “If there were, our part of the area didn’t use them”  Instead, George explained, trolley cars supplied Brownsville residents with their primary form of transportation.  Visiting Brownsville yesterday, I came to understand George’s assertion.  Even now, the neighborhood feels removed from the rest of the city, and I needed to walk many blocks before coming to an A train.  And, of course, the A was not completed until the early 1930s, well past George’s childhood.

With its capacity for outliving the humans who create it, architecture can bring back the verve and spirit of a place in ways a mere historical plaque cannot.  After yesterday I feel more in touch with George’s personal history, and, as a New Yorker, a piece of my own.

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UPDATE: July 18, 2015

Roger Elowitz has kindly shared some Brownsville images from his personal collection. I am posting them here. Captions are from Roger. Enjoy! David

Kishke King

Kishke King

Pitkin Avenue looking toward Hopkinson Ave.

Pitkin Avenue looking toward Hopkinson Ave.

Skateboard scooters

Skateboard scooters

The Kinish Man... with obligatory salt shaker.

The Kinish Man… with obligatory salt shaker.

Thomas Jefferson H.S

Thomas Jefferson H.S

 

 

 

 

 

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537 responses so far ↓

  • Hi Mac,

    Yup! You’re only 20-minutes north of me near Keyport. Great! I love the picture of you in front of Key Foods. I recall having seen a picture of me with the same hat with ear flaps! I also now recall the sloping concrete entry way into Key Food. Do you recall sawdust on the supermarket floor? Key Food was directly across the street from Goodman’s Buttons and Notions.

    Thanks too for the memory of Hymie’s Deli which I had completely forgotten about. Almost the entire Brownsville burnt to the ground, probably (I’m guessing here) is because the homes were worth more for their insurance claims. By the time I left in 1959 I’ll bet those buildings were over 60-years old and very badly in need of repair and upgrade… but affordable by the last crop of owners. Actually, I believe those buildings had reached an end to their life cycle. While it was sad to see them go (my home gone forever) it likely was an economic necessity as well as a real estate rebuilding boom. The newest tenants were from the Caribbean and they completely changed the flavor of the neighborhood. As sad as it is… neighborhoods evolve and life goes on.

    Thanks for Nathan Pretlow’s website… it’s a valuable picture resource… although a bit too “inquisitive” about your personal details.

    Where was the Aperion Manor located?

    I’d love to talk to you cousin.

    Welcome Aboard.

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz

  • Roger, we don’t live far from each other I live in Cliffwood Beach. Next to the shoe store was my grandma’s beauty salon. On the corner was Hymie’s delicatessen that much I remember as a young tot.She sold her store and apartments in the early sixties and it was burnt to a crisp shortly thereafter.

    A guy on pinterest has amazing Brownsville pics, his name is Nathan Pretlow. It’s called Brownsville on my mind.

    The pic of me in front of Key Food is here.
    http://pin.it/3M_CY-p

    My cousin said the owner of the shoe repair store was named Jack. In the census there is a Jack and Anna Schwibo. They had two sons named Arnold and Harold.

    My mom (msrip) was married in 1950 and the celebration was held at the Aperion Manor.

    My cousin knows so much about Brownsville you and her would probably have a great historical discussion.

  • Hi Stu,

    Wow! I’m impressed you knew all those pharmacists by name. When I was fifteen, I worked after school for Harry Margolis at his ROMAR Pharmacy. He was a small man of large girth and he wore Coke-bottle eyeglasses. To survive the brutal competition in that industry Harry became a pill-jobber. He would order large quantities of pills from the wholesalers and then sell small bags of the same pills to pharmacists all over New York City. I would carry a cardboard box loaded with pill orders to Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens for him. Consequently, at a very young age I got to travel all over the City.

    I’m also fascinated that you knew Shutzbank. HIs son Barry was an old friend of mine and he even moved to Marlboro, NJ where I lived. I believe he was friendly with my son.

    Do you remember that the Post Office for Brownsville Brooklyn 12, NY, used to be located on the north side of Sutter Avenue between Amboy and Herzl streets. I believe it was located next to a bakery and/or a shoe store.. Somehow the name Eppy and Eppy comes to mind for the shoe store but I can’t be sure. I’ll bet you know it.

    There was also a pharmacy on the south corner of Sutter and Herzl. When I was eight years old my father sent me to get a Sunday Journal American newspaper and for no good reason I can possibly fathom… I walked across Sutter Avenue with a box on my head (at night) and was grazed by a passing car. They took me to that pharmacy for some first aid.

    Not far from that pharmacy in the middle of the block on Sutter Avenue was Murray and Nat’s Barber Shop. I always got my hair cut there… and a manicure too just before I was to be married. I’d come back to Brownsville from my new home in Canarsie just to get my haircuts.

    Right next to Harry Margolis’s pharmacy was a grocery store when I worked stocking shelves when I was 12-years old. I also remember the deli on the same side of Sutter Avenue and the candy store / soda fountain next to the deli.

    And I also remember Toby’s Yarn Shop on the corner of Sutter and Herzl. Women used to pack the place buying yarn and getting knitting instruction from the male owner and other help.

    Across Sutter Avenue between Herzl and Strauss (on the south side of the street was a shoe shine parlor and shoe repair shop. They also “blocked hats” there too. Hats for men were very much in style then. I remember the swinging plywood door booths you could sit in while the shoemaker put new soles or taps on our shoes or he shined them on his buffing wheels. That shop was always a dark, dingy place with fascinating smells.

    All these places were part of “my world” growing up in Brownsville.

    Best,

    Roger

  • Roger, Brownsville had a group of pharmacies. Harry Margolis on Amboy and Sutter. Victyor Schutzbank on Blake and Amboy. Sidney Siskind on Sutter and Herzl. Harry Josephson on Blake and Saratoga and Rubin Belfus on Saratoga and Livonia. There wasd also a Portnoys pharmacy on Ridgewood and Chestnut in ENY owned by my uncle Harry Portnoy. The areaq had parking meters and all of them were broken into daily for the dimes. Stuart Portnoy

  • Hi Mac,

    Right across the street from the Key Food Supermarket (perhaps the largest food store in Brownsville) was my friend Stu Lieberman’s grandparents store that sold buttons and notions. His grandparents lived in the rear of the store and we would watch wrestling on a B/W TV back there. To the left of the button store was a shoe repair shop. And, if I’m not mistaken, to the right, on the corner on that side of the street (Grafton Street) there was a pharmacy. Of course, on the corner of Grafton and Sutter was P.S. 156, now completely gutted and replaced with a new school called P.S.156/I.S. 392.

    If you walked to the opposite corner of Sutter and Saratoga on the diagonal corner there was another pharmacy. The more I think about it… just about every corner had a pharmacy on it. How they stayed in business with so much competition is baffling.

    If you walked east on Sutter Avenue and turned the corner left onto Saratoga Avenue there was a small hobby shop (Kings?) that I used to buy stamps and coins for my collection in 1951 and also model airplanes and magic tricks. The proprietor was a very heavy man.

    If you continued to walk east on Sutter Avenue toward Strauss Street… before you got to Strauss (on the south side of the street) was an appetizing store where I bought my daily supply of M & M’s that I’d take to school. There was a sour pickle barrel outside the store and I developed a taste for sour pickles there.

    When you got to Strauss Street (which used to be called Douglass Street) if you turned left and started to walk towards Pitkin Avenue,
    about halfway up the block on the east side of the street is where they filmed several scenes for the movie “The Last Angry Man” starring Paul Muni and Betsy Palmer, in 1959.

    Walking back to Sutter Avenue, on the opposite corner was another pharmacy which had large chemical laboratory glassware pieces in the window filled with blue and red colored water. I often shopped in that pharmacy to buy chemicals to replenish the ones I used up in my A.C. Gilbert chemistry set.

    I can picture Sutter Avenue EXACTLY the way it was back then… a vibrant shopping area, but now, almost every single store in that area has been replaced with one and two family homes. Gone are almost all of the apartment buildings. The only thing that exists are memories.

    Roger Elowitz
    Marlboro, NJ and
    Port St. Lucie, FL

  • I remember how busy it was on ENY Ave and Saratoga especially heading into the good weather, There were buses there all the time transporting the passengers upstate to the Catskills. Very convenient to have a travel hub situated in the center of Brownsville. There was an abundance of hotels throughout Sullivan County. Those were the days. Stuart Portnoy Coconut Creek

  • I’m on the tricycle in front of Key Food on Sutter Ave. My grandma owned Hoffman’s beauty salon at 128 Sutter.

  • My Dad owned a ladies clothing store (Rader’s Specialty Shop) at 1567 Pitkin Ave. It was next to a corner shoe store on one side and a liquor store on the other. We lived at 85 Bristol Street. (the large apartment building on Bristol and Pitkin), and went to PS 175 with Ms. Kollar. Also remember a guy had a pony on Pitkin Ave (on the sidewalk) who would charge parents to let their kids sit on it and take a photo. One day I was sick at home from school….Dad bribed the guy and arranged for me to see the pony…only problem was we were on the 5th floor of 85 Bristol. Imagine having a real live pony in your livingroom….everything was going great until the super walks in from the commotion. As Dad said …”I just wanted to see the expression on your face”

  • I grew up on Ralph Ave (506) above the Blue Sky Laundry– went to P.S. 191 from 1954 – 1960 Played stickball on Park Place & on the Home Run court @ 191 — In the winter would go sledding @ Lincoln Terrace Park on Dead Mans Hill the good old days!!!

  • I was born in 1952 but two of my older cousins have vivid recollections of Brownsville. I’m going to give them the link here, their historical memories are amazing. You can also look up individuals names in the census and will remember even more people.

    My cousin was just telling me about my mom (msrip) putting us both in a double stroller and heading to Pitkin Avenue for a Charlotte Russe treat.

  • Does anyone remember Hoffman’s beauty salon at 128 Sutter? Hymie’s was on the corner and next to my grandma’s (msrip) was a shoe repair store owned by the Fisher’s. There was a small supermarket across the street named either Key Fair or Key Food I’m not sure. I have a picture of me on a tricycle but the name doesn’t show.

  • Hello Roger and friends. I’m right in the middle of a photographic history project on Brownsville and wanted to welcome interested parties to a sneak preview page as well as solicit information of historical interest:

    http://www.tapeshare.com/Brownsville.html

    Rick

  • Hi Stu,

    Unity Hospital was at 1545 St. John’s Place and it closed in 1978. Just a few doors down at 1561 St. John’s Place was the Congress Theater… also closed. I fondly recall seeing the movie Destination Moon there in August of 1950. I went there myself even though I was only 9-years old. Seems that walking ten blocks from home by myself was no big deal back then. After all, I always walked the 9 or so blocks to the library on the corner of Dumont and Stone Avenues. (Now Mother Gaston Blvd). And, at 10 years of age I was taking the IRT downtown to the General Post Office to buy First Day Cover stamps for my collection. And at 11 or 12 years of age I also took the IRT to the St. George Hotel in downtown Brooklyn that had a salt water pool.

    Roger

  • HI FRIENDS, How about those folks that resided and attended John Marshall JHS in upper Brownsville? Places like around St. Johns Place and the Unity Hospital area. Stt. Johns place and ralph Ave had the Cornicello family running the shoe repair business. I was in the Army together with one of the Cornicello brothers. Stuart Portnoy

  • Hi Hermine,

    My welcome as well. We look forward to you sharing your reminiscences of Brownsville and your friends and teachers there.

    I recall that from 1944 to 1959 when I lived at 106 Amboy Street that I ended up going to FIVE SCHOOLS!!! PS 175, PS 156, JHS 66 and JHS 263 (first graduating class) and then Thomas Jefferson HS, and never moved once in all that time. Only in 1959 did I move to Canarsie when I entered Brooklyn College.

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz
    Port St. Lucie, FL and Marlboro, NJ

  • Hermine, Welcome to the best website around. There is warmth and friendliness amongst our Brownsville neighbors of years ago. Hoping you will enjoy the website. Stuart Portnoy Coconut Creek

  • Stuart – can you try emailing it to me again, like you did last time? David

  • To David Freeland I am still having a problem getting my messages to appear. Thank you Stuart Portnoy

  • lived on park pl from birth to 21 years. Just told about this website

  • Hi All,

    Looks like I was right (for a change). The deep water diving pool at Betsy Head Pool and park is not in service. Here’s a satellite view of the area for you to peruse:

    http://tinyurl.com/j3sqky6

    Just click on the link above to see it.

    BTW, in case you didn’t already know it… Hopkinson Avenue has
    been re-named Thomas S. Boyland Street.

    Happy New Year All,

    Roger

  • Hi All,

    While the old P.S. 156 on the corner of Sutter Avenue and Grafton St. has been razed… it has been replaced with a new building still called P.S.156 / I.S. 392 which includes an Intermediate School. Here’s a picture of the new building taken in October 2016.

    http://tinyurl.com/hnlp7ax

    Roger

  • And, with the help of Google Maps I just took a quick tour of Pitkin Avenue and I sadly have to report that the Lowes Pitkin is now… wait for it… a Dollar Tree store! Yipes!

    With some judicious searching on Google Maps you can also see the original Wu Han Chinese restaurant sign is STILL THERE… hidden behind a tree… but clearly visible from Strauss Street.

    Roger

  • And here is a view from Saratoga Avenue looking at Pitkin Avenue (where the Stetson Hat store is located on the corner).

    http://tinyurl.com/znlwvtd

    I believe that just out of view is the Wu Han Chinese restaurant. And I may be mistaken but the clock on the corner building might have belonged to the Manufacturer’s Hanover Trust bank.

    Enjoy.

    Roger

  • And for all you Brownsvillites… here are two pictures you will love to see… of Betsy Head pool:

    http://tinyurl.com/jn5ts7o
    This view appears to be facing Dumont Avenue.

    And this one appears to be facin Livonia Avenue and the elevated IRT trains:

    http://tinyurl.com/zdf28hu

    Seems to me the diving pool is gone and replaced by bleachers.

    And look what I found… an old picture of P.S.156 looking down Sutter Avenue from Legion Street to Grafton Street. This is a view of the front of the school. That building has since been razed and replaced with a new school with a different name and number: Please click on the link below to see it;

    http://tinyurl.com/hwqxohj

    Wow! What memories!

    Roger

  • Hi Stuart,

    I just double checked Google Maps and it looks like you’re right. I was looking at the opposite side of the street. All the homes on the 225 Herzl Street are relatively new 2-stroy homes. This is what they look like now. Please click on this link:

    http://tinyurl.com/zygyuy4

    Directly across the street appear to be the original homes but they are also only 2-story homes. Just click and drag your mouse right to left to see the opposite side of the street.

    Happy New Year!

    Roger (Port St. Lucie, FL and Marlboro, NJ)

  • Roger, The apartment houses on Herzl l St including 225 were all three story dwellings including 225. Does anyone know of Philip Montag who resided on Herzl St between Blake and Dumont? Also Norman Smith of 231 Herzl St who married Elaine Sanders? Happy New Year Stuart Portnoy Coconut Creek

  • Hi Stuart,

    I found a picture of 225 Herzl St. on Google Earth and it is located between Blake and Dumont Avenues. Looks like the original two-story home is still standing. I can send you a photo if you contact me at my e-mail address: k2jas@Comcast.net.

    Roger Elowitz

  • From Stuart Portnoy:

    One of the finest families in Brownsville were the Goldmans. Jack and Mary were the parents with three lovely sons. They were Carl, Melvin and Michael, Their residence was 225 Herzl St. In the same building were the Jacobsons. George was the dad and Millie the Mom. The three brothers wer Sidney, Irving and Martin. These are folks that I will always remember. Stuart Portnoy Coconut Creek

  • It’s still not showing up. Can you paste the text into an email and send to me at davidjfreeland@gmail.com? I can post it that way. Thanks!

  • To David , I resubmitted the message and again it did not materialize. Stuart Portnoy

  • Stuart – can you try sending it again? It’s not in the pending comments queue. Probably just a program glitch. The last comment I see of yours is the one dated 12.16 to Barbara Gelfman. Thanks, David

  • To the editor, About 2 days ago I submitted a response and it said considered for moderation. Never was it published Stuart Portnoy

  • To Barbara Gelfman. I am very sad knowing that your cousin Marion passed away. Some how or another I took a real family like feeling when I ,was inj contact with the Slotkins so many years ago. I still feel close to them and Aunt Rose treated me as a mensch. My best wishes to you and yours always. Warmest feelings from me to you Stuart Portnoy Coconut Creek

  • To Stuart Portnoy,
    I believe your comment on December 13, 2016 appeared once before. Rose Slotkin was my aunt (my mother’s sister). Yes, she was a woman way ahead of her time. She worked and was involved in her union while most women at that time did not work. She was a very kind and generous woman and extremely smart. Her daughter Marion attended Music and Art High School which was a tough school to get into. Marion later became a registered nurse. Sadly, she passed away about 5 years ago.
    My family lived across the street from Aunt Rose. My parents Lee and Sam Shabat , my bother Daniel, and I lived at 148 Blake Ave.
    My mother cared for Marion when Rose was busy working. My father was drafted into the army at age 32, around 1943, and he served as a medic in the front lines in Italy. He sustained shrapnel injuries and was awarded a Purple Heart. I am so very proud of him.
    Please contact me, if you have time.

  • Just came across this site now, at the end of 2016. Wish I had seen it earlier.

    Lived in a second floor apartment in large building at 842 Saratoga Ave, from my birth in June 1952 until I was 11. That was near Riverdale, and one block from the El at Livonia. Recall the Ambassador movie theater right near there. Family life wasn’t so great for us during those years but I have vivid and mostly fun memories of that neighborhood. Went to P.S. 183 on Riverdale and Herzl through 5th grade — was the principal Mr. Warschauer?

    Noticed some comments below that were left by Louis Abramsky about four years ago. Louis, I definitely remember you. We were friends in the early 1960s . I also remember Mark Sherman who lived in an apartment across Saratoga from ours, and his older brothers, David and Alan, I think. If anyone is still looking at this and wants to reach me: peters.jay.j@gmail.com

  • A pleasant time of my teen age years was a lovely lady by the name of Rose Slotkin who resided on Blake and Herzl. She was part of a small family with one daughter named Marion. Rose would type away on the upper floor window of the apartment and utilize me to carry many cartons of typed material every day via the IRT to the Graybar building on Lexington Ave an d pay me what ever was coming to me. Her husband was a real mensch. Marion the daughter of about 8 was a well bred brought up kid that any family would desire and a beautiful child that any family would desire. Walking on the sidewalk at the building the sound of the typewriter was always prevailing. Stuart Portnoy Coconut Creek

  • Hi Marty,

    I knew Phil Himmelfarb very well since he was in my class (9-2) in the first graduating class out of David Marcus JHS 263. I can send you a picture of him if you send me an e-mail address. Sadly, I believe he has passed away. I also knew Phil’s friends, Neil Evans and Paul who were body builders and a year or so older. I also knew Danny Hechital since I dated his sister Ruthie. We all went to the H.E.S. gym and dances and pool room.

    I surely knew the Stadium theater. I saw Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein there. It was 1948 and I was only 7-years old at the time and it scared the Hell out of me and gave me nightmares for years.

    BTW… Stu Portnoy… my in-laws owned a condo in nearby Margate, FL and when they passed we owned it for awhile. In fact, my son just went to a concert in Coconut Creek where we just loved the theater.

    Roger Elowitz
    K2JAS@Comcast.net