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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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236 responses so far ↓

  • Ken Chernick, I haven’t been on this site for awhile. Now that I looked at it again, I saw that you, too, had Joseph Micheloff as a teacher in P.S. 156. I was born in 1948, so my classes with him were slightly more recent than yours. Anyway, I remember him with love. He used to tell us how students would come back to see him many years after they’d grown up. He was a very good teacher and human being.

  • Yes, Carol. Mr. Micheloff was a great teacher and person. He was a gentlemen and a MENSCH. Now that I can look back and realize what type of individual he was, I feel very fortunate to have been in his class.

  • Carol, sorry that I never did visit him and the other teachers in PS 156. Wisdom takes a long time to arrive. Some times never. As we look back in our lives, we realize things that we never could have being young.

  • Reading the comments regarding Brownsville has indeed brought back many wonderful memories. I lived at 202 Amboy St. and then at 524 Saratoga Ave. Played at Betsyhead Park when to PS156 and had the best teachers ever. I still remember some names like Mrs. Fischman in kindergarten, Mrs. Perlman in 1st and 3rd grade, and Mrs Ostrow in 2nd . At JHS 252 and more great teachers. Science & social studies teacher Mr. Melvin Gordon, my favorite :) . Mr Zizmor Math, Mr. Fox, English literature. So many more.My time in Brooklyn are different years mentioned.

    I loved living there before it got bad(early 60′s)It got so dangerous we had to moved asap.I missed the best knishes ever. That was lunch everyday across the street from PS156. As long as I didn’t get bullyed and my lunch money wasn’t taken. I loved the trips to Coney Island on weekends. Nathan hotdogs, corn on the cob, hot knishes and cold sodas. Life was simple and safer then. My brother and I would be allowed to sleep on the fire escape with no fears. My brother would play stickball, football, Skelly(bottle caps), football and handball at the park. My brother went to East New York Aviation High. I could go on and on. I now live in Florida and take total care of my elderly mom. My awesome brother passed away and so did my Dad. I’m glad I lived my childhood there. Best regards to all the Brooklynites!

  • On Blake and Herzl resided a lady by the Rose with hetr husband and young daughter Marion. They resided on the top floor of a small apartment house. The house was on the same side of the street heading towards Romms kosher deli. I and a few friends worked for Rose and she did typing and she hired us to deliver huge boxes to the Graybar bldg. near Grand Central Station to an office. She paid well and we were able to make a few dollars. The cartons were heavy but we were kids then and the trek to the IRT at Saratoga and Livonia was not a big deal. Her family was very nice people and I remember them well. On their side of the street was a barber shop and their family had a deaf son. Right across from Victor Schutzbanks pharmacy on Blake and Amboy. Victor himself was indeed a true gentleman. I remember all these people and places and am glad that I do. There will never be another Brownsville like the place we had. Stuart Portnoy

  • Born in Brownsville in 1951and lived on Hopkinson between Sutter and Blake until 1963. There was a shul directly across the street from our apartment building. I attended PS 175 and have fond memories of principal Abraham Bompey. Had some great teachers there. My mother grew up in the neighborhood. One of 3 sisters, the Meller girls. She was friends with Dora Halpern Schwartz, the twins Edie and Ruthie. I remember the green grocer on Sutter between Hopkinson and Amboy. Fond memories of dances at the HES with the Dolinsky brothers and my older brother Harvey. Two slices and a coke at Pizza Den on Pitkin. Swimming at Betsy head. Buying fancy dresses at Young Folks and shoes at Buster Brown. Wasn’t such a bad childhood. Went back to the neighborhood years ago. Most of the buildings on that block of Hopkinson (now Thomas Boyland) had been razed. How I once more wanted to see the beautiful hallways of the apartment building where I lived and explore the concentric courtyards around which the building was constructed. So many sweet memories.

  • Elaine, I lived at 202 Amboy St til 1959 but I don’t remember an Elaine at 202. What apt and your last name?
    Do you remember the Hobermans, Saulls, Buschels, Moskowitz,
    Blanks, Slavins, either Friedman family etc?
    We moved to E 92nd St btwn Clarkson and Winthrop – near Rita Friedman who I just read about on this site.
    Stuart Portnoy – a wealth of info – write a book

  • I was born in 1946 and lived at 64 Blake ave between Sutter. And Grafton. Went to ps 156 Somers and Tilden hung out most on Strauss st at the corner of Blake ave. Also spent a lot of time at my uncle’s house at 231 Amboy st. He was Dr wordsmith.
    Had a lot of friends on Strauss st among the names I remember were Rena suffer my first girl friend Harvey Kaplan cookie Richie Cumberland Kenny who was the first to get a car Mike Frankenstein Michael who lived across from Harvey Kaplan Sheldon Affleck Danny Rubin would love to hear from anyone who remembers me or the people I’ve mentioned

  • Joseph Brotheim. This is Ken Chernick. I do remember you and your cousin. I don’t remember his name, sorry. I am still friends with Michael Sosnick and his sister Laura. The last time I saw Rena Uffer was in Virginia in 1986. The other’s only G-d knows where they are. Hope that they are well. The same goes for you and your cousin. When the days are lousy, remember ALL THE GREAT DAYS GROWING UP IN BROWNSVILLE.

  • Ken Chernick
    As I remember you a very large Buick? And you went to work for the post office? How did u happen to run into Rena?
    I went back to the neighborhood in July. Took my daughter on a nostalgic trip through my youth
    After living on long island for the past 42 yrs my wife and I moved to California in August. Good to hear from you
    My email is playgolf46@yahoo.com

  • We lived in Brownsville from 1951-1962. First on Powell Street off Pitkin and then 481 Hopkinson between Pitkin and Sutter, across the street from the Hopkinson Theatre which was razed and replaced by The East NY Savings Bank. Great parking lot for playing ball. The landlord, Sam Warshafsky, lived on the first floor above a jewlelry store he operated. The store was right next to the Ravitz’ candy store which was always loaded with comic books, candies and had 1 or 2 booths where you could sit and have a malted or poor boys malted…an egg cream. I think Sam Ravitz was the owner. His wife had yellowish braided hair. They lived behind the candy store and had a son.
    Down the street lived the Dolinsky family and three brothers-Alan, Milty and Hymie. Further down was my friend Willie at 541. At the corner of Hopkinson and Sutter was Nathan and Sonia Wind’s grocery store, across the street from the HES. Most of the Jewish parents, including mine, were Holocaust Survivors and Yiddish was the primary language although the neighborhood was quite mixed by the mid fifties. Julie Bender was the legendary athletic director at the H. Rabbi Aler Landesman ran the place and I remember Adolph Dembo there as well. He was also at JHS 263 (David Marcus) for a while. My teachers at PS 175 were Mrs. Kuller, Keselenko, Warfogel, Falk, Scharf and Sirota. Mrs Chereicetti with her cowbell was a stern force you didn’t want to cross. The game room at the H was always riotous. For fun we’d jump roofs, hang on to the back of Pitkin Avenue busses, sneak into the Stadium movie through, the Bristol Street exit door, play ball everywhere including Betsy Head. Accompanying my mother shopping on Belmont Avenue…going to the chicken market and watching chickens killed and feathers flicked, rummaging through clothing at Cheap Charlies and absorbing all the screaming and banter at the pushcarts.
    As the fifties evolved, danger grew.. muggings, burglaries, homicides and street fights were not unusual. Gangs grew, Sometimes along ethnic lines, color lines or street boundaries.

  • Also wanted to mention my younger sister Trudy who also went to PS175 for a few years before we moved to 56th St nr. Ave K in 1962.
    I was bar mitzvah at the Strauss Street Synagogue off Sutter, bot my rented tuxedo at Zellers on Stone Ave and with my whole family took the Pitkin Avenue bus, all dressed up, to my bar mitzvah party at De Luxe Caterers on Saratoga or Howard between Eastern Parkway and Pitkin.

  • Those where best of days.
    Lived at 115 Herzl Street, 1940′s-1950′s
    HAPPY THANKSGIVNG TO ALL
    GOD BLESS AMERICA
    JOE FELNER

  • Steven,
    “Cheap Charlie’s” was probably Julies,Belmont Avenue.I worked there on Weekends to guard against thefts and to organize the clothes.The head of the HES was Alter Landesman.Read his book.I went to Ms.Strauss’Camp Merydell one summer.She was an HES director.A girl named Ingar lived next door to the Hopknson Theatre.After the Saturday night dance at the HES,we would dance at her home.Mr.Dembo was the leader of my club in the HES.We were first called the Pirates and later the Trojans.
    Although I lived in East Flatbush,I spent my life in Brownsville.I graduated Tilden in Feb ’54 and the Dumont Avenue Poolroom soon after.I graduated Bklyn Coll.in 1958.
    Marty

  • I would love to know the history of the apartment building,9720 Kings Highway, corner of 98the St. More notably known as “The Mayflower”, My parents lived there in the 1930″s Then down the street at 294 E.98th St. Lived there in the 40″s and 50″s The Brooklyn Jewish Home and Hospital for the aged was on Howard Ave. Had a nice synagogue . It was right where the IRT El turned

  • Hi Claudia, From what I can remember the mayflower was an apartment house that catered to a fast crowd men and women. Thence they moved out and the Mayflower became a residence for all. Later on in years a beautiful building was built and it was the East New York Savings Bank at Rockaway Parkway and Kings Highway. which was one block away from E.98 St. Near the bank was a new car showroom by the name of Goldring motors. The locale was great being in between two train stations. Stuart Portnoy

  • Claudia,
    The old aged home was on Riverdale.It had some “Tiffany”glass windows that a client of mine,Lillian Nassau,aka,the “Tiffany Queen”,purchased and sold.

  • This is the very first time I have seen this sight and I am thrilled! I lived at 153 Amboy St. (near the corner of Sutter Ave.) from 1945 to 1952; then we moved “up” to Buffalo Ave. between Lincoln Pl. and St. Johns Pl. I started school at the Hendricks St. Playschool and then went to PS 156 (I’m glad it’s still there). When we moved I went to PS 191, JHS 210 and Jefferson HS. In 1963 I joined the Army and stayed in for 25 years. I never went back to Brooklyn to live, but have visited family and friends often over the years. I am still friends (since 1956) with the guys I grew up hanging out with; all 3 live on Staten Island. The rest of my family is either gone or no longer live in Brooklyn. I live near Washington, DC and STILL can’t find a decent eggcream unless I visit NY; and don’t get me started on knishes or a corned beef sandwich.

  • Hi David, Glad you discovered this website. Alll nice people here. I resided at 172 Amboy Street. You were in 153 which my classmate BOO Boo Rosen lived. Most of our guys served 2 years in service. We are proud of you. You lived across the street from the Amboy St. Shul which had a large congregation. I was in the Korean war time in the army. You must have started with the Viet Nam era. We had our own little war in Brownsville. Going to Lew Wallace JHS was like being in combat and if you returned home at the end of the day from JHS66 it was a miracle. But top have a part of your life as a Brownsville participant leaves everlasting memories. Good luck and health to you always

  • Happy New Year, Stuart and all other posters.

    Stuart, do you remember Hennie Lipschutz, the daughter of the super in the building next to 219 Herzl, which was 225, I believe. I think she was older than my sister, Loretta. There was an even older guy who was pursuing her, but at some point she seemed to reject him. Strange, but in 1983 I was at a gas station in Dearborn, Mi. An older guy was on the other side pumping gas and we started a conversation. He said that his name was Sam Katz, which was the same name as my father, and that he was originally from Brooklyn. When I asked him whether he remembered Herzl Street, he said that he used to go there to see Hennie Lipschutz. Strange, huh. It’s stranger still that I should be thinking about these people on New Year’s Day, with the weather outside in the 20s. My conversation with older guy was on a warm evening in June.
    Again, Happy New Year

  • Hi Kenny, hope you are well. Rena now lives in Richmond near her daughter and grand children. I have a fond memory of you and Danny Rubin. I do remember meeting Mr Micheloff for whom I remember being a warm individual, Please send my regards to Micheal and Laura.

    Kind Regards, Alan

  • Loved reading these comments, especially from Kenny and Joe. Hope to hear from both of them, berlinr888@gmail.com.
    I also had Mr Mischeloff (spelling) and when I became a 6th grade teacher I tracked him down. He was living in CA, this was in 1987, and he sounded wonderful.

  • Anyone remember Hyman (Hy) Linchitz, or Rose Linchitz?

  • Hello Alan
    I am so happy to hear from you. I am doing fine and hope the same for you and yours. I just went to Michael’s birthday party in November in Queens. He is doing fine. It would be great to have every one together again on your stoop on Strauss Street.
    Take Care
    Kenny

  • Hi Kenny, the stoop is gone,but the memories for Rena, Mike, and Laura are still there. Most of my memories are from my early childhood and are blurry. I do remember Mike , Laura and you clearly.One nice memory was taking a ride with Rena and you to Nathans in C.I . I must have been 8 at the time.. I clearly remember the great laughter out side my window and the good times you all were having. I would enjoy meeting you and Mike. Let me know.

    Alan

  • Hi Ron. Hennie Lifschitz real name is Helen. Her brother who is challenged is Abie who hung out with Heshy from your building. Helen was the breadwinner of the family. Building 225 had an array of popular people. There was Jack and Mary Goldman and their children Carl Michael and Melvin. Above them was George and Millie Jacobson with Sidney, Irving and Martin. Also in 225 was Marty Obler and two sisters. A wonderful time of my life was spent on Herzl St and enjoyed every moment. Wishing you and yours a Happy New Year. Stuart Portnoy

  • Hi Ron, There is a verygood TV show we watch here in South Florida called hard core pawn which centers around a pawn shop in Detroit. The bonifide names of the performers is Les Gold, Seth Gold and the sister Ashley. They run a busy store called American Jewelry and the show has been on now for quite some time. Re. Helen Lifschiotz and your lovely sister Loretta your sister was about six years younger. I wish you extremely well always. Stuart Portnoy 172 Amboy Street.

  • Alan Uffer, you may not believe this but THE FAMOUS STOOP IS STILL THERE. So is your house and the houses of Harvey Kaplan, Michael Sosnick and Madylon Rosenbaum. The rest of the neighborhood including the original PS 156 is history.
    No one could truly understand how we felt living in Brownsville. IT WAS GREAT AND NOW GONE.

  • Hi Stuart Portnoy,

    You mentioned buying a paper cup of lemon ices on Pitkin Avenue or a hot baked sweet potato there in the winter. Just so happens that the woman who sold those items from push wagons was none other than my maternal grandmother, Anna Weissman. We lived at 106 Amboy Street and grandma made the ices in the garage behind our two-story home. She also kept the metal chest of drawers on wheels that she baked and sold sweet potatoes from.

    I moved to Amboy Street in 1944 and stayed until we moved to Canarsie in 1959. Of course I went to PS 175 and PS 156 as well as JHS 66 and I was in the first graduating class from Col. David Marcus JHS 263. I then went to Jefferson and became the student government president in my senior year of 1959.

    I knew Adolph Dembo very well. My sister used to babysit for him. He was my science teacher in 66. He was also instrumental in coaching many of the 66 teachers to becoming principals and later school district superintendents. The noted scholar Donald Kagen was a protegee of his at the HES.

    And, of course, I got my haircuts at Murray and Nat’s. There used to be a post office directly across the street but it moved to Bristol street.

    I have so many memories of Brownsville I could (should) write a nice book. But I’ve been retired now 18-years so the thought of more work is just not in my head.

    All the Best

    Roger Elowitz
    k2jas@comcast.net
    living in Marlboro, NJ and
    Port St. Lucie, FL

  • Hi Stuart Portnoy,

    If you lived at 172 Amboy and you are about 73-yrs old, you probably knew Alan Flaum, Freddie Hoberman, Jimmy Resko and Barry Shutzbank? Eh?

    I lived at 106 Amboy Street between Sutter and Pitkin on the same side of the street as you. You should remember Romar Pharmacy and Shimmy’s Bar and Grill on the corner of Amboy and Sutter.

    Roger Elowitz

    Marlboro, NJ
    and Port St. Lucie, FL

  • In my post on January 18th I mentioned Mr. Donald Kagen was mentored by Adolph Dembo (in the library at the H.E.S. and that he
    was a noted scholar. The extent of his scholarship escaped me until
    I did a Wikipedia search for him:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Kagan

    Seems that Mr. Kagen represents one of Brownsville’s Best and Brightest.

    Roger Elowitz
    PS175, PS156, JHS66, JHS263, TJHS June’59
    Marlboro, NJ
    Port St. Lucie, The Cascades, FL

  • Roger, I am familiar with Barry Shutzbank. His Dad Victor had the pharmacy on Amboy and Bllake. His parents were swell folks. Port St. Lucie has Murray Babbitt from 225 Herzl St. residing there Good luck Stuart Portnoy

  • Sorry it took so long to find this website. Many, many names from the past, all remembered as though it was yesterday.

    Kenny Chernick, if you still frequent this website, my guess is that Eileen Ginsburg still pines for you.

    And Dr. Herb Stoloff (yes, he is a doctor – retired in Colorado) would welcome another opportunity to hypnotize you.

    Here, is a great story for former Brownsville residents:

    I was attending an event in Chicago in the spring of 1980, and I was walking down State Street on my way to a meeting.

    Two men were standing next to a theater entrance and they were arguing. One guy said, “You’re wrong, the deli was on the corner of Saratoga and Pitkin.”

    The other guy said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about, the deli was on the corner of Strauss and Sutter.”

    I stopped walking and stood there watching them go back and forth for a few minutes.

    Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I stepped across the sidewalk, walked up to them, and said, “You’re both wrong. I lived on Strauss and Pitkin. There was a deli on that corner, and the other deli was on the corner of Saratoga and Sutter, I passed it every day on my way to school at P.S. 156.”

    And then I walked away.

  • I should have added that anyone wishing to correspond can reach me at goldenpres@aol.com

    or, if you wish to talk (and I do) 716-283-4699

    I look forward to hearing from you.

  • Is there any reason you are not posting my communications?

  • Hi Stuart – I’m sorry, I don’t see any pending comments from you. That may be an error in the program – I try to stay up to date with the blog program but it’s possible that your comments didn’t make their way to me, or got sent to some strange place by the system. If there are any comments you have not yet seen posted, can you re-post them for me? I will look out for them and make sure they are added. Thanks, David