Gotham Lost and Found header image 1

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.

********************************************************************

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

 

 

 

 

 

Tags:   · · · · · 319 Comments

Leave a Comment

319 responses so far ↓

  • Hi Stu,

    I don’t know if you’ve looked lately but Google Maps shows Feldman Lumber to still be in business in the same location. Their phone number is 718-498-6600. I remember as a ten year old, buying a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood that I laid across an old couch in my basement to use as a table for my Lionel trains that I bought at Kings Stationery on Pitkin Avenue. I have no idea how I got it home. I still have those Lionel trains! Yeow! And Betsy Head Pool is still across the street from Feldman.

    Roger Elowitz

  • Hi Stuart,

    I don’t know if you’ve checked lately but Feldman Lumber is STILL THERE. Of course, there is a nice ball field a few blocks away that is part of Betsy Head park. I used to run around that track many times to work off some excessive “shpilkas.” Next to the park on Strauss Street was my scout troop 157. Do you remember the People’s Cinema on the corner of Livonia and Saratoga? Diagonally across the street was the Ambassador Theater.

    Roger

  • Roger, I remember the same as you. I have not been back to NY since 1983. King on Pitkin and Thatford which was across the street from Rimberg and Kishka King was the central place to buy school supplies when school started. I still have the oval Btrownie camera and a box style. Film was 127 and is available in Rochester NY. I of course can not utilize it because I would have to bring Victor Schutzbank back to insert and remove the film for me. As a pharmacist Victor was always obliging and a true gentleman. But one block away was Lena Chericetti the assistant principal in PS175. She came to work daily on her broom and the clothes that were well worn. She was in the same category as Mr. Gustave Rappoport the typing teacher. Wondering if Hyman Spitz the florist is still at Pitkin and Rockaway? For now I bid you all farewell Stuart Portnoy

  • Hi David,

    I’ve left two comments to be posted, the second one was because the first one didn’t show up. Please explain what’s happening. Are you on vacation? I’m sure I didn’t post anything offensive or censurable.

    Roger

  • Hi Roger – nothing new is showing up, for some reason. I went through the spam folder as well and nothing is there, so can you try posting again? One of the vagaries of the blog program, no doubt! Others have mentioned similar things to me, from time to time. David

  • Hi David,

    I found the missing posts… under the heading at the bottom of the page called Newer Comments ». I always find missing things in the last place I look. So… not your fault at all! Sorry to trouble you.

    Roger

  • Hi Stu,

    I went to Google Maps and looked at 1688 Pitkin Avenue where Spitz Florists used to be… but sadly, no more. I think they became Spitz and Peck Florists at two locations in Manhattan.

    I sure do remember Mrs. Cherichetti in her black print dress and her cow-bell lining up the kids in the school yard. Mrs. Allen was the principal in my time. I remember reading passages from the Bible at some assembly programs. Funny, it never “corrupted me.”

    I surely recall Kings Stationery Store for school supplies, toys and bikes and so much more. I bought my Schwinn Traveler bike there and I STILL RIDE IT to this day… only I keep it in my airplane’s hangar and ride it on the taxiway to get to the bathroom at Old Bridge (NJ) airport. (True)

    I’m very familiar with the 127-Kodak film. I have a complete darkroom here and used to process roll film (B/W and Color) as part of my photography studio (Roger Lawrence Photography). People tend to forget that Drug Stores used to process B/W film long before they sent it out to a lab. It was “natural” for a pharmacist who works with chemicals all day… to process film and prints after work. I’m still intending to visit my neighbor, Barry Shutzbank, and see if it was his father’s pharmacy you’re speaking of. Please standby!

    Farewell? Where are you going?

    Roger

  • Hi Roger – glad you found them! Thanks for letting me know. Take care, David

  • Roger I am not going anyplace in particular, At this stage of the game I take everything day by day. I am sure that you remember the Loews Pitkin and the big organ they had. It was Henrietta Camaretta who performed on the organ. One performance she caught one of her feet inside thje mechanism and was in deep trouble. My friend Herman Leo Raphael was there and pulled her foot out to safety, Also do you remem ber Ripleys on Pitkin Ave at Grafton St burn down the night of Jan 14,1954? I wish you and yours the best and all the folks from Brownsville, Stuart Portnoy

  • Hi David and Stu,

    David, the problem with “missing posts” is that one needs to look for them on a “new page” instead of them continuing down the blog. That’s a programming feature I don’t find “user friendly.”

    Stu… I certainly remember the Lowe’s Pitkin. Thomas Jefferson high school held their graduation ceremonies there. I don’t believe I ever heard the organ played and didn’t know about Henrietta Camaretta’s accident. Wow!

    I do certainly recall Ripley’s Clothiers but I never really frequented them. They were mostly “men’s stores” and I left Brownsville just before I turned 18 when my parents moved to Canarsie.

    Do you remember Concorde or Hoffman’s Cafeteria on Pitkin Ave near Saratoga? You had to get a ticket and then order your food at the counter. The server would then punch your ticket with the value of the food… I think.

    And do you remember kids using garbage can covers to change the spray from the open fire hydrants in the summer? Did you ever sleep outside at night on a fire-escape or on “tar beach?” (the roof)
    I never did since my two story building my parents owned didn’t have fire-escapes. We were lucky. My dad bought a window air-conditioner and I dragged my mattresses into the living room for sleeping.

    All the best,

    Roger

  • Hi everyone, Hope all is well. I was thinking of the movie theaters in Brownsville. There was the Tiffany on Livonia and Chester which was on the style of the Peoples Cinema at Saratoga and Livonia. The Waldorf was on Church Ave and E.94. The Stadium theater was on Chester and Pitkin. The Palace who always carried the overload from the Pitkin theater was on Strauss and ENY Ave. Of course there was the pre-war priced Brandts Sutter on Sutter and Ralph featured an admission price of ten cents. Also the Hopkinson theater on Hopkinson and Pitkin which eventually became the parking lot of the East New Savings bank. I worked as an usher at the Hopkinson. The Congress was adjacent to the Unity Hospital on St. Johns Place. I consumed many hours in these establishments. Until next time the best to all of you fine folks from Brownsville. Stuart Portnoy

  • Hi Stu,

    The Peoples Cinema on Saratoga and Livonia ran a Saturday morning matinee… with two features, newsreel, shorts and cartoons. I recall the theater being so packed that I had to lay down on the stage and watch the movie.

    And I vaguely recall two theaters… side by side(?) on Stone avenue between Pitkin and Sutter. I don’t recall their names. I do recall the Congress theater located at 1561 St. Johns Place at Buffalo Avenue Brooklyn, N.Y. 11213 where on June 27, 1950 I saw Destination Moon. I walked there myself and I was only 9-years old.

    Did you ever see any of the Yiddish Shows in the Hopkinson Theater (behind the ENY Savings Bank)? My fondest memories of that theater was watching Laurel and Hardy comedies.

    The Rugby Theater on Utica Avenue between Church and Linden Blvd was another favorite. My wife’s uncle owned the Rugby Sports Shop a few doors away.

    Oh! And diagonally opposite the People’s Cinema was the Ambassador Theater. I recall them giving away dishes on Friday nights. I have photos of most of those theaters if you’d like to see them.

    Do you remember the Roller Skating Rink on St. Johns Place and Howard Avenue. I believe they were next to Goldring Motors who sold Studebakers. They used to have boxing and wrestling there… that I never saw.

    The park next to the Lowes Pitkin was called War Memorial Park although I always heard it referred to as “Kitzel Park.”

    All the Best,

    Roger

  • Anyone have the recipie for Jungle Jim’s coconut whip drink?

  • Hi Norman,

    I used to love Jungle Jim’s coconut whip… and his slices of coconut too. Since I used to be a soda-jerk I’m going to take a stab at the coconut-whip recipe. Take about 4-oz. of Goya Coconut Milk and add about 4-oz. of 2% milk. Put into a blender and add a dash (squirt or two) of either vanilla or chocolate or cherry Fox’s U-Bet syrup and blend until frothy. It would be great if you had an old Hamilton Beech Malted Machine… but any old blender will do. You might want to add a bit of crushed ice to make the concoction really cold.

    Man! Is that GOOD!

    Regards,

    Roger Elowitz

  • I lived at 260 Amboy Street between Dumont and Blake. I am 74. Years old and have a very good memory of my Brownsville years. I know the Petsky’s and I know Roger Elowitz. I also have four brothers that lived with me on Amboy Street. If anyone like some questions answered about life on Amboy Street, I would be glad to try to answer some of your questions. I remember entering Persky mud garden and taking some set shots. The problem was that, if it rained I would sink in the mud and was not able to reach the basket.

  • Hey Marty,

    What can I say? “Welcome Aboard.” All your great reminiscences are needed here. Hey folks! Marty lived only a few hundred feet from Betsy Head!!! We still have many friends in common. Of course we went to the same schools. Great having your input here Marty.

    Roger

  • Thanks Roger, great to be abroad. it’s been a great adventure and I wouldn’t change it one bit. When I went to free shift at Betsy Head I would stay the whole day for free. I remember my mom giving my neighbors my lunch to throw over the fence so I didn’t have to leave the ink well. Does anybody remember where you could sit outside the pool area where there was a filter system with air blowing out. How about walking out of the locker room into a pool of mud that was supposed to clean your feet as you entered the pool area.

  • Hey Marty,

    I most certainly remember the pool of muddy water you stepped into when entering and leaving the locker room. We always tried to avoid it. But… I also remember wearing the elastic band with the brass number tag that was your “locker” number for your clothes. What I can’t recall was if you brought your own bathing suit or they gave you one? Hmmmm!

    Much later in life I got to know the guy who ran Betsy Head, by the name of Sammy Umansky. He would tell the tale of kids who slipped un-wrapped Baby Ruth’s into the water and then went around screaming about seeing a “turd.” Man! Kids were wicked.

    Sammy, I found out was a ham radio operator and we used to talk on the radio all the time. He was quite a character but he’s gone now.

    As much as we despised “The Ink Well” we also loved it. It was a true love-hate relationship.

    BTW…. I posted the FREE website where all of Thomas Jefferson H.S.’s Aurora Yearbooks can be found dating back to 1927 but somehow I found the URL was “corrupted.” Please try again at this web address:

    http://www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/Jefferson/yearbooks.htm

    If anyone has trouble using it… please contact me.

    k2jas@Comcast.net

    Roger

  • To Roger,
    Great web site. I still. Have my year book. I was in the concert band. Don’t know how since I never learned to play the trumpet. But my picture is there on the upper left side of page. I can’t read music but I was also in the marching band. I see they also show Tilden where my brothers went. I’ll send it to them. Thanks Marty