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.
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.
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.
Meanwhile, those interested in 1930s Deco will appreciate this Art Moderne-styled bank building, with Federalist touches.
I ended my tour beside the Pitkin Theater at “Zion Triangle,” a small park dedicated to Jewish veterans of the First World War.
“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