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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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303 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