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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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173 responses so far ↓

  • For all those people on the Brownsville Blog – there should be a reunion

  • For all those p eople on the Brownsville Blog – there should be a reunion

  • A popular person around Brownsville was Ruby the knish man. He walked all over Brooklyn in various neighborhoods and there is a website for him called Ruby the knish man. I don not think he missed any school yards with his knish wagon. There is a website for him called Ruby the knish man. He always yelled to the customers to buy his knishes so he would be able to send his mother in law to Florida for the winter. His mother in law lived at 173 Amboy Street and his mother in law Mrs. Cohen made the knishes in a store on Bristol and ENY Ave. The website shows his wagon his photo etc. Wish all well Stuart Portnoy

  • Could someone tell me what street Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin was on the 1940′s-1950′s?
    Also any pictures or staff information of the Rabbis working in the school at that time.
    Thank You
    Saul

  • HARVEY ABICOFF – ARE YOU STILL LIVING IN THE NORTH?
    WHERE IS GLENDA AND MIRIAM AND SMITTY? DOES ANYONE KNOW WHERE BERNARD KATCHER IS?

  • If I remember correctly Yeshiva Chaim Berlin was located at the corner of Eastern Parkway near Park Place, It was a very religious facility. I went to Hebrew school by Morris Heifetz who was the Rabbi in charge. His facility was a storefront on Blake and Herzl. Stuart Portnoy

  • I grew up on Howard Ave. between Sutter and Pitkin, East side of the street, top floor of building that is now gone across from Henry’s the grocery store Went to :P .S. 156 and spent one year at P.S. 252 Junior High. Left Brooklyn in 1953, If I could have found that knish recipe, I would have been a millionaire! (and weighed a thousand pounds).lol. The pickle store on Sutter had the world’s best pickled green tomatoes.
    You can take the boy out of Brooklyn, but…you know the rest.

  • http://nypost.com/2010/08/24/bernie-catcher-dem-power-broker-70/
    Barbara Kleinman wanted to know if anyone knew where Bernie Catcher was. Unfortunately, he passed on a couple of years ago. If you copy and paste the http above you will see the obituary and tribute to a real Brooklyn native. I did not grow up on Brownsville but my mom, Joyce Liebson did with her siblings Bill (Wilbur) Henny (Henrietta) and Sidney. Parents were Rose and George. I got a big kick out of reading of all the streets and businesses that I heard so much about over the years. I now have the lamps that she purchased at one of the furniture stores on Pitkin Avenue when she got married. They are still beautiful, and my brother has the bedroom set. I forwarded the site to Bill Liebson who now lives in Arizona and it brought back many great memories. Best regards and good health to all my fellow Brooklynites from an East Flatbush native. What a great borough to have grown up in!

  • Gerogine, thanks for the info. It was sad to read that Bernie died. He was an only child of a young widowed mother and he tried to always be so good. His cousin gave her Nancy Drew books to him and he passed them to me. My father loved to take pictures and I have the group of kids from Amboy St in one picture. Stuie Berman, Lorna Saul, Brenda Buschel, Freddie Hoberman, my brother Allan etc. – the latter two died at a young age.
    I’d bet the lamps came from Mayrock on Rockaway/Sutter Aves.

  • For those of you that want a reunion I would be happy to help set it up. I’m sure Barbara would too
    My email is irazapin@gmail.com
    Or if the is some rule against including email.
    is the way I would sneak it through
    irazapin at gmail dot com

  • Bonnie Buchansky Gilman,
    Did you by any chance live on Grafton Street???
    Louis Abramsky

  • Hoping all thje Brownsville folks are doing well. Glad to see how many more friends have joined this group. The idea of a reunion sounds great. Some will show up with walkers but it can be done. I keep thinking of all the apartment houses in Brownsville and all the folding chairs in front of the building. All waiting for the ice cream truck. One of the nicest guys I ever met in Brownsville was the pharmacist Victor Schutzbank from Amboy and Blake. I used to go in there and he would load my 127 Kodak camera for me. I still have that camera and another besides. Wishing you all well and hope the sun always shines on you and yours. Stuart Portnoy.

  • I lived on Elton Street between Sutter and Blake. Was supposed to graduate from Thomas Jefferson HS in Jan 1964 but my parents moved us to LI where I graduated from a HS that shall remain nameless. There will be TJHS 50th anniversary reunion in Oct on LI if anyone is interested you can contact me @lbk7@cornell.edu. Thanks for the memories.

  • @ Stuart Portnoy-We lived on the 4th floor right above Sam the shoeshine man. My brother and I used to flick off little pieces of rock from the window sill and wait for him to yell at us. I was about 7 years old. Great memories from a great neighborhood! We went moved away from Legion Street about 1967.

  • Thanks, Barbara! You jogged my memory! The store was definitely Mayrock.

  • I stayed around Herzl and Blake. Amongst the group were Howard Hochma, Freddie Kessler, Joey Gross, Norman Smith, Abie Tager, Marty Obler, Murray Babbitt, Billy Richardson, Carl Goldman, Irving Jacobson Sidney Jacobson, Martin Jacobson, Bernie Sapper, Seymour BeubisRobert Karlsberg, Saulie Schneider, Philip Montag, Irwin Druttman, Alvin Farley, and Shorty Ritter. We were always playing punchball and wer pulled off the punch ball courts by the elders to go to the SHUL to complete a minyan of ten worshippers. Days that will never repeat itself but we all enjoyed everything. Stuart Portnoy 172 Amboy St.

  • I lived on Hopkinson Avenue between Blake and Dumont — it must have been re-named!! Can’t find it on this map!!!

  • hopkinson ave is now called thomas boyland ave

  • Hi Stuie. Glad to hear you are still around. I am hanging tough and living in LA. Two kids and two grand kids. Still watching Dodgers but now from here. Seymour

  • Seymour, What a great surprise when I saw your name. When we were kids you never used the name SY. What a great pleasure to hear from you. I remember 250 Herzl St. Also remember Uncle Perry. You were the best guy I ever met and I will never forget that. You intruded me to Miami Beach and I continued to make it my business to always go there throughout all the years. Now I am in Coconut Creek in Broward County. I also remember Helene and I am sure you remember brother Howard. Thank you once again for the communication and you will hear from me again. Stay healthy and happy. Stuart

  • I lived on Howard Avenue, between Pitkin and Sutter, in the late 50s. From about 1955 to 1959. It was a “step up” from Myrtle Avenue. I enjoyed the nearby availability of the Loew’s Pitkin and the numerous shops where you could spend the day, or actually spend some money. If you had it. I felt safe there, never threatened or afraid.
    Thanks for the stroll down memory lane.

  • Seymour, I remember you moving to Miami Beach and saying goodbye to Brownsville. If I am correct I think you were about 16 when you move. On your side of the street on Herzl St lived an elderly lady living with two grown sons one being an attorney and the other an MD. Do you remember Herbie Smith? Gl;ad that you had a successful career. You always had sports in your blood especially the Brooklyn Dodgers. The family with the MD and attorn ey had the name of Richmond. Good everything to you and yours. Stuart Portnoy

  • Dear readers – I received the following info from Lee Kass, who frequents this blog and has contributed to the discussions – David

    For your readers: you might like to let them know of a book called “Lost Synagogues of Brooklyn” where I was able to find the Synagogue I attended when I lived in Brooklyn and its current status.

    Also, Thomas Jefferson High School, Pennsylvania Ave, Brooklyn, is having its 50th anniversary reunion (Class of 1964) Oct 12 at

    Chateau Briand Caterers, 440 Old Country Rd. Carle Pl., LI, N.Y., Sunday, from Noon-4:30p.m. Grad classes of ’63 also invited! Contact Barbara Leichtner (bamaw22@gmail.com) if you are interested.

    Accomodations/lodging are available @ nearby hotels. Barbara can a recommended list.

    Best wishes,

    Lee Kass (nee Basevin)