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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.


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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  • Hi Alexander,

    So nice to hear from you. I posted a small mention of your grandmother’s work awhile back on this blog. The whole story of her life and work and some nice photos can be found here:

    Although I knew of her pioneering work it was only recently that I learned that her clinic was just “up the block” from where I grew up. 46 Amboy St. was between Pitkin Avenue and East New York
    Avenue and I lived a half-block away between Pitkin and Sutter. I didn’t start living on Amboy St. until 1945 when I was three years old so your grandmother was long gone by then. Nevertheless I am really appreciative of the good work she started. She was truly “ahead of her time.”

    The fourth picture down from the top of this blog captioned “Amboy Street, home of the “Amboy Dukes”” is a more recent photo of Amboy Street, right near the corner of Pitkin Ave. You can see a large apartment building in the background which now stands where Margaret Sangar’s storefront clinic used to be.

    Also, in this picture you may be able to see the boarded up window of Steve Glassberg’s father’s clothing store.

    Thanks for the memories.

    Roger Elowitz
    106 Amboy St from 1945 – 1959

  • My grandmother, Margaret Sanger, opened America’s first birth control clinic at 46 Amboy Street, 100 years ago on October 16, 1916. It stayed open 10 days before being closed by the police. My grandmother went to jail for 30 days. The building at 46 Amboy was owned by a Mr. Rabinowitz. The building was torn down some time ago.
    I would love to hear any memories of this.

  • My grandparents, Celia & Harry Steinberg, lived in East New York. Harry had a pharmacy , I think around Sutter Ave. Celia & Harry had a son, Herman, my dad born in 1920. Herman had a younger sister Blanche. Herman was close to his cousin Marty Cooperman. Herman went to Thomas Jefferson High School. Does anyone remember this family? Thank you

  • Hi Steve G.

    60 Amboy St. was right near the corner of Pitkin Avenue. I believe it was the next store down from the soda fountain on the corner although I never shopped there. Across the street was National Shoes… for women.

    Around the corner on Pitkin Avenue was Penrod Clothes. I’d think your dad had lots of competition on Pitkin Ave.

    Whenever I think of Brownsville I always think of the merchants and the stores. They were the lifeblood of the neighborhood.

    On the other end of Amboy St. near Sutter Ave was Nichols Fruit Store. The owner could add up a tremendous column of numbers on a paper bag and I’d scratch my head in wonder how anyone could add that fast! And on the corner of Amboy and Sutter was Shimmies Bar and Grill. I always guessed the Amboy Dukes hung out in that place although I never, ever saw a single “Duke.” Just lots of guys running across the street to Romar Drug Store on the opposite corner to use their pay phone to call in bets.

  • hi dick

    my father owned a mens clothing store at 60 amboy off of pitkin ave during the early 50’s

  • Victor Sorid
    Yes, I remember all of the names that you mentioned. Somers was PS 252. The knish man on Grafton St. had the best oval knishes. If I remember correctly, they were 10 cents. I saved for about a month my knish money to buy a bracelet for my mother from the store on Saratoga and Pitkin. Boy, did I miss those knishes every day. Philip lived down the block from me on Saratoga Bet. Blake & Dumont. Yes, Zelda was absolutely beautiful. The other people I remember also. Wonder what happened to all of them. The price of a bat from Irv’s was $1.00 He would give a bat to the best player of a game if you signed up your team with him. As the neighborhood changed he moved his store to the other side of E.98th St. I think it was on Rutland Rd. In the 3rd grade I had Mrs. Katz. Speak about having clean hands. Every day she inspected every ones hands and nails. Boy, everyone was immaculate. To this day, I can’t stand dirty or long finger nails. I spent my days in the PS 156 school yard. I remember Joel Barbarnel playing long and long way with a $1.00 stick ball bat. If that wasn’t around there was always a broom or mop in the garbage to play ball with. GREAT TIMES THAT DIDN’T LAST LONG ENOUGH.

  • I was a social worker in the late ’40’s and early ’50’s for what was then the NYC Dep’t of Welfare and had clients in the Brownsville area. I remember one afternoon discovering a mens clothing store that featured Ive League type clothing, button down shirts, Harris tweed sports coats rep ties and the like. over the years I’ve tried to find out where it was but to no awail. Prehaps you might know

  • Hi Carol,

    Your address tells me you lived on the corner of Amboy and Sutter Ave… probably above the grocery store on the corner and between Sutter and Blake avenues. I lived a half block away on the same side of the street at 106 Amboy, between Pitkin and Sutter Avenues.

    Sorry for the indelicate question but, if you were born more than two or three years on either side of 1941 we probably would never have known each other. Then again we probably went to the same schools.. PS 175, or PS 156, JHS 263 and Thomas Jefferson H.S..
    I’ll bet you also went to the H.E.S. too… but everything depends on your age and how long you lived at that address. I had many friends living on your block and your side of the street, one of whom I still communicate with and visit to this day.

    Please don’t be a stranger and visit this website with your memories often.

    Roger Elowitz
    Morganville, NJ
    Port St. Lucie, FL

  • I used to live at 164 Amboy Street on the 3rd floor

  • I lived on Thatford Ave opposite Kiske King. The smell of Kiske was so enticing. I remember that they had a 17″ TV where one could watch The Show of Shows with Sid Caeser & Imogene Cocoa (they were SO FUNNY!) or Milton Berle. Large crowds would watch on Tuesday nights, and of course buy hot dogs and kiske. I watched there for we could not afford a TV.

  • Victor: Do you remember whether Mr. Beckenstein’s wife was a teacher. If my memory is right, a Mrs. Beckenstein was my fourth grade teacher, and I can picture her now. She was a kind and helpful person.

    As to the knish man, I don’t remember that he ever covered his hand for sanitary reasons. Shamefully, I can’t bring myself to care, even to this day. We survived worse.

  • Hi Victor,

    Thanks for checking in here. You’ve done something very intelligent… you stated your birth year. That way I instantly know you are three years younger and there was a good chance lots of things had changed in Brownsville between us. Then again, perhaps not. Perhaps we shared some of the same teachers.

    We both went to P.S. 156 which, I don’t know if you know it, was torn down and completely rebuilt with a new name. I believe it is now an intermediate school but I’d have to re-check.

    Yes! The new round bank on Kings Highway and Rockaway Parkway was the East New York Savings bank… the same bank that came to most elementary school classes and took class pictures if your class had 100% banking that term. (I’d “kill” to see my old fifth grade class picture.)

    At P.S.156 I had Mrs. Cantor in the forth grade, Mrs. Warhaftig in the fifth grade and Mr. Feuer in the sixth grade. He had just returned from the Korean War. I remember learning to sew shop aprons that I’d need in junior high. I loved the school soup and sandwich lunches they served in 156. I always went back for extra soup.

    In the sixth grade I became a AAA Safety Patrol Crossing Guard and that was a “big deal” taking names of kids who didn’t cross the street properly.

    Near the corner of Sutter and Grafton St. was Tony’s Pizzeria and I was appalled when pizza went from 10¢ a slice to 15¢. I think I last paid over $2 a slice now. Yeow!

    Roger Elowitz

  • Back in the days of the Brooklyn Dodgers the ballgame was broadcasted by Red Barber and Connie Desmond on WHN. This was during the 40s. Red Barber would receive the information via ticker tape and despite the fact that he was no where near the ballpark he would announce the goings on just as he was at them game. When a ball player hit a home run he would announce There goes an old goldie into Bedford Ave. That was because the radio sponsor was Old Gold cigarettes. Stuart Portnoy Coconut Creek

  • My name is Victor Sorid. I was born in 1944. I went to PS 156, Somers JHS (PS262) and Brooklyn Tech. After many decades I met a fifth grade friend Bernie Miller. My brother was Harvey Sorid. At PS 156 I knew Joey Schwartz, Lester Barbanell, Zelda (a really hot girl), Phillip Bohrer, teachers Mr. Beckenstein. I remember the knish man on the street, the pool house on Sutter Ave. I lived on Howard Ave. between Livonia and Dumont. I played sandlot baseball run by Irv’s sporting good store on Sutter Ave. on the lot later replaced by that round bank. Anyone remember any of that. My e-mail is I still have my gradeschool report cards. We were graded on how well we carried a handkerchief and on clean nails.

  • Hi Stuart,

    Good question. I’d definitely have to say I sold very few TCP’s (plain seltzers) and far more egg creams. I also sold mostly Cokes or milk shakes and not as many Malted’s.

    Malted’s were more expensive than just plain milk shakes because they involved adding… you guessed it, a teaspoon of powdered Carnation malt. Sad to say, it was usually difficult for people to really tell the taste of malt in malteds so, my boss did the following: he used an EMPTY JAR of Carnation malt whose inner glass surface was covered with powdered malt. The jar also had a long handled teaspoon inside it that was also coated with powdered malt. The jar sat on the rear shelf behind the seltzer dispenser.

    When a customer ordered a “malted” I had to turn my back to the customer and “go through the motions” of opening the malt jar, scoop out some non-existent malt and quickly dump the empty spoon into the metal malted milk can. No one ever discovered those shenanigans and no one ever complained that the malt tasted just like a regular milk shake. What a laugh!

    Another laugh I had as a soda jerk came when I found out it was possibly ME who dumped the root beer syrup into the Coke machine and from then on… the Cokes almost always had a somewhat root beer flavor.


  • Hi Roger, Stuart Portnoy here. I was wondering about the time you were working on Eastern Parkway dispensers drinks. Did you sell more egg creams or large seltzers or two cents plain? The best to you Stuart Portnoy

  • Hi Dora,

    The “guy” selling hot baked sweet potatoes on Pitkin Avenue was really my grandmother, Anna Weissman. She’d wrap the hot potatoes in an onion-skin paper you’d also get around apples in the produce stores. She’d cut off one end of the sweet potato and you’d squeeze it into your mouth like a toothpaste tube. They also served as hand warmers on cold winter’s days.

    If I’m not mistaken, the Stone Theater was directly next door to another theater. I never did understand that competition but today there are dozens of screens in one theater so I guess it could work.

    For the people who don’t know what a Charlotte Russe is… it was a slice of pound cake with a swirl of whipped cream on top and then topped with a maraschino cherry and surrounded by a white cardboard “fence” and a cardboard bottom to push the contents up the fence towards your mouth. Yummy!

    I also remember “Lime Rickey’s” since I worked as a soda jerk for M&S Stationery and Soda Fountain on Franklin Avenue near Eastern Parkway when I was sixteen (1957)

    If I’m not mistaken, JHS 88 was an all girl’s school. I went to the all-boy’s equivalent, JHS 66 which was a holy terror… as a place lots of “trumbenicks” went to (according to my grandmother). Actually, the school turned out teachers who became principals and then district superintendents to name a few: Adolph Dembo (my science teacher) Norman Peck, Paul Mirsky, and others.

    Roger Elowitz

  • I am very nostalgic. I attended P.S. 156 and P.S. 175 and P.S. 84 for Junior High. Samuel J. Tilden High School. We walked to save the 5 cent bus far or hitchhiked. Betsy Head Park was great for playing, swings. pool, and more. Lincoln Terrace Park was great for tennis and sled riding during the winter. Eastern Parkway and the Brooklyn Public Library were part of daily living and Prospect Park for free concerts and canoeing.

  • Oh, yes. The H.E.S. We loved to go to the basketball games and Betsy Head Park was great for swimming, ping pong, and basketball. So many memories, so many friends gone. The Gitlins were friends of my parents and Mr. Gitlin owned the pharmacy in our building. We heard about the Amboy Dukes but never saw any of them to my knowledge.

  • yes ` memories. how nice to place a web site such as this.
    & also to read the comments.
    you made me think of that guy with his cart who use to sell hot sweet potatoes. they were so delicious ( on Pitkin ave )
    & those charlotte rooses( spelling) & going to the movies in the stone theatre on stone ave. for 10 cents you got a PLATE & 3 movies…lots of tarzan movies & abbot & Costello & cartoons.
    I went to ps 150 & Jh at ps 88 on stone ave.
    I Lived on Glenmore right next to the shul.another great asset was prospect park…rowing & horse back riding.
    & don’t for get coney island. Juniors & Ratners, etc,

  • lots to tell you. More names eddie eglowitz, jerry cohen, jerrry karp, saul levine, howard felix, danny dwork, seymour mandel, hilda mandel, morton friedman, francis kreisler, robt kreisler, louis kreisler, sam kreisler, tillie kreisler, hyman kravitz, saul kravitz, harvey weistock, and more to follow. Wu Han was a chinese restaurant I ate there!

  • Speaking of doctors… my family doctor was Benjamin Ginsberg who had an office on Tapscott or was it Grafton Street near Blake Avenue? I recall he made house calls with his black bag and he’d sterilize injection needles in a pot of boiling water on my kitchen stove. I recall when I was very young and he had to give me an injection that and I crawled under my mother’s bed and to escape him. To get me out from under the bed he had to poke me with the bed boards. I also remember that his office had a diathermy machine. His office was in the basement apartment and he lived upstairs.

  • Does anyone remember Dr. Milton Gitlin on Saratoga Ave.?
    He was our family doctor and he made housecalls with his little black doctor bag.His nurse was Miss Fredericks.

  • DR. Forman was my dentist in Carnarsie. Never missed getting over to Grabsteins deli on the sam block. Hard to find that type of restaurants nowadays. Their cucumber salad in addition to the food they served was unsurpassed. Stuart Portnoy

  • Hi Stephanie,

    My research shows that 588 Hopkinson Avenue was between Blake and Sutter Avenues… and very close to the H.E.S.. That apartment building has since been replaced by one-family row houses. The H.E.S. building still stands… but is some church property. What years did you attend P.S. 175? I went from kindergarten in 1946 to third grade in 1949 when, they changed the school boundaries on Amboy Street where I lived and I had to attend P.S. 156 for the 4th through 6th grade.

    All the Best,


  • Steven Elbaum, I frequently check the Brooklyn websites. I lived at 588 Hopkinson Avenue, directly across the street from a little synagogue. I saw your reference to the Dolinsky brothers, Milton, Hymie and Alan. That did my heart good. I used to dance with them at the HES dances. I think Milton was my age and was in some of my classes at PS 175. I was taught by Dorothy Sirota, who also taught my mother and aunt. Thanks for the memories

  • You might be interested in more Brownsville and Brooklyn photographs by the artist N. Jay Jaffee. The photograph you have of Kishke King was taken by him.

  • Dear Friends – I apologize that there was a delay in posting some of your recent comments. For some reason I stopped receiving email notifications when a comment was ready to be moderated, so I didn’t realize there were pending comments. I’ll try to check the site directly every couple of days or so. I would love to be able to open comments up without having to moderate them first, but you won’t believe the amount of spam comments the site receives. We would all be awash in offers for cheap Rolex watches, etc. So keeping the comments moderated is the only way to avoid spam chaos. Please feel free to email me if you ever notice any delays in your comments being posted. Take care, David

  • The Loews Pitkin always presented organ music in between films. Performed by Henrietta Camaretta and it was very enjoyable. One day while performing she caught one of her feet in the mechanism at the lower part of the organ. My friend Red Leo Raphael who was working in the Pitkin reached down and released her foot from the organ. Saved her a lot of grief. Stuart Portnoy Coconut Creek

  • Hi Linda Agran,

    There were quite a few Chinese restaurants on Pitkin Ave. The one you are thinking of is Wu Han Chinese Tea Garden and Restaurant on Pitkin Avenue between Saratoga Avenue and Strauss Street. It was next door to a gym that I think was owned by Dan Laurie, the Bigtop Circus strong man. Also, next door was Ann’s School of Dancing (upstairs). Somehow, I never managed to ever eat at Wu Hans but I did frequent the gym in my teen years and learned to tap dance the Waltz Clog at Anne’s when I was eight.

    The Chinese restaurant I did frequent was up-stairs over the Stadium Bookshop on Pitkin Avenue between Amboy and Herzl Streets. I remember their chow mein lunches for 75¢ which then became $1. You got a combination plate of chow mein (which we pronounced “shar-main” and an egg roll and fried noodles and tea.I think you also got a scoop of ice-cream and a fortune cookie! It was much later in life that I learned that eating “Chinks” was a pejorative term for Chinese. I never thought of it that way.

    The Stadium Bookshop sold toys and greeting cards and 78-rpm records. I’d also buy school supplies there. Before it was the Stadium Bookshop (before my time) it was Joe and Paul clothing store, 1586 Pitkin Avenue… (here’s a link to it on the Web… with the Chinese restaurant entrance to the right of Joe and Paul…. The clothing store had an interesting history. They used to advertise in Yiddish on WEVD and their jingle was almost world famous.

    Anyway, although the store was named Joe and Paul there was never a Joe. Instead, the owner, Paul Kofsky, believed that if he advertised that he had a partner… it would make the store appear more successful and trustworthy. It so happened that a young comedian named Aaron Chwatt (who later became Red Buttons) used “Joe and Paul” as the basis for an extended Borscht Belt parody of Yiddish radio. Read about it at:

    There were several other Chinese restaurants on Pitkin Avenue walking towards Rockaway Avenue. Sadly, I ate in none of them except the Chinese restaurant above the Stadium Bookshop and, of course, the Kishka King.

    Talking about places to eat on Pitkin Avenue should become a topic of great discussion.

    Roger Elowitz

  • i find the newest comments are on the top -preciously they were on the bottom whats wrong

  • In PS 175 Mrs. Sirota was a tall huge woman. If my recollections are correct she had a lot to do with music. She was in charge of the Glee Club of which we now refer to as the Chorus. I was a member the glee club and her favorite song was The Donkey Serenade. Stuart Portnoy

  • Hi Everyone,

    I wanted to let everyone know I was having a problem with our Tour of Brownsville website when I noticed that the page would always open on comments posted in June of last year and I had to do an awful amount of scrolling to get to the newest posted comments. Our website administrator, David Friedland did what he could to fix the problem, but then I discovered that this quirk was mostly related to the browser I was using. It never happened when I was reading the website using Google Chrome or MicroSoft Edge or Safari but it ALWAYS happened when I used Mozilla FireFox. I have just downloaded the newest version of FireFox (v.47.0.1) and that seems to solve the problem. Hope this helps.

  • I grew up visiting relatives whom most have left and one aunt remains on Sackman St, right off of Sutter Avenue. Today, I visit my aunts and thank them very much for the wonderful childhood memories they gave me and for all the love and nurturing they gave me growing up visiting them there. Without these memories, I tell them I would have a void for some wonderful childhood holidays and memories spent on Sackman Street in Brownsville back in the days (appropriately l960 – )

  • Harry Houdini is buried in Ridgewood along cemetery road on Cypress between Jamaica and Ridgewood in Brooklyn.He promised that every year on his birthday that he would alight from his grave and say hello to the hundreds of people who were waiting at the graveside. The throngs of people went home disappointed.

  • Adams Hats were on the corner and Buster Brown Shoes were down the Street. Pitkin Ava. was one of the first shopping areas to be opened 7 days a week. Can I get the correct name of the Chinese Restaurant on Pitkin Ave? Thanks

  • My Grandfather had a jewelry store, D. Agran and Sons, across from the Concord Cafeteria, since 1919. My father took it over, as Agran Jewelers, after my grandfather’s passing. Hoping the old Chinese Restaurant sign (Hunan’s) was across from my Dad’s store, upstairs. The owner taught me how to write my name in Chinese. The food was fabulous :). Any photos? I do have one of my Dad’s store. 1540 Pitkin Ave

  • Re Jaime de Jesus’s memory of Mrs. Dorothy Sirota: I was in her class too, in 3d grade at PS 175, in about 1951. She was the first teacher I had who inspired affection memories.