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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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UPDATE January 31, 2017

One of our readers, Sonny Crane, sent in this photo of his family’s potato chip stand in Brownsville.  Maybe some of you will remember it.  Either way, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the photo.  David

Crane's

 

 

 

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733 responses so far ↓

  • On Amboy between Sutter and Blake was a classmate named Jacob Vilchick. His brothers name was Raymond. Any one remember him? Stuart Portnoy Coconut Creek

  • Hi Marshall,

    If you click on this URL: http://tinyurl.com/ybrzofgo it should take you to the intersection of Livonia Avenue and New Lots Avenue, the last stop on the IRT. I’m afraid that all the storefronts and signage is new with not a vestige left of the old Brownsville-East New York. But,
    it’s fun to look around anyway. Just click on the street where you want to visit or what you want a close-up of. Google Maps are quite amazing. It’s my preferred way of going back to Brownsville these days but just know… Oh… so much has changed.

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz
    Port St. Lucie, FL

  • Does anyone recall the Billard academy poolroom
    Across the street from the New Lots Ave l station
    Next door was a the New Lots driving school
    Any info and pictures will be well appreciated

  • thanks for reading my essay on brownsville. loved growoing up there

  • read Norman Jacobson Brownsville to get an insight into browsnville.

  • Hi Stuart Portnoy. Yes, I remember Nino’s well. I loved watching Nino toss the dough in the air. As a kid, it was magical. I also remember an older (well at least he seemed older to me) man who worked there, but I can’t remember his name. Anyway, the pizza was great. I now live in Santa Fe, and have yet to find any pizza that even comes close to NY pizza.

  • Hi Norman,

    I attended JHS66 from September 1953 to June 1955 (2 school years) when it finally closed. I most certainly remember “the LATE ROOM” (on the far right side of the entry yard) but I never experienced the abuse you did. At the time that I recall it was staffed by Mr. Christiano, the assistant principal and Mr. D’Amato, a gym teacher. All the other doors to the building were closed so you had to enter through the door closest to the late room.

    I also remember having to go home in a 73rd Pct. patrol car because gangs were waiting for me in front of the school.

    I vaguely remember the swimming pool. If we weren’t allowed to bring a bathing suit- I just don’t recall.

    I’m trying to remember if you were given a bathing suit when you went swimming at Betsy Head pool. There is a good chance that lots of kids couldn’t afford a bathing suit and so one was provided to everyone as part of the admission along with an elastic band with a brass tag that had your “cubby” number for your belongings.

    Providing a bathing suit “might” have something to do with some health concept. Betsy Head probably had the facilities to wash bathing suits while JHS66 didn’t so no bathing suits were provided or needed.

    I recall that at Betsy Head you had to walk through an ankle deep water bath and that never appealed to me greatly. Now that I think of it, spreading Athlete’s Food germs was probably rampant.

    An old, old friend of mine, Sammy Umansky, ran Betsy Head Pool. The cruel kids used to sneak Baby Ruth bars into the pool and let them float in the water while screaming of their presence! Sammy would have the task of fishing them out. These “floaters” were an endless source of teen amusement.

    Now that I think of it… I don’t believe you were allowed to bring any food into the pool. Was there a concession stand there? Anyone know? Where would you keep your money? Were there pockets in the bathing suits. I kinda doubt it. All, interesting things to think about. Betsy Head Pool was a staple of life for us in Brownsville.

    Thanks for the great memories Norman.

    And sorry Sonia but that time in JHS84 was before I was born. I guess it was possible there were at least some high achieving classes… but not likely the whole school.

    Roger Elowitz
    Port St. Lucie, FL

  • ATTENDED JHS 66 (LEW WALLACE JHS) IN THE 50’S.
    ALL BOYS SCHOOL. HAD AN INDOOR SWIMMING POOL. BOYS WERE NOT PERMITTED TO WEAR BATHING SUITS. IF YOU WERE LATE TO SCHOOL YOU HAD TO GO THROUGH THE ATTENDANCE OFFICE. MR. MURPHY, GYM TEACHER, WORE A WHISTLE ON A LEATHER LANYARD. LATECOMERS WERE TOLD TO PULL THEIR PANTS DOWN, EXPOSING THEIR NAKEDNESS, SO HE COULD WHIP YOU WITH HIS LANYARD. HE CAUGHT ME ONCE. I WAS NEVER LATE AGAIN. SEXUAL ABUSE? MAYBE? HAVEN’T THOUGHT ABOUT IT UNTIL NOW (I’M 80) BECAUSE OF ALL THE RECENT NEWS CONCERNING SEXUAL PREDATORS. IF YOU SHARED SIMILAR EXPERIENCES AT THIS SCHOOL, PLEASE SHARE THEM WITH ME.

  • Do you know anything about Junior High #84 in 1938? Was it a special junior high for high achieving students?

  • Correction:

    J.H.S. 84 merged with J.H.S. 66 to become J.H.S. 263 in a new building… named after Col. David Marcus, the Brooklyn born hero of Israeli independence.

    Best,

    Roger

  • Hi All,

    My dear friend Roz Hymowitz Greenstein went to Glenmore J.H.S. 84 from 1954 to 1955 before it merged with J.H.S. 66 Col. David Marcus J.H.S.in 1956. Not many people have the slightest idea who Col. David Marcus was and why naming a school in Brownsville to honor him was so important.

    I would highly recommend anyone to read this very brief but enlightening summary of his life. It’ll probably take less than five minutes of your time to do so… and probably upset you when you realize that name no longer belongs on that building. Here’s the link:

    http://tinyurl.com/ybzqc38p

    Now, who Glenmore was named for, I have no idea but I believe J.H.S. 84 was on Glenmore Avenue. I can’t seem to find it by riding down Glenmore Avenue in Google Maps. However, at 1 Glenmore Avenue the Glenmore Avenue Library still stands.

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz

  • Hi Sonia,

    J.H.S.84 was definitely an all-girl junior high and the counterpart of J.H.S. 66 Lew Wallace junior high for boys. I seriously doubt either school was exclusively for “high achievers.” At the time it was popular to separate boys and girls. Classes were segregated by academic achievement ie. 9-1 kids were academically better than 9-3 or 9-5 in the 9th grade.

    In 1959, JHS 84 and 66 closed and the two schools merged to become JHS 263 ,Col. David Marcus Junior High on the corner of Sutter Ave between Bristol and Chester Sts. under Elizabeth O’Daly, principal. I was the first graduating class from this school.

    It is now called PS/IS 323.

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz

  • Does anyone know if P.S. #84 was an all girls’ school for high achievers? My sister attended from about 1936-1939. Thanks.

  • Hi Norman Jacobson,

    Along with my old friend Stanley Goldberg, I want to thank you for your expertly written memoir of revisiting Brownsville and your subsequent encounter and participation in the life of that little old woman. What a “mitzvah!”

    I’ve been back to Brownsville many times and it never fails to upset me. Today, it is a mere shadow of a place it once was in our youth growing up in the mid 40’s to late 50’s…I’m 76 now. My entire block of Amboy Street between Pitkin and Sutter has been utterly gutted and replaced with new homes.

    The H.E.S. had become a church. JHS 263 changed names and is no longer named after Col. David Marcus. Elementary school PS156 has been razed and a new elementary-junior high now resides in its place.

    All the businesses along Sutter Avenue are GONE. There are still a tiny handful of edifices still standing. The East New York Savings Bank, last I saw had become a Banco Popular and the Lowes Pitkin is now a Dollar Tree store! The Veterans Memorial park adjacent to the Pitkin theater is still there. Betsy Head Park and swimming pool is still open for business but P.S. 175 is now a teacher’s training facility of some sort. The 73rd Pct. police station has moved too.

    And lest I forget… I must mention that the Stone Avenue Library on the corner of Stone and Dumont has been completely refurbished and does the community a continuing valuable service.

    Lots and lots of changes.. all visible by going to Google Maps and drilling down to street level. Then, by clicking your mouse on the gutter in the direction you want to go… you can zip through the ol’ sod in perfect safety while looking at all the new Caribbean ethnic stores dotting Pitkin Avenue.

    I’m afraid the Brownsville that “was” now exists only in our cherished memories and the few photos we have rescued from some of our scrapbooks. This is a sad lesson in neighborhood evolution. We have moved up and out and the buildings we left behind had truly reached the end of their fixable lifetimes. They had to go… and were replaced by new homes now lived in by new immigrants… mostly from the Caribbean.

    And the odd thing about Brownsville is that we NEVER REALLY APPRECIATED IT… while we lived there. It was just a very comfortable place with oh! so many benefits. It does my heart good to reminisce about it.

    Thank you Norman for posting your memories.

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz

  • Hi Joe (George) Felner,

    Since you lived on Herzl Street between Pitkin and Sutter, I’m positive you occasionally visited Jungle Jim’s competition, my grandmother, Anna Weissman, who sold lemon ices from a white pushcart on the corner of Herzl and Pitkin outside the Merchant’s(?) Bank. She also sold baked sweet potatoes from a metal chest of drawers on the corner of Amboy and Pitkin.

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz

  • Hi Peter Margolin,

    Ahhhh! Jungle Jim. I remember him well. He was a tall gentleman who wore a pith helmet. Please forgive the correction but his little grass thatched roof lean-to store was located on Strauss Street near the corner of Pitkin Avenue.

    Besides the slices of coconut he sold, I fondly remember his simply delicious coconut whip drinks which could be flavored with chocolate or cherry syrup. On a hot summer’s day there was hardly anything as thirst-quenching as a cold coconut whip.

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz

  • Hi Stu,

    Sorry, I’ve been off-line for over a week. I flew my plane down to Port St. Lucie, FL and we’ve been busy opening the house and getting things in order for the next six months. While I’m down here it would be very nice to visit with you.. if that’s at all possible.

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz

  • Years ago in the HES during the Dembo era there was a gentleman in charge of the gym, basketball etc. by the name of Mr. Sisselman. The favorite HES basketball team was the Zions. We also rooted for the Chariots and Flipsters. Stuart Portnoy Coconut Creek A friendly hello to Ronnie Katz of Detroit.

  • Hi Norman

    I just happen to visit the Gotham website and saw your posting. I did google yourself and read the article “Norman Jacobson Brownsville”. It brought back some great memories of my youth. Specially when ypu mentioned the names on Julie Bender and Rabbai Landsman. They sure were the stalwarts of the “H” as well as Adolf Dembo. I spent an awful lot of time there by playing basketball in the gym or ping pong or pool in the game room.it was another world in those days. As you get older you think of those times more and more. FYI information I lived around the corner from you. I remember your brothers very well. I don’t remember alll the names but I remember you and you brother Shimee and I think Stanley. I lived on Bristol st rright nextt to the firehouse. The “Bristol’s” and the “Hopkinson’s for the most part got along well together every once in a while we would declare war on each other which would last a few days but in the end we would wind be friends like nothing ever happened.

    My name is Stanley Goldberg and thanks for the memories,

  • google “Norman Jacobson Brownsville” to get insight into joyous neighborhood of brownsville.”

  • I lived on Herzl Street between Pitkin & Sutter Was a regular customer at Jungle Jims.

  • Does anyone remember Jungle Jims coconut drink stand on Saratoga bet Pitkin and Sutter?

  • Roger, Have not seen your comments lately. Hoping you and yoursd are all fine. Stuart Portnoy Coconut Creek

  • How many folks remember NINOs pizzeria on New Lots Ave. His wife was Jean and then they relocated to Crossbay Blvd in Lindenwood Howard Beach. The restaurant was always jam packed Stuart Portnoy

  • Hi David,

    Sorry, but your link to the “stories” doesn’t show up. There were most certainly farms all over Brooklyn in the early 1900’s. I’m told that the school I taught in, P.S. 176 in Bay Ridge, used to face a farm. People kept animals in their backyards until it was outlawed. Most of Long Island was all farms. There was a field opposite P.S.173 that I went to in Brownsville (on Blake and Hopkinson Avenues) that we used to plant vegetables and flowers in. We got the seeds in little manila packets that we ordered from the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz

  • STORIES FROM “OLDER” FAMILY MEMBERS OF FARMS IN THIS AREA AROUND 1900 ANY TRUTH TO THIS

  • To all our observant Jewish friends…

    L’Shana Tova. Our very best wishes for a Happy, Healthy and Peaceful New Year.

    Roger Elowitz

  • Hi Shelly Salinsky,

    Manny, many thanks for contacting me by e-mail after 66-years. I’m looking forward to sharing many memories and catching up with all that’s transpired in our lives. Should be great fun.

    And please don’t forget to post your Brownsville memories right here… stores you shopped in, teachers you had loved and hated, friends you made… anything. These shared memories help Brownsville to live again for all of us former residents.

    Best always,

    Roger Elowitz
    Morganville, NJ and Port St. Lucie, FL

  • i am a brownsville native. brooklyn to the bone. i am also a jeff grad.my year was 1963/4. i was a “social senior”. when was the last time u heard that term, if ever?

    u can reach me by email at terifik@hotmail.com. u might know my older sisters june or sondra meltzer. we lived on stone ave, now called” Mother gaston blvd”, how do like dem apples? they also changed the name of “nanny goat park” to christopher ave. park, although i remember it being called called christopher st. am i right?
    by the way, if you are really interested in old brownsville the way u remember it, my cousin brian merlis just wrote a book on brownsville, which is its name,and i helped him with it some. lots of pix, he collects them, and writes books on old brooklyn. he’s younger than me by some years, and goes by maps a lot. but i still had to correct/inform him of a few things. i know brownsville like the back of my hand, & i do venture there on occasion.

    i recently went to the brownsville rec center, originally the brownsville boys club until it went coed. i was there for brian’s book signing. that’s where he had it. afterward i actually walked to the rockaway ave. station, & even did some shopping on the way, and i survived that trek, without incident, and am still here to tell u about it.

    also, betsy head park/pool survived the neighborhood destruction, and can still be seen from the el, and is still in use today!

    i’m sorry for going on so much, i had 2 much caffien tioday & it makes me very chatty. anyway it’s been fun. wish you a very happy holiday season/ & much nachus in the coming year.

    zei gazint

    Clyde meltzer

  • Hi Shelly,

    Wow! It’s been a long, long time! Of course I know you. We graduated Jeff together and if I’m not mistaken, you were in my 5th grade class in PS 156 (Mrs. Warhaftig). I can still name you half that class. It’s REALLY GREAT that you showed up here to share some memories of Brownsville.

    I won’t use this great forum for personal chit-chat so if you’d like to contact me by e-mail please write me at: K2JAS@Comcast.net

    Meanwhile, we’d love to hear your shared memories of growing up in Brownsville on this great blog.

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz
    Morganville, NJ and Port St. Lucie, FL

  • 1872 Straus Street –1941-1960

  • Born 1941–ps156—somers. Jhs –Jefferson 1956-1959