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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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  • Ken Chernick, I haven’t been on this site for awhile. Now that I looked at it again, I saw that you, too, had Joseph Micheloff as a teacher in P.S. 156. I was born in 1948, so my classes with him were slightly more recent than yours. Anyway, I remember him with love. He used to tell us how students would come back to see him many years after they’d grown up. He was a very good teacher and human being.

  • Yes, Carol. Mr. Micheloff was a great teacher and person. He was a gentlemen and a MENSCH. Now that I can look back and realize what type of individual he was, I feel very fortunate to have been in his class.

  • Carol, sorry that I never did visit him and the other teachers in PS 156. Wisdom takes a long time to arrive. Some times never. As we look back in our lives, we realize things that we never could have being young.

  • Reading the comments regarding Brownsville has indeed brought back many wonderful memories. I lived at 202 Amboy St. and then at 524 Saratoga Ave. Played at Betsyhead Park when to PS156 and had the best teachers ever. I still remember some names like Mrs. Fischman in kindergarten, Mrs. Perlman in 1st and 3rd grade, and Mrs Ostrow in 2nd . At JHS 252 and more great teachers. Science & social studies teacher Mr. Melvin Gordon, my favorite :) . Mr Zizmor Math, Mr. Fox, English literature. So many more.My time in Brooklyn are different years mentioned.

    I loved living there before it got bad(early 60′s)It got so dangerous we had to moved asap.I missed the best knishes ever. That was lunch everyday across the street from PS156. As long as I didn’t get bullyed and my lunch money wasn’t taken. I loved the trips to Coney Island on weekends. Nathan hotdogs, corn on the cob, hot knishes and cold sodas. Life was simple and safer then. My brother and I would be allowed to sleep on the fire escape with no fears. My brother would play stickball, football, Skelly(bottle caps), football and handball at the park. My brother went to East New York Aviation High. I could go on and on. I now live in Florida and take total care of my elderly mom. My awesome brother passed away and so did my Dad. I’m glad I lived my childhood there. Best regards to all the Brooklynites!

  • On Blake and Herzl resided a lady by the Rose with hetr husband and young daughter Marion. They resided on the top floor of a small apartment house. The house was on the same side of the street heading towards Romms kosher deli. I and a few friends worked for Rose and she did typing and she hired us to deliver huge boxes to the Graybar bldg. near Grand Central Station to an office. She paid well and we were able to make a few dollars. The cartons were heavy but we were kids then and the trek to the IRT at Saratoga and Livonia was not a big deal. Her family was very nice people and I remember them well. On their side of the street was a barber shop and their family had a deaf son. Right across from Victor Schutzbanks pharmacy on Blake and Amboy. Victor himself was indeed a true gentleman. I remember all these people and places and am glad that I do. There will never be another Brownsville like the place we had. Stuart Portnoy

  • Born in Brownsville in 1951and lived on Hopkinson between Sutter and Blake until 1963. There was a shul directly across the street from our apartment building. I attended PS 175 and have fond memories of principal Abraham Bompey. Had some great teachers there. My mother grew up in the neighborhood. One of 3 sisters, the Meller girls. She was friends with Dora Halpern Schwartz, the twins Edie and Ruthie. I remember the green grocer on Sutter between Hopkinson and Amboy. Fond memories of dances at the HES with the Dolinsky brothers and my older brother Harvey. Two slices and a coke at Pizza Den on Pitkin. Swimming at Betsy head. Buying fancy dresses at Young Folks and shoes at Buster Brown. Wasn’t such a bad childhood. Went back to the neighborhood years ago. Most of the buildings on that block of Hopkinson (now Thomas Boyland) had been razed. How I once more wanted to see the beautiful hallways of the apartment building where I lived and explore the concentric courtyards around which the building was constructed. So many sweet memories.

  • Elaine, I lived at 202 Amboy St til 1959 but I don’t remember an Elaine at 202. What apt and your last name?
    Do you remember the Hobermans, Saulls, Buschels, Moskowitz,
    Blanks, Slavins, either Friedman family etc?
    We moved to E 92nd St btwn Clarkson and Winthrop – near Rita Friedman who I just read about on this site.
    Stuart Portnoy – a wealth of info – write a book

  • I was born in 1946 and lived at 64 Blake ave between Sutter. And Grafton. Went to ps 156 Somers and Tilden hung out most on Strauss st at the corner of Blake ave. Also spent a lot of time at my uncle’s house at 231 Amboy st. He was Dr wordsmith.
    Had a lot of friends on Strauss st among the names I remember were Rena suffer my first girl friend Harvey Kaplan cookie Richie Cumberland Kenny who was the first to get a car Mike Frankenstein Michael who lived across from Harvey Kaplan Sheldon Affleck Danny Rubin would love to hear from anyone who remembers me or the people I’ve mentioned

  • Joseph Brotheim. This is Ken Chernick. I do remember you and your cousin. I don’t remember his name, sorry. I am still friends with Michael Sosnick and his sister Laura. The last time I saw Rena Uffer was in Virginia in 1986. The other’s only G-d knows where they are. Hope that they are well. The same goes for you and your cousin. When the days are lousy, remember ALL THE GREAT DAYS GROWING UP IN BROWNSVILLE.

  • Ken Chernick
    As I remember you a very large Buick? And you went to work for the post office? How did u happen to run into Rena?
    I went back to the neighborhood in July. Took my daughter on a nostalgic trip through my youth
    After living on long island for the past 42 yrs my wife and I moved to California in August. Good to hear from you
    My email is playgolf46@yahoo.com

  • We lived in Brownsville from 1951-1962. First on Powell Street off Pitkin and then 481 Hopkinson between Pitkin and Sutter, across the street from the Hopkinson Theatre which was razed and replaced by The East NY Savings Bank. Great parking lot for playing ball. The landlord, Sam Warshafsky, lived on the first floor above a jewlelry store he operated. The store was right next to the Ravitz’ candy store which was always loaded with comic books, candies and had 1 or 2 booths where you could sit and have a malted or poor boys malted…an egg cream. I think Sam Ravitz was the owner. His wife had yellowish braided hair. They lived behind the candy store and had a son.
    Down the street lived the Dolinsky family and three brothers-Alan, Milty and Hymie. Further down was my friend Willie at 541. At the corner of Hopkinson and Sutter was Nathan and Sonia Wind’s grocery store, across the street from the HES. Most of the Jewish parents, including mine, were Holocaust Survivors and Yiddish was the primary language although the neighborhood was quite mixed by the mid fifties. Julie Bender was the legendary athletic director at the H. Rabbi Aler Landesman ran the place and I remember Adolph Dembo there as well. He was also at JHS 263 (David Marcus) for a while. My teachers at PS 175 were Mrs. Kuller, Keselenko, Warfogel, Falk, Scharf and Sirota. Mrs Chereicetti with her cowbell was a stern force you didn’t want to cross. The game room at the H was always riotous. For fun we’d jump roofs, hang on to the back of Pitkin Avenue busses, sneak into the Stadium movie through, the Bristol Street exit door, play ball everywhere including Betsy Head. Accompanying my mother shopping on Belmont Avenue…going to the chicken market and watching chickens killed and feathers flicked, rummaging through clothing at Cheap Charlies and absorbing all the screaming and banter at the pushcarts.
    As the fifties evolved, danger grew.. muggings, burglaries, homicides and street fights were not unusual. Gangs grew, Sometimes along ethnic lines, color lines or street boundaries.

  • Also wanted to mention my younger sister Trudy who also went to PS175 for a few years before we moved to 56th St nr. Ave K in 1962.
    I was bar mitzvah at the Strauss Street Synagogue off Sutter, bot my rented tuxedo at Zellers on Stone Ave and with my whole family took the Pitkin Avenue bus, all dressed up, to my bar mitzvah party at De Luxe Caterers on Saratoga or Howard between Eastern Parkway and Pitkin.

  • Those where best of days.
    Lived at 115 Herzl Street, 1940′s-1950′s
    HAPPY THANKSGIVNG TO ALL
    GOD BLESS AMERICA
    JOE FELNER