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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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630 responses so far ↓

  • Hi Stuart,

    So many thanks for you very kind words.

    No! Never did I know I’d accomplish all I wished for. But, dream those wishes I did and dreams have a funny way of coming true because they help focus your desires and sharpen your vision. It’s actually a message I try to spread.. that if you can dream it… if you can almost taste it … it can be yours. Of course it sounds silly… but it actually WORKS! At least for me it did.

    Sometimes… life is good!

    My Best to you always,

    Roger

  • Hi Roger, Wonderful to notice that you are so informative to our Brownsville neighbors. The days you were dispensing sodas on Franklin and Eastern Parkway you would never think that you would be a future pilot with your own plane in the future. I commend you for all the good things that you accomplished. Best to you always. Stuart Portnoy

  • Hi John Hernandez,

    24 Amboy Street was about halfway up Amboy towards E. NY Ave.. Since you are about my age (76) I’m wondering if you recall a girl by the name of Elaine Jaycee who lived a few houses closer to E. NY Ave? She was an infatuation of mine at the age of 13 or 14 (1954 or so).

    I was in the first graduating class out of Col. David Marcus JHS 263 after they closed JHS 66 in 1955. Sadly, JHS 263 no longer bears the honorific name of Col. David Marcus. And, sad too, there are no longer any residential buildings on Amboy St. between Pitkin and E.NY Ave. Did you know that Planned Parenthood started in a storefront across the street from you on October 16, 1916 by Margaret Sanger? There is nothing there to memorialize that event.

    I’m afraid that our dear Brownsville has changed beyond our belief but it still remains vivid in our collective memories.

    Best,

    Roger

  • Thank you for all the all the pictures, on here. They brought me some fond memories of 66 years ago,,,
    I lived at 24 Amboy st., from 1951- 1964
    Attended PS-156, JHS-263. Thomas Jeff ,, Then USAF in 1964 (Ret)

  • Thanks for the offer Rodger, I have those pictures in my collection. One that shows a flood at Sutter and Saratoga has a sign where Hymie’s was.

    The shoe repair store was adjacent to my grandma’s beauty parlor. It was owned by the Fisher’s, but i have no recollection of the shop’s name.

    I previously posted a link of the Key Food store along with me riding a tricycle. There are quite a few web pages that praises Hymie’s, but not one decent pic. My search continues.

    I recently read a book named Save the Deli and it was well written. People can pick up one on Amazon for under $6 (new in paperback) and the ebook on Amazon is $10.

    Once again, thanks for the offer, it’s greatly appreciated.

  • Hi Paul Reindorf,

    Wow! Finally someone I know… WA2JAB. Of course, I’m K2JAS. I knew you when I think you lived on Troy Avenue, south of Kings County Hospital and I lived at 628 Troy Avenue, just north of the hospital. I’m living now in Morganville, NJ and Port St. Lucie, FL and I fly back and forth in my plane. Sheesh! It’s been about 50-years since we last spoke. Hope all’s well with you. Amazing!

    Roger Elowitz

  • Hi again Mac,

    If you click on this link:

    http://tinyurl.com/yd6r7cbj

    you will see a Google map picture of the corner where Hymie’s Deli
    used to stand. Today, it has been replaced by the front lawn of a three story home. In fact, the entire character of Sutter Avenue has been changed. PS 156 has been torn down and completely rebuilt on Sutter Ave. between Legion and Grafton Streets. The new school is called PS 156/ IS 392. I have photos of the old PS 156 that I attended from the 4th to 6th grade between 1950 and 1953. My teachers there were Mrs. Cantor, Mrs. Warhaftig and Mr. Feuer who just returned from the Korean War. I ate the school lunch there every day because I had a five block walk to get home to Amboy Street. I don’t remember school crossing guards back then… but we did have a AAA Safety Patrol and in the 6th grade I wore a white plastic belt and shoulder strap with a silver badge which gave me the “authority” to “take names” of kids who disobeyed the crossing regulations. Hmmm! Maybe there were school crossing guards back then? I’m not sure.

    Anyway, the entire mercantile character of Sutter Avenue has changed. Gone are the delis, appetizing stores, drug stores, bakeries, candy stores, pizzerias, barbershops, shoe repair and hat blocking stores, yarn goods and in fact… just about EVERYTHING commercial. How sad. But many of the side streets around PS 156 still have their original two story homes.

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz

  • I grew up in Brooklyn. In Brownsville from 1942-1950, then to East Flatbush. I am enjoying looking at old pictures of the area. I attended Erasmus, graduated 1960. Now living in Santa Fe, NM and Deerfield Beach, FL.

  • Hi Mac,

    I found a picture looking east on Sutter Avenue as it crosses Saratoga… in 1934. You can’t see a deli in this picture. I believe the
    deli was on the southwest corner of the intersection and out of view in this image. Sorry. I’ll gladly send you my image if you write me at: k2jas@comcast.net. No charge!

    Across from the deli… in the middle of the block on Sutter Avenue was a Key Food supermarket… perhaps the only supermarket in Brownsville. On the same side of the street as the deli on Sutter Avenue was a shoe repair store and next to it, Goodman’s Notions store, owned by my friend Stu Lieberman’s grandparents. They sold buttons and yarn and stuff. To tell the truth… I had completely forgotten about the deli being there. Thanks for the refresher. This was in the 50’s and 60’s.

    Best,

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

  • Graduated TJHS 1946.. “A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever” John Keats ..Anyone remember the other display?

  • As I recall it Cranes was the best hot Dog and French Fries around….Was on Sutter and Georgia I think

  • Does anyone have a picture of Hymie’s delicatessen that was on the corner of Sutter Ave and Saratoga? I have looked all over the net and coming up blanks wherever I search. At this point I would be willing to pay for a crystal clear photograph. My grandma’s (mshrip) beauty parlor was at 128 Sutter and the pic would be priceless to my cousins.

  • hi, Anyone know the whereabouts of Joey Gross who resided at 231 Herzl St? His sisters name was Pauline. His fathers name was Morris and Morris worked for the Dept of Parks. Stuart Portnoy

  • Are any of these names familiar to you? Howie Hochman. Carl Goldman, Murray Babbitt, Robert Karlsberg, Norman Smith, Freddie Kessler, Saulie Schneider, Irving Jacobson, Bernie Sapper, Alvin Farley, Philip Montag. Joe Shorty Ritter, Joe Grillo, Seymour Beubis, Martin Obler, Irwin Druttman amongst others on the Herzl St area, The best to all Stuart Portnoy

  • Hi Linda,

    If you go to this website:

    http://tinyurl.com/n8mlqj8

    you will find all the Thomas Jefferson yearbooks beginning with 1927. Please return here and let us know if you were able to find your parents.

    Good Luck with your searching. It should be very easy since all you need is some time and patience.

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz

  • My mother (Lilly Lillian Amato) and father (Joseph Miller) attended Thomas Jefferson High School in the early 30s I think! My brothers and I are trying to find out about our ancestry with not much to go on. For some reason, neither of our parents shared much of their past with us. I would give anything to hear from anyone who knew them from Thomas Jefferson.
    Thank You, Linda

  • Hi Roberta,

    Thanks so much for checking in here. Since you were good enough to state your age and maiden name I was able to see your beautiful picture in the 1948 June issue of the Jefferson “Aurora” yearbook. If you don’t have access to that book you can find it on-line by clicking on this link… http://tinyurl.com/n8mlqj8

    Then, all you have to do is change the year in the box at the top to
    1948 and then go to June Grads and page 52… and there you are from 1088 Sutter Avenue which was between Atkins Avenue and Berriman Street…. deep in East New York.

    By the way, I believe I was also born in Brooklyn Women’s Hospital which was located at 1395 Eastern Parkway and Lincoln Place. Of course it has long since closed.

    My wife grew up on Sheffield Avenue between Livonia and Riverdale and we met in Jefferson. She also went to PS 109. Do you remember shopping in Fortunoff’s or, after school having a malted or a Coke or an egg cream at Metrick’s Luncheonette on Pennsylvania and Livonia? You probably even took the Pitkin Avenue bus home. So did I but, I went in the other direction… and got off the bus on Pitkin Avenue near Amboy Street.

    I’m afraid I have no memories of vaudville (I’m 76) but I do recall the Jewish movies and plays at the Hopkinson Theater near Pitkin Avenue behind the East New York Savings Bank.

    Thanks for sharing your memories. Come back often.

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

  • I am going to be 87 and was born in Brooklyn women’s Hospital. My preteen years we lived on Watkins. Between Lott and New Lotts Aveue. My dad had 4 brothers and 2 sisters and most of them lived on the street. It was easy to find a Hirschenson on that block. Went to P.S 184. Later we moved to Blake Avenue and went to p.s. 109. Then on to Thomas Jefferson. Going to the Pitkin movie house for 2 films and a vaudeville show was a adventure, especially when my mother packed a great treat for us to eat. Is there any one from my old neighborhood reading this. I would love to make contact.

  • Hi Ralph,

    Lots and lots of people made great successes of their lives after growing up in Brownsville. Our parents instilled in us the secret to that success…. EDUCATION. And they were 100% right. I’d like to believe it was a Jewish cultural thing but we didn’t have a monopoly on education as a cherished value. I think that any kid who could go through the torture of studying for his bar mitzvah and learning to read a language he would never understand… was destined to find higher education significantly easier. At least it showed you you could do anything you put your mind to.

    You can still go back to Brownsville SAFELY. Just open a Google Map program and you can easily move down each and every block and see how things have changed. And change they did. Please keep in mind that the homes we lived in when we left were over 50-years old and in need of many, many expensive upgrades. Those homes were sold to people who just couldn’t keep them up and they caught fire like crazy… no doubt for insurance purposes. Then again, the neighborhood was definitely “red lined” for demolition and rebuilding that that surely happened.

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz

  • Hi Eugene,

    Is there any chance you were in the 9th grade in 263 in 1956? I was in class 9-2 and there was a kid in my official class whose name was Alan Berg. Anyone you knew?

    I certainly remember the old Department of Health Station. Believe it or not… IT’S STILL THERE! It faces what used to be the playground and garden plots for PS 175. You can see what the Health Station looks like (unchanged) if you go to this website: Just click on this link>

    http://tinyurl.com/ycxdry82

    I also went to 175 and JHS 66 and had Dembo as my science teacher and Heifetz for my bar mitzvah teacher before I quit. I wasted many years of my life at the HES and even studied classical guitar there with Basil Cimino when I wasn’t bruising my knuckles on the gym’s punching bag or running around the gym track. Dembo ran lots of dances there.

    Best,

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

  • what a wonderful place to grow up.I lived on bristol st near livonia ave..my schools were mPS 183 and PS 175.I was lucky enough to pass the test for stuyvesant HS.we lived in brownsville until 1957 and moved to flatbush.we needed a ground floor apt for my mom.I was never afraid to come home late at night and walk down dark streets.the boys on my block went to yale law school,ccny,brooklyn college and the brooklyn college of pharmacy LIU.sad very sad to see it now.sometimes I feel I could walk down one of the streets,but I become fearful. sad indeed

  • Does anyone remember the Health Station on Bristol Street between Dumont and Blake? There was a luncheonette on the corner of Bristol and Dumont, right across the street from Betsy Head Park…my mother owned that luncheonette. I went to PS 175 had Mrs. Kuller, Ms. Sweeny, Mr Weintraub Dorothy Sirota twice (who bought I new Cadillac car every single year), (wealthy husband). Studied with Heifetz also went to the HES knew the Warshafsky’s who owned the jewelry store on Hopkinson, Had Adoph Dembo at David Marcus etc., etc.

  • Hi Stu,

    Here are a few more notable graduates in alphabetical order) from Thomas Jefferson… many became quite famous:

    • Ralph Bakshi, animator
    • Sandy Baron, comedian and stage, film, and television actor
    • Roy C. Bennett, popular music composer
    • Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs
    • Riddick Bowe, boxer
    • John Brockington, Ohio State Buckeyes’ 1968 undefeated national championship football team; running back for the NFL Green Bay Packers
    • Dorian Daughtry, American baseball player and criminal
    • Shawon Dunston, major league baseball player[6]
    • Leroy Ellis, former NBA center, 1971–72 Los Angeles Lakers championship team
    • Sylvia Fine, lyricist
    • Jack Garfinkel, former Boston Celtics player
    • Hy Gotkin, basketball player
    • Sidney Green, NBA player
    • Sharon Jones, soul singer
    • Danny Kaye (born David Daniel Kaminsky), actor
    • Ezra Jack Keats (born Jacob Ezra Katz), illustrator and author of children’s books
    • Daniel Keyes, author: Flowers For Algernon
    • Steve Lawrence (born Sidney Leibowitz), popular music singer
    • Al Lewis, actor, political activist
    • Lil’ Fame, rapper and member of M.O.P.
    • Irving Malin, literary critic
    • Paul Mazursky, Hollywood director
    • Jim McMillian, former NBA forward, 1971–72 Los Angeles Lakers championship team
    • Alan B. Miller, founder, Chairman and CEO of Universal Health Services
    • Linda November, singer
    • Martin Pope, physical chemist
    • Phil Sellers, former NBA player
    • Jimmy Smits, actor
    • Shelley Winters, actress
    • Max Zaslofsky, NBA guard/forward, one-time FT% leader, one-time points leader, All-Star, ABA coach[7]
    • Howard Zinn, historian, political activist

    Some of these names quite surprised me, namely Jimmy Smits, Shelly Winters and Al Lewis (Grandpa, on the Munsters).

    All of the above information came from the Wikipedia website:
    http://tinyurl.com/loobqh4

    That website listed some surprising facts such as the quotation over the main entrance doorway did not belong to Thomas Jefferson but rather Abe Lincoln. Hmmmm! Didn’t Jefferson have anything quotable to say in his lifetime?

    Also, there were several murders in the school. Yeow! I didn’t know that!

    Read the Wikipedia article for lots of interesting information about good ol’ Jeff.

    The football game between Jeff and Tilden was a “turkey day” classic.

    Best,

    Roger

  • Roger, Loads of, entertainers and influential folks graduated from Thomas Jefferson. Tilden High also had many popular people. I remember every Thanksgiving there was a football game between Jefferson and Tilden. Reverend Al Sharpton graduated from Tilden. Ruby the kn ish man also pedaled his kn ishes outside of both schools. He really got around. Those were the days. Stuart Portnoy Coconut Creek

  • Hi Stu,

    I’ve just come from reviewing dozens of Thomas Jefferson Aurora Yearbooks and I’ve reached some painful understandings. First, is the fact that so little attention was given to listing all the faculty’s names and publishing so few faculty pictures. Why this was I’ll never understand. As we look back on our high school years it would have been wonderful to see all those old teachers.

    And speaking of teachers the names “Rip” Goldman and Moe Finkelstein came up. Seems I confused Moe and Rip. According to one issue of the Aurora it was stated that…””Rip” Goldman who was the football head coach from 1946 to 1958 was replaced by
    Moe Finkelstein.” So, it must have been “Rip” with the crooked nose. My apologies for the confusion.

    Two of my favorite teachers in Jefferson were a Mr. Certner for English and a Mrs. Jeanette Davis for Major Music. I also fondly remember Mr. Bernard Annenberg my Physics teacher and Mr. Goodman, my Creative Writing teacher. I loved Biology with Mr. Milton Lesser but hated Chemistry with Mr. Littell.

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz

  • Hi Stu,

    I most certainly remember Moe Goldman since he was my gym teacher at Jeff. Seems to me I recall he had a broken nose. I was never very athletic so I only met Saul Rimberg in passing when we went to order basketball team jerseys for our H.E.S. basketball team called The Kingsmen. A block away from Rimberg’s store was Kings Stationery and Sporting Goods. I bought my Lionel trains and Schwinn Traveler bike from them. More great memories.

    Thanks Stu.

    Roger
    (now back in NJ for the summer)

  • Brownsville had two very popular gentlemen who were related to sports etc. Thomas Jefferson HS had Ripper Goldman who was the teacher in charge of sports etc. A rea nice guy. Also across the road from Kishka King was Saul Rimberg who was the proprietor of a sporting goods store. Saul Rimberg before having his store was a parks dept. employee at Betsy Head pool. . I am sure there are many who remember both of them. Stuart Portnoy

  • Hi Stu,

    I knew rabbi Landsman very well. He was a small, chubby gentleman with an iconic gravelly voice. His office was located on the second floor next to the auditorium entrance or on the next floor up which had a small balcony. Everyone liked him.

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz

  • The HES had a wonderful gentleman by the named Alter F Landsman who was the Rabbi in charge of the entire facility. There was a book written re. the life of Rabbi Landsman and from the first day he entered Brownsville and the HES. Stuart Portnoy Coconut Creek

  • Hi Mark,

    I found a listing for…. Peerless Importers Inc. 1708 Pitkin Avenue HY5-5300 p. 550 1959 edition of the Brooklyn White Pages. This store would be on the south side of Pitkin Avenue across the street from Kishke King.

    Of course there are many, many businesses with Peerless in the name but this is the only one I found in Brownsville… so far.
    Am I close?

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz